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How the Columbus tourism bureau is partnering with the local economic development organization represents a major role shift in the destination marketing industry.

A major trend among destination marketing organizations (DMOs) today involves partnering more with their regional economic development organizations to entice young professionals to move to their city, settle down, and contribute to the local tax base.

That has always been a primary role for the economic development agencies, but now they’re partnering more strategically with DMOs who are more in tune with the travel motivations of 25-35 year-olds. The thinking is before someone relocates to a city they’re usually going to visit first. So cities should start at the beginning with tourism promotion to attract people for the weekend, while concurrently promoting the destination as a place to build a life and career.

For example in Ohio last year, Experience Columbus partnered with the Columbus 2020 economic development organization to create the website. The portal is a content aggregator that pulls both social media content using the #lifeincbus hashtag and blog content from Columbus’ various lifestyle blogs. The streamlined user interface features one simple dropdown menu with links to both Experience Columbus and Columbus 2020, along with four categories: Art, Eats & Drinks, Entertainment, and Live & Work.

Funds for the website came from a change in the bed tax code advocated for by the DMO, as well as additional contributions from the county. According to Amy Tillinghast, VP of marketing for Experience Columbus, the DMO has a long relationship and seat at the table with the business improvement people and elected leaders in Columbus.

Every month Experience Columbus’ senior executives meet with Columbus 2020, the local chamber, the mayor and county government offices, various philanthropic organizations, and representatives from the university, airport and sports commission.

“We call it the Columbus Brand Marketing Committee, or CBMC, and I don’t know any other cities that make that kind of time commitment every month, or has the longevity of how long we’ve been doing that,” says Tillinghast. “We wanted to do something really broad-based with Life In Cbus to help improve awareness of Columbus, so we worked hand-in-glove with Columbus 2020.”

The DMO is especially targeting “young transitionals” in the two closest major metros, Chicago and Washington D.C., with video advertising in public transportation facilities in both cities. As well, Experience Columbus operates convention sales offices in each city, because they’re home to many of the nation’s large associations. Experience Columbus is just as happy to get young professionals to visit for conferences as leisure travel. In addition, the more association members the city can attract, the more potential association conferences it can secure.

“There are large populations of young transitionals in Chicago and DC, who we’ve identified as most likely to relocate in the next 3-5 years,” says Tillinghast. “So when they get to that point where they’re thinking about relocating, and they’re tired of their long commutes and high cost of living, we want Columbus to be in their consideration.”

There’s plenty of other young executives to welcome them. With nearly 20,000 registered members, the Columbus Young Professionals Club purports that it has the largest membership of its kind in the United States.

Tillinghast adds that is populated almost entirely with organic content without any call-to-actions, because “Millennials have been marketed to their entire life and they can spot a direct marketing message a mile away.” Millennials want to discover things on their own, she says, so the content is all about exploration and discovering cool things in Columbus ranging from eclectic fashion to creative cuisine.

Split evenly between social media mentions and outside web posts, the website content features the expected restaurant and club reviews, new art gallery shows, vintage clothing advice, and op-eds deconstructing the latest True Detective episode.

But integrated among that, there’s a fair amount of other content such as: Designing Local Helping Cities Develop Unique Identities on the local Metropreneur website, and Why You Should Visit Columbus, Ohio This Summer, published by lesbian-centric Curve magazine. Both of these position Columbus as more than a “flyover city” by promoting it as a layered, lively and progressive destination.

Recently at Governing, Aaron Renn wrote: “These days, America’s smaller big cities are in the game for business and residents in a way and at a level that they never could have dreamed just a couple decades ago. Once-centralized high-end functions that mostly were performed in the biggest cities are today viable in lots of smaller places. And these smaller-but-major metros are now realistic choices for educated young people with big aspirations.”

With the relevance of DMOs today under constant scrutiny, tourism bureaus see these types of partnerships with economic development agencies as an effective way to expand their roles beyond destination marketing into destination and product development.

“It’s appropriate to steer these efforts as a DMO because whether people want to come here for fun, come here for school, or start a business here or relocate, they’re going to come here first to visit,” says Tillinghast. “We don’t have all of the money in the world, so we target those populations that we think will be valuable to the city in the future, and we speak to them in an authentic way that showcases the best of Columbus.”

Greg Oates covers tourism and hospitality development.

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Tags: columbus, DMO, ohio

Photo Credit: pulls in both social media content hashtagged #lifeincbus and third-party editorial from Columbus' lifestyle blogs. Experience Columbus

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