Today, cities across the U.S. are evolving as global innovation platforms, supporting the commercialization of new developments in academic and scientific research taking place in both the private and public sectors. To fuel that growth, they need constant infusions of new capital and talent.

One proven way to do that, cities are working together more than ever before to attract conferences in priority industries, and connect their local knowledge base with international thought leaders. In effect, conferences are evolving as global innovation distribution channels that drive progress worldwide, and cities are competing aggressively to host that knowledge exchange.

In San Antonio, for example, the World Stem Cell Summit, the Geospatial Intelligence Symposium, InnoTech, Inc. 5000 and many others are like a direct conduit to the future. They’re innovation incubators and accelerators, drawing on local talent to help change the world.

Although, not everyone is familiar with that scenario taking place here in the heart of San Antonio.

Many conference planners in North America know about the Alamo and River Walk in San Antonio. They’re also probably familiar with the recent $325 million expansion of the Henry B. González Convention Center. Fewer planners, however, appreciate the scope of San Antonio’s booming innovation economy, at the forefront of so much new science and technology discoveries, which they can integrate into their meetings and conventions.

Most people don’t know that San Antonio has the most complete solar energy research and development ecosystem in the country, and the second highest concentration of cybersecurity and intelligence experts after Washington, D.C. The city is headquarters for the U.S. military’s medical research facilities, and one in every six San Antonians is employed in biosciences and healthcare. There are also 18 universities and scientific institutions driving innovation in everything from advanced manufacturing to aerospace.

That infrastructure and talent pool are a big reason why San Antonio is a leader in fields ranging from stem cell research to clean energy, globally.

During the last decade, the City of San Antonio has steered the growth of the innovation economy as outlined in the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan. But as all of the industries scaled independently in their respective communities, there wasn’t a cohesive story to position the city as a collective hub of innovation, as well as an attractive place to network with international colleagues.

Now the local government is working more closely with Visit San Antonio and the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF) to promote the city’s intellectual capital to outside companies that attend, host and/or invest in conferences in advanced industries.

“We are looking at every opportunity on the convention side, and the economic development side, to leverage each other’s capacities to make as big of an impact as we can for San Antonio across all fronts,” says Rene Dominguez, director of the City of San Antonio’s economic development department.

“New organizations like Tech Bloc, Geekdom, LaunchSA and CyberSecurity San Antonio are becoming way more sophisticated in how they go about connecting with the private industry, which includes conferences and events. Because of this, we need to continually up our game in order to be a globally competitive community,” added Dominguez.

SAN ANTONIO TECH DISTRICT: A HOME FOR YOUNG PROFESSIONALS AND DIGITAL PIONEERS

To help elevate San Antonio’s growing innovation economy on a national stage, the many different stakeholders in the city’s public and private sectors needed a new unified story to tell. There needed to be a common vision for everyone in the city to rally around.

To answer that call, Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president & CEO of SAEDF, has been collaborating with Casandra Matej, president & CEO of Visit San Antonio, to develop new messaging that speaks to all of their audiences.

Primarily, they wanted to marry the region’s strengths as a convention destination for visiting delegates and a hub of high-tech innovation for local residents. They also wanted to connect the growing San Antonio Tech District in the downtown core, the iconic elements of San Antonio’s cultural heritage, and the diversity and livability of the neighborhoods.

In the end, Saucedo-Herrera and Matej both gravitated toward the word “pioneers” to characterize what’s happening throughout San Antonio right now.

As expressed in the above video, the new narrative is a fresh take on San Antonio’s legacy for opening new frontiers. America’s early pioneers built the Alamo and other UNESCO World Heritage missions in the city, operating as bases for westward expansion. Today, San Antonio’s knowledge sectors are building the technologies and advancing the science to connect communities better and empower more people around the world.

The pioneer theme does more than just align the past and future of San Antonio to engage conference planners. It also speaks to the continual innovation driving progress inside companies of all sizes. That especially resonates with young professionals who envision themselves as pioneers striving to change the world in their respective fields.

“San Antonio has always been a pioneering city, and from that, we realized that the common denominator for all of us is, really, young professionals who are looking for an ecosystem where they can thrive,” says Saucedo-Herrera. “If we’re going to be that city of the future in a knowledge-based economy, and if we want folks to think of us across the board as an innovative city, that is really our target demographic. So whatever our messaging is, it has to resonate with young professionals.”

The emerging San Antonio Tech District is evolving as an ecosystem to welcome and support young startups and young professionals. Packaged together and positioned as the front door to San Antonio’s innovation economy in the heart of the city, the Tech District is a knowledge-collision environment for people to share ideas with each other in close proximity to the Henry B. González Convention Center and the city’s most forward-thinking companies.

In effect, the San Antonio Tech District is the new platform for sharing stories with conference planners about San Antonio’s rise as a global innovation accelerator. It is a platform for pioneers.

“We want to make sure that people understand the significance of what meetings bring to our city, and the San Antonio Tech District is where we can easily connect our people and visitors to have that conversation,” says Matej. “At the same time, the District give us exposure in different sector—whether it’s aerospace, clean tech, manufacturing, IT, bioscience, cyber security or military—for meetings and convention planners to see and understand how those industries are growing locally.”

DELIVERING THE PIONEER MESSAGE TO THE WORLD

Three years ago, Visit San Antonio launched the Connect San Antonio liaison program, bringing together local organizations in the tech and science sectors, university and research institutions, and outside conference planners to explore aligned interests. By pooling their resources better, planners could create more enriching conferences, and the city could attract more innovative companies and talent.

Matej says that network building at the community level serves visiting companies in many ways.

“To engage conference planners today, it’s no longer about dates, rates and space,” she explains. “You have to go beyond and show how the destination has the necessary local intelligence to help planners enhance their program. It’s our responsibility to dive deeper into how they can engage the brain power within our community in order to enhance their success for a particular program.”

However, as other cities also adopt the knowledge ambassador strategy, more outreach is needed to continually share the value of San Antonio’s intellectual capital with more potential partners, including conference planners.

Toward that end, a local non-profit accepted the challenge to try and “develop wider national and global recognition of San Antonio’s strengths and quality of life, and to secure San Antonio’s reputation on the global map of leading cities. To try and achieve this goal, one of the tactics used was a San Antonio-themed pop-up space with dedicated event programming at South by Southwest in 2016 and 2017. Dubbed “Casa San Antonio,” the venue provided a stage for mayors, startup founders, entrepreneurs and other leaders across the country to share new developments around the theme of smart cities.

By incorporating government and business leaders from other destinations, the Casa San Antonio experience wasn’t solely about promoting San Antonio’s innovation economy. Rather, it positioned San Antonio as a knowledge forum for discussing new ideas in emerging and existing industries by bringing together a diverse spectrum of innovative people from all over.

That’s how Matej want planners to envision San Antonio—a platform for co-creation and collaborative growth across all sectors.

“There is this passion among our people who see what San Antonio can be in 20 to 40 years,” she says. “When you look at the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in downtown recently, you can see that there’s a movement to make our destination better. Our organization’s goal is to be more strategic and aligned with what everyone is doing, instead of everyone being in their own silos.”

Saucedo-Herrera emphasizes that planners gravitate toward San Antonio because they can get things done, and everyone’s voice will be heard.

“We pride ourselves on a collaborative environment where you have access to key decision-makers within a 20-minute time frame,” she says. “If you need to get something to happen, we’re a big city but we have a small-town feel, right? In San Antonio, you can get to the right people, and they will listen.”

This content was created collaboratively by Visit San Antonio and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.