Skift Take

The Ferguson violence in 2014 rightly highlighted St. Louis' deep problems with systematic racism. While this is certainly no cure for that, the city's new coalition of tourism and business interests should inspire other cities to develop stronger public-private partnerships that benefit both visitors and their local communities.

Two years after the August 2014 unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, the St. Louis tourism bureau and a broad coalition of business and civic leaders launched a new collaborative marketing campaign designed to show a city working together in unison.

Today, it’s becoming more common for tourism and economic development agencies to share resources and research to co-create promotional initiatives aimed at attracting both visitors and new residents.

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Those types of partnerships are difficult to develop, however, because different organizations in the public and private sectors are often committed to their own strategic plans, budgets, and business models. The only way this works is if there’s strong local leadership, with a collaborative mindset among all of the entities involved, and a singular mission revolving around well-defined common goals.

In the case of St. Louis, the events that rocked Ferguson in the fall of 2014 created an unfavorable reputation for the city as a place to visit or move to. As Skift reported last year, all of the national attention on one of the city’s small suburban communities impacted the entire destination brand.

Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the Explore St. Louis tourism bureau, told us back then, “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.”

Previous to the Ferguson uprising, Ratcliffe and her team at Explore St. Louis had tried for years to build a stronger spirit of collaboration between the bureau, the local city council, and the private business community to boost the image of St. Louis as a modern, forward-thinking city to attract more meetings and convention business.

According to Joe Reagan, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber, who supported those early efforts to build coalition between the private and public sectors, he said their efforts weren’t as successful as they had initially hoped.

“Kitty really inspired us, and me as a new CEO back then, to support the idea that it’s the right approach to have a unified brand voice,” Reagan said. “But as happens in many cities, it was a challenge to get everyone on board.”

Worldwide coverage of Ferguson in flames helped get everyone on board.

Once the violence subsided, tourism, government, and business leaders in St. Louis and St. Louis County were suddenly aware that they needed to join in solidarity to rebuild the region’s image.

Toward that end, 30 local organizations banded together to produce and support the new St. Louis Regional Marketing Collaborative that was finalized in May. Participants include multiple tourism bureaus, chambers of commerce, minority business councils, economic development agencies, business improvement districts, and universities, among others.

The positioning statement for the citywide marketing plan is: “To purposeful people seeking places where opportunities are abundant, St. Louis is a place where you can make a difference.”

The statement leans more towards attracting people to move to the city and invest in the local economy, versus targeting travelers specifically, but it does position St. Louis as a destination with a mission. It especially resonates with Millennials and Gen Zers, who are either considering attending college in the Midwest, or looking for a place to relocate after graduation, by emphasizing “opportunities” and the chance to “make a difference.”

To deliver the unified messaging to consumers nationwide, the marketing plan is anchored around a “Network Orchestration Strategy” focusing on content that prioritizes three pillars: innovation, arts and culture, and inclusion.

The first manifestation of that launched last month. On August 18, Explore St. Louis posted the St. Louis Brand Anthem video (below) that includes elements relevant to the different audiences the coalition is targeting: leisure and business travelers, convention planners, students, corporate executives and investors.

“The appeal of place is a very broad construct,” Brian Hall, CMO of Explore St. Louis, told Skift. “We have woven together a tapestry of images, accolades, and attributes of St. Louis that are universal in their appeal.”

We asked Hall if trying to speak to so many audiences at once dilutes the message to each target group.

“I think it’s additive.” Hall replied. “One of the best quotes I’ve heard about economic development is that before you’re interested in relocating to a new place, you need to go and spend the weekend. So the video is designed to be adaptable.”

To date, three weeks after posting, the video has 118,000 views on Facebook and 12,000 hits on YouTube.

“St. Lou Is…”

All of the members in the new marketing collaborative are now integrating Explore St. Louis’ logo into their own marketing and communications, showing the words “St. Lou Is.” That phrase can be followed by whatever word(s) the different organizations want to use to drive home their message.

In the footer of the St. Louis Regional Chamber website, for example, the logo reads: “St. Lou Is All Within Reach.” For the STL Gateway commercial business support agency, the logo shows: “St. Lou Is Logistics.”

