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Tourism officials headed to Chicago to promote Columbus

Original Article By Marla Matzer Rose | The Columbus Dispatch

Brian Ross

Experience Columbus officials will travel to Chicago over the next few days to attend the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives. The group, whose members belong to other organizations that plan meetings around the country, will come to Columbus for the first time in 2019. It’s considered a big win for Columbus that could bring more than half a billion dollars in visitor spending to Columbus over the next several years.

The tourism professionals at Experience Columbus focus on getting people to come here.

This weekend, they’re taking their show on the road to Chicago. Joined by about 30 civic and business leaders, their plan is to promote Columbus to members of the American Society of Association Executives. The group, which is holding its annual meeting in the Windy City, represents key decision-makers on convention destinations.

The group will hold its annual meeting in Columbus next year, and the local contingent hopes to get an early start on making an impression.

Brian Ross, CEO of Experience Columbus, has called landing the meeting “a game-changer for our community.”

Next year, more than 5,000 attendees will fill 16,800 hotel rooms around Downtown Columbus, generating more than $16 million in direct visitor spending.

But there’s much more to be gained.

The association executives’ annual meeting is known as the Super Bowl of meetings because, if a city is found to have a lot going for it, it could land meetings and conventions for that will fill halls and hotel rooms for years to come.

Within just five years, Columbus could reap an estimated $500 million in future association-meeting business booked by ASAE members who like what they see in a city that hadn’t made an impression before.

“This brings so much credibility and awareness to our city,” Ross said.

The list of those traveling