Outside of natural disasters, few things scare U.S. tourism bureau CEOs more than SWAT teams atop military trucks firing tear gas at large crowds in their cities.
That goes double for meeting planners with conventions scheduled in those cities.
The violent protests in the Ferguson suburb of St. Louis in August 2014 and Baltimore in April 2015 had negative short-term impacts on convention business in both destinations. As soon as the news broke of unrest in each city, meeting planners with pending events began calling their contracted hotels to find out more information, but the hotel executives themselves weren’t always sure how to answer their clients.
Explore St. Louis and Visit Baltimore — the convention and visitors bureaus that promote their cities to the meetings industry — helped stabilize their communities by being trusted sources for accurate information amid all of the confusion. How they managed public outreach during and after the uprisings provides illuminating case studies for destination marketing and crisis management in 2015.
However, perhaps much more importantly over the long term, the tourism bureaus are participating in collaborative civic platforms designed to build stronger communities by connecting people across all economic classes.
Potentially, especially in St. Louis, those community portals could become models for other cities with disadvantaged neighborhoods across America.
Moving St. Louis Forward
Ferguson, Missouri is located just east of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport well north of the downtown core, but the volatility of the August 2014 protests swept the entire city into the national spotlight.
“There was all of this media attention focused on a 3-block area in a suburban community, but it often appeared as though the entire region was under siege,” says Kitty Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis. “It was critical for us to provide information about the situation to people, including those who had meetings and events scheduled in St. Louis.”
Her first responsibility directly following the riots was ensuring that all of the employees in the city’s hospitality industry were safe. Her second priority was contacting all of the bureau’s hotel partners to set up conference calls with high-profile planners to explain the situation in St. Louis and the bureau’s response strategy.
St. Louis and Baltimore both rely heavily on conventions as a major economic driver. They risk losing millions of dollars in tax revenue if meeting planners look elsewhere because they’re worried about the safety of their delegates.
In November 2014, for example, the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ threatened to move his organization’s annual convention out of St. Louis, responsible for 25,000 hotel room nights every year. He wanted Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to offer assurances that the state government would do more to address the needs of its underserved neighborhoods.
The bishop’s letter to Nixon read: “As an organization that has invested over $140 million dollars in the St. Louis regional economy over the past four years, with the likelihood of investing an additional $150 million dollars over the next four years, we feel especially obligated to urge that steps be taken to ensure that there will be justice in the Michael Brown shooting and that necessary systemic changes will be made.”
In response, Governor Nixon established the Ferguson Commission in October 2014 to delve into the roots underpinning the city’s societal and economic challenges. The Commission unveiled its final report in September 2015 that includes several dozen signature priorities designed to “tackle latent racial tensions and systemic discrimination.”
Around the same time the Commission was coming together, Explore St. Louis and the City of St. Louis developed the STLForward.com platform to educate both local residents and out-of-town visitors about how the city was progressing.
Since October 2014, the portal has been a central warehouse for stories about community development, special events, job training programs, and other content relating to improving social conditions. The bureau also produced a series of videos with local influencers for the new website, including one with Michael Brown’s father advocating for positive dialogue between the city’s stakeholders and residents.
“These kind of things don’t really take hold unless you have a lot of buy-in,” explains Ratcliffe. “So the regional chamber, the downtown community improvement district, regional economic development, the city and the county all came together, and everyone was directing people to the website. That helped pull all of our partners together under the same umbrella.”
St. Louis did not see any large convention cancellations, but Ratcliffe says she knows the city had been removed from some meeting planners’ final selection lists in 2014 and 2015.
The Rise of #OneBaltimore
Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, reached out to Ratcliffe for consul during the uprising that followed the death of a young man in police custody in his city this year. The Door & Hardware Institute’s CoNEXTions convention and an American Heart Association conference were both cancelled in the weeks following the protests, and local hospitality people were calling him with panicked voices seeking leadership.
The bureau immediately began work to produce a Q&A video that launched on May 4, 2014 when the city was still under a state of emergency. Noonan directly addressed the protests and their economic impact on the city. He also explained his organization’s role to share information freely to help boost confidence among both the local hospitality sector and national meeting planners.
In the video, Noonan said, “For Visit Baltimore right now, this organization is working as a kind of convention services organization, a tourism services organization, a member services organization, and we’re trying to be a clearinghouse for information for anybody who needs it about the city and what we’re doing right now.”
Within a week following that first video, Visit Baltimore produced two more videos with Noonan this time explaining how the city was safe and open for business. Those videos were supplemented with others from local travel companies and a meeting planner from the American College of Occupational & Environmental organization, which hosted a large conference in Baltimore in early May.
“I think one of the reasons why Visit Baltimore was successful in reacting to the protests is because we created a crisis communication plan a couple years ago,” Noonan told Skift. “We had a reserve fund in place to create crisis response messaging on the fly, and we hired a crisis communications firm and had them in our back porch pretty quickly.”
In May, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the formation of the new OneBaltimore website, similar to STLForward. The portal directs readers to positive news stories about Baltimore, such as this one discussing how OneBaltimore helped secure 1,000 computers for area children.
“One Baltimore is this idea that instead of having two different sides of the coin for the city — the rich tourism neighborhoods versus some of the smaller poor communities — here’s our opportunity to make everything kind of ‘one Baltimore,'” says Noonan.
Except, while the #OneBaltimore hashtag seems to have caught fire on social media for anything relating positively to Baltimore, which is no small thing, the actual website feels like it’s been abandoned. The “OneBaltimore” brand has social equity. There’s clearly demand for inspiring information about social developments. So it’s a shame that the site has so many empty placeholders and broken links.
City As A Stage
By investing their resources in community building, Explore St. Louis and Visit Baltimore are investing in their visitor economy as well.
For example, Visit Baltimore supports the four-year-old Inner Harbor Project with an annual stipend, which was $15,000 this year. The non-profit harbor organization provides advanced educational opportunities, job training, leadership development, and programs such as open discussion forums between Baltimore youth and the local police.
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is an impressive feat of urban regeneration, hailed by many urban designers as a source of inspiration in the early 1980s when urban centers were places to flee. The harbor is filled with lively restaurants and shops rimming the water adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center and convention hotels.
Historically, many youth in Baltimore have felt intimidated entering the area because they say they receive undue attention from the police. They believe that the city wants to keep them out of the area to save the harbor exclusively for tourists and convention delegates.
“Baltimore youth often feel misunderstood when they visit,” says Celia Neustadt, 25, executive director of The Inner Harbor Project. “They want to feel welcome because they see the harbor almost as kind of a stage that takes them outside of Baltimore, outside of their neighborhoods. We hear that a lot.”
So Neustadt and her team are dedicated to making the Inner Harbor a safe and inclusive place for everyone. That includes dispatching a team of young Peace Ambassadors in bright blue t-shirts on weekend nights who “spread positivity in an effort to change the culture of cool.”
“Peace Ambassadors have been selected for their leadership potential and their ability to be change agents among their peers,” explains Neustadt. “Tom [Noonan] has been a strong supporter of that and The Inner Harbor Project. He saw the potential long ago for younger people taking things into their own hands.”
To date, The Inner Harbor Project team has led workshops with over 125 Baltimore police officers, and 96% of them stated in exit surveys that those workshops will influence the way they engage local youth in the harbor.
“The workshops are based on instilling empathy,” Neustadt says. “They’re run like a dialogue to try and break down degrees of separation.”