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Many of America’s most prominent large associations are headquartered in Chicago, especially medical associations, making Illinois’ capital a lucrative source for U.S. cities that are vying to attract large conventions.
Medical conventions are particularly appealing as conventions with thousands of doctors have a higher per person spend than almost any other type of citywide business event.
Traditionally, destination marketing organizations (DMOs) like Visit Denver have emphasized their urban, hospitality, and transit infrastructure in their marketing messaging targeting big international associations.
Now, however, Denver is shifting toward more experiential and event-based marketing strategies to sell a more dynamic version of the Colorado conference experience to Chicago-based event planners seeking to bigger and better attendance driver.
Last month, for example, Visit Denver installed a re-creation of its famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre in the middle of Chicago’s biggest food festival, Taste of Randolph Street, to host all of the musical performances. Located 10 miles outside Denver, Red Rocks is a massive geological formation with natural acoustics that was converted into a permanent venue for outdoor performances back in the 1930s.
Dubbed “Denver Live on the Rocks Stage,” the pop-up event facility in Chicago consisted of two 76×30-foot rock wings and a VIP area for the region’s top association conference organizers. It offered a more enticing way for event planners to mingle with Visit Denver representatives, versus a standard ballroom cocktail reception.
“We do this type of experiential marketing to help the Denver brand break through to our clients in unique ways,” Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, told Skift. “By creating events like this, we get to give our customers a taste of Denver and Colorado that will make them want to come and experience the real thing, and do it in a more relaxed environment that is different from a typical DMO client event.”
Scharf explained that Denver is still a relatively young city in terms of its evolution as an international convention destination. Most of the primary hotels have opened in just the last two decades, so the bureau has typically focused on promoting all of the physical assets in the city, like the hotels and convention center, to association planners.
Although, now that Denver is more firmly established in the global meetings and convention market, and while a quickly expanding roster of other mid-size North American cities are grabbing market share, the city is aggressively trying to change gears.
“In the old days we had to market Denver as having all of the essentials: accessibility, facilities, affordability, and service,” said Justin Bresler, VP of marketing at Visit Denver. “Today, planners know we have those essentials, but we want them to know the value of our destination appeal and our brand as a young, active, outdoor city at the base of the Rocky Mountains.”
From a larger industry trend perspective, this marketing activation signals an interesting shift toward partnerships between DMOs and economic development organizations in different states.
By supplying the Live on the Rocks Stage, Visit Denver gained heightened visibility in an important source market. More importantly, the organization promoted its ability to deliver a creative event experience to association professionals tasked with planning creative event experiences.
Meanwhile, Chicago’s West Loop Community Organization got a very expensive concert venue out of the deal. The Randolph Street restaurant row is one of the buzziest new foodie destinations in the country, and this partnership with Denver builds added wow factor around its brand.
Except, this is an expensive proposition for Visit Denver, and most association planners might not incorporate Red Rocks Amphitheatre into their conventions. So it’s not necessarily a major influence on destination-sourcing decisions.
Furthermore, “Re-creating Red Rocks Amphitheatre was no small feat,” said Scharf. “Not only had it never been done before, but nobody knew if it could be done.”
The DMO contracted Denver-based EPS-Doublet, which has worked on several installations for various Olympic Games, to build the venue. EPS technicians hand-carved 300 foam blocks which were hand-painted by Denver-based artist Jessica Whitt to match Red Rocks’ signature ochre color and geological striations.
Three semi-trucks were then required to ship the structure to Chicago, which required over 200 man hours to erect onsite.
So the real value for Visit Denver doing this revolves around positioning the city as an innovator in event experience design. Whether that drives enough new convention business to recoup the investment remains to be seen, but this does illustrate an interesting trend whereby destination marketers are reaching across borders to partner with economic developers.