When the Republican National Committee announced it would hold the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland instead of Dallas, the other finalist city, many people were confused.
The host area would have to accommodate thousands of visitors while also withstanding possible violent protests and convention-floor confrontations. Could Cleveland, barely 10 years removed from being deemed “the poorest big city in America” by the U.S. Census Bureau, even handle it?
“For many years, Cleveland’s narrative outside of the region revolved around its struggling Rust Belt economy, the ‘maybe next year’ moments of its professional sports teams and tired jokes about the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire,” said Emily L. Lauer, APR, senior director of PR and communications at Destination Cleveland, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “Missing from that narrative was discussion of the progress and change that had occurred to address those challenges.”
Despite logistical challenges, the opportunity to host the convention presented a rare opportunity for the city to undo the cynicism that surrounded it. Much of the country, already highly invested in the 2016 election, would see news articles and broadcast coverage of Cleveland for four days. Politicians would tweet about Cleveland. The exposure could benefit the region for years to come.
“We know from conversations with previous convention-host cities that investment in the city could be affected for the next three to 10 years as a result of hosting the convention,” said Lauer, who led communications efforts for the 2016 RNC Host Committee.
Building a strategy
Though the convention would bring thousands of travelers to Cleveland hotels and restaurants, the Ohio city is not traditionally known as a tourist destination. A recent survey by TNS Global, a market research firm, found that only 15 percent of potential Cleveland visitors said they’d “definitely consider” visiting the city on a leisure trip.
Research from Oxford Economics, a forecasting and advisory firm, also revealed that 32 percent of people who move to a new area first visit their community as tourists, and 37 percent of site-selection executives say travel influences their perceptions of an area’s business climate. To attract new residents and companies, Cleveland needed to persuade people to spend a weekend there first.
Luckily, with the convention, Destination Cleveland didn’t have to manufacture a reason for outsiders to visit. “Hosting the 2016 RNC presented an unprecedented opportunity to change perceptions of those who visited the city for the convention and those who were following it from afar,” said Lauer.
Inspired by input from a steering committee and various subcommittees, Destination Cleveland developed a campaign strategy built around “Living, Working and Doing Business, Visiting and Playing in Cleveland.” The convention would take care of the “visit” part — now Lauer and her team had to accentuate the “play.”
Working with the media
Destination Cleveland knew the convention would attract an array of influential guests to the city, from lobbyists and high-profile politicians to grassroots activists coming to protest the event. But the communications team’s main target was the media.
For four days, Cleveland would be the center of national attention, with 15,000 credentialed journalists slated to cover the political event. Destination Cleveland would need to persuade those reporters to cover the Cleveland story, too.
To establish relationships with journalists, Lauer and her team compiled a media-resource guide listing 150 local leaders and subject-matter experts, along with video and photo opportunities and 68 story ideas covering topics such as the city’s economic transformation and Cleveland’s GOP ties.
“Just before the convention began, we consistently heard comments such as ‘Really? You’ve put together everything we need without us asking?’ and ‘This is definitely comprehensive. You’ve anticipated most of my questions,’” she said.
Further media outreach via one of Destination Cleveland’s partners, Cleveland Plus, involved curating a “Why Cleveland?” monthly news series that highlighted city trends and topics. Cleveland Plus staff also made monthly trips to pitch media in New York, Washington, D.C., and London.
Their hard work paid off: Journalists wrote more than 400 original stories about Cleveland, including an ABC News Radio segment on the city’s economic comeback and a Wall Street Journal story on the role of younger residents in transforming the area.
People.com even ran a piece on a local ice cream maker’s RNC-themed treats.
“The majority of the media was here to cover the politics of the convention, so we had to pursue media coverage that tied to the RNC, sometimes through issues,” said Lauer. “Other times it was more lighthearted.”
Preparing for the convention
To reach convention enthusiasts and delegates, Destination Cleveland built and managed a website for the host committee. Attendees interested in learning more about the city could visit the site’s “Plan Your Trip” section, while also browsing original articles, videos and podcasts created to paint an all-encompassing picture of the region.
In addition, Destination Cleveland launched a visitor app that featured proximity-based technology and sent push messages — social media updates that can be viewed without logging in — to users’ mobile devices about nearby locations and events of interest. And if the website or app didn’t have the answer to a particular question, convention visitors could connect with Destination Cleveland on Twitter using the hashtag #AskCLE.
The team also developed a crisis communications plan, imagining 70 possible scenarios that could damage the city’s reputation for visitors, such as violence and lodging issues. And thanks to extensive research on the convention’s attendees, Destination Cleveland was able to suggest relevant Cleveland vacation ideas for visitors.
“We worked with the Republican National Committee to understand the demographics of the more than 40,000 people who would descend upon Cleveland for the convention,” said Lauer. “With a limited budget, we knew we had to be laser-focused.”
Rewriting the narrative
Across the country, conversations regarding the 2016 Republican National Convention may have centered mostly on politics, but Lauer saw the event as a turning point for Cleveland’s revitalization efforts.
The convention appears to have boosted Destination Cleveland’s “live, work, play, visit” campaign: In 2016, hotel room demand in downtown Cleveland grew by 11.5 percent, and by 2.8 percent in the metro area (according to STR, the hotel industry’s source for data benchmarking), while the pipeline of hotel rooms potentially booked for meetings and conventions from 2017 through 2022 grew by 51 percent.
In addition, 82 percent of the stories that convention journalists wrote about Cleveland were “positive or neutral,” and research conductedin early 2017 by TNS Global indicates an increased interest in visiting the city. Cleveland’s revival efforts are far from over — Lauer said it may take years for the area to fully reap the benefits of having hosted thousands of visitors for four overstuffed days. But in the short term, at least, the city can attach itself to a positive narrative, rather than one of struggle and decay.
“We worked to highlight the assets that make Cleveland a great place to live and raise a family, and the interesting stories that illustrate the city’s personality and perseverance,” she said. “It’s a narrative of resilience, adaptation and knowing how to have fun no matter what comes your way.”
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