Tourism boards are usually behind the scenes of events, but Las Vegas and Nashville's organizations are often front and center in the form of security personnel hired by tourism officials through local police departments. Even if travelers don't realize this, parts of both cities' tourism budgets are very much on the front lines.
Tourism boards are in the business of budgeting for what they know will happen, such as large events and festivals and annual marketing campaigns. But some destination marketers are increasingly investing in more direct ways in security against often unknown threats, such as mass shootings or terrorist attacks.
The Nashville tourism board became the latest organization to offer grants to its city police department to ensure the safety of tourists.
Nashville, luckily, hasn’t had any shootings or attacks on the level of Las Vegas, but it’s also not waiting around unprepared, said Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp.
The tourism board announced last month that it plans to give a $100,000 annual grant to the city’s police department and is also lobbying the city to use $150,000 from another city tax fund to help offset police overtime pay at special events this year. Nashville Police overtime grew from $6.1 million in fiscal 2014 to $9.1 million in fiscal 2017, and nearly all of the increase can be attributed to officers working special events, the Tennessean reported.
Spyridon acknowledged that the grant won’t solve the problem but felt it was a nice gesture given the tourism board’s role in rising overtime costs. “Back in 2003, we knew we had to do three things,” he said. “We needed a new convention center, new branding, and big events. Big events have really helped to define us.”
“We got into big events by necessity and its worked as a marketing and branding tool and we’ve stayed after it,” said Spyridon.
The new grant is the latest of a series of financial support the tourism board has given local law enforcement in recent years, such as buying new ATVs with gurneys for the fire department, enhancing LED traffic signs that convey public safety messages, and communication technology at a police command post near the city’s football stadium.
The organization is also in talks with the police about buying more hydraulic street barricades, said Spyridon. “It’s harder for some departments to process budgets and receive equipment that’s essential,” he said. “We can do these kinds of things quicker because we’re a private, non-profit corporation.”
“Nothing is foolproof, but if one thing goes wrong, you’re in for years and years of recovery,” said Spyridon.
Nashvillle’s program mirrors efforts in Las Vegas. The city , which experienced the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history last year, was quick to respond to the shooting from both the tourism and police perspectives. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the city’s tourism board, was in close contact with local police shortly after the shooting and used its platforms to amplify public safety messages.
The city’s response had been choreographed and in place before the shooting, as had the tourism board’s financial backing towards visitor security for the 43 million people who visit each year.
Since 2009, the tourism board has funded an analyst position at the Las Vegas Metro Police Department Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center. The analyst is responsible for sharing important safety information and updates to the tourism community from the police department, said Amanda Peters, a spokesperson for the tourism board.
“The LVCVA acts as a liaison between event producers, resort partners and local, state and federal public safety agencies,” said Peters. “Since these relationships have been in place for so long, the LVCVA is able to play an active role in developing processes and initiatives that help keep the destination safe.”
During peak visitor periods and high-profile events, the tourism board also lets police use its K-9 units in areas such as the Las Vegas Strip. The city’s police and fire departments also have stations on-site at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which hosts more than 50 events and 1.4 million visitors each year.
Big Events and Big Overtime costs
But is this kind of support from a tourism board towards local police and other government agencies a common practice in the industry?
Nashville’s Spyridon said it’s not. “There are very few big entities like ours that produce big events,” he said. “The hospitality industry is pretty vulnerable and we have to make safety priority number one.”
The tourism board is voluntarily giving the grant and wasn’t pressured by the police department to make any contributions, said Spyridon. “The police have gotten more funding and grown their budget,” he said. “We’re also lobbying for the police to get more funding because the overtime portion has increased disproportionately.”
More events have led to more people attending them, said Spyridon. “We know we’ve put a lot of pressure on the police department both directly and indirectly,” he said. “We’re handing more security to the private sector side and putting more demands on the public side with the police department.”
Private security has long been part of the tourism board’s budget because it hosts Nashville’s two largest annual events, the New Year’s Eve and July 4th festivals. “It’s the fastest growing line item in our budget every year,” said Spyridon.
A 2017 Destinations International survey of more than 400 tourism boards in 53 countries found that organizations in Europe, Latin America, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East ranked safety and security as a brand differentiator as high, while U.S. and Canadian organizations ranked security as a low brand differentiator.
U.S. and Candian destinations also ranked security as hampering travel decisions as low while the other regions ranked it either moderate or high. When asked if their destinations will pay close attention to safety and security as a strategic consideration in future planning, U.S. and European respondents ranked that as a moderate priority while Latin America and Asia ranked it as high.
What Nashville Learned From Las Vegas
Spyridon said he was at an event recently where Las Vegas tourism officials talked about their response to last year’s shooting that helped him and his team prepare for large events this year.
“What caught my attention is that [Las Vegas police] evacuated the hotel and had a venue where hotel guests went,” said Spyridon. “They also had a place where the festival goers went. For our New Years Eve event, we had a nearby old municipal auditorium on standby that can hold 9,000-plus people. Trying to find that when it’s 15 to 20 degrees at midnight isn’t easy. Hopefully, you’re planning for things you never have to use.”
The city’s police and private security hired by the tourism board are in lockstep for large events, said Spyridon. “We put up metal detectors at our July 4 free public event a couple weeks ago that we paid for,” he said. “We had 225 metal detectors and 500 security people plus the police department. There was no specific threat that made us do this, but we had close to 250,000 people attend.”
At this moment, Spyridon and his team feel comfortable with their security plan and procedures. “But we never stop looking at our soft spot,” he said. “We’re hosting the 2019 NFL draft and we’ve already been talking with the Philadelphia police department to learn how they hosted it last year.”
One question is do travelers realize the tourism board is behind some of the security at large events, and whether or not it matters if they know? “We don’t hide the fact that we’re involved,” said Spyridon. “It doesn’t really matter to me if they think it’s the police or us, but I hope they think both of us are addressing security and are in lockstep with each other.”
There are likely other tourism boards around the world with similar models for helping law enforcement during large events, so as mass shootings have become an epidemic across the United States, many U.S. destination marketers are increasingly juggling visitor safety in their job descriptions.
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Photo credit: Nashville's tourism board is increasingly helping the local police department during large events it organizes. Pictured are mounted police in Nashville. Dana Lane / Flickr