“I’ve been in the destination marketing business for 30 years and I’ve never seen a collaboration between economic development agencies that we’ve experienced here in St. Louis, and I think that it’s particularly instrumental for the effective brand positioning of a place,” Hall said.

“There are many other examples of a chamber of commerce or destination marketing organization creating their own interpretation of a brand positioning,” he continued. “There are far fewer examples, if any, where an entire community of 30 entities came together for the express purpose of looking to unite and speak in a unified brand voice.”

With the launch of the brand anthem video setting the overall tone for the city moving forward, the focus is now going to shift to content highlighting the growing culture of innovation in St. Louis.

Last year, Popular Mechanics named St. Louis the #1 startup city in the country. Glassdoor ranked St. Louis the 11th best city in the U.S. for jobs (See Glassdoor’s top 25 list here); and Forbes listed St. Louis as one of the nation’s top 10 most affordable major cities.

Brookings named St. Louis’ Cortex innovation district as one of the seven best examples in the country where advanced industry facilities blend with a city’s urban entertainment and social fabric to attract young and creative knowledge professionals.

Cortex is actively engaging all of the St. Louis community with live events like the inaugural Murmuration Festival this month, billed as “The Convergence of Art, Music, Science & Tech.”

“We’re surprising a lot of people with the number of startups and venture capital coming into St. Louis, and we have more post-graduates moving here, or deciding to stay here, than ever before,” Reagan said. “So the marketing collaborative is not just about tourism, meetings and conventions, and economic development. It’s to show a multi-faceted city that’s going through a resurgence with a lot of momentum in different areas.”

The Diversity Question

Explore St. Louis, with support from its partners, also created the St. Louis Civic Pride Foundation and the St. Louis Is Civic Pride website to do three things: Educate residents on the virtues of the region; develop programs to welcome visitors and newcomers; and “attract and retain diverse citizenry to our region including young professionals, entrepreneurs and foreign-born nationals.”

Diversity and inclusivity are more of a priority in St. Louis and every other Midwestern city these days, spurred on by many different factors. Suffice it to say, race-related violence across the country is part of that ongoing conversation.

That’s why its important that the Regional Marketing Collaborative includes organizations such as the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and St. Louis Minority Business Council.

Forward Through Ferguson is another member of the coalition, which is overseeing the implementation of the policies mandated by the Ferguson Report. The 204-page report should be required reading for anyone in economic development today.

“Our community is all about innovation right now, including innovating a more socially just community in response to the awakening that took place in the aftermath of Ferguson,” said Hall. “Together with a variety of entities, we’re answering the most important question coming out of Ferguson, and that is: ‘What are you doing about it?'”

Hall explained that initiatives like the marketing coalition, which is designed to integrate many different voices across all social strata, the Civic Pride Foundation, and other partner platforms like Better Weekdays are creating a more inclusive environment throughout St. Louis County.

He said, “We wanted to lean into this issue so that we could show not only members of our own community, but certainly the public at large across the United States, that while this challenge was not unique to St. Louis, as we’ve now seen over the past couple of years, we want to be part of the solution.”

Meanwhile, business is on the upswing in St. Louis. In 2015, the city welcomed over 25 million visitors for the first time, and 2016 is on track to be another record year.

Hotel performance for the St. Louis metro area improved 3.4 percent year-to-date through June 2016, according to STR; and Explore St. Louis’ web traffic is up 21.6 percent year-to-date.

We asked Reagan why he thinks that there’s a growing interest in collaboration between tourism marketing organizations, economic development agencies, and local business communities. Public-private partnerships like this have been in existence for decades, but there presently seems to be a much greater commitment to them than before.

He answered that those partnerships are often transactional at best and “shotgun marriages” at worst.

“Our focus is very much about creating a city where creative, talented, innovative people are choosing to live, and that applies to all levels of the workforce across all sectors,” Reagan said. “I think more people are understanding that in economic development today, it’s not about buildings and real estate and tax credits. It’s really about the people and the relationships that you can attract and nurture in your community.”


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Tags: dmos, st. louis

Photo credit: High-tech DJ/rapper Flying Lotus will perform at the first Murmuration Festival this month in St. Louis. The city's tourism authorities are still trying to respond to a legacy of racism in the region. Flying Lotus

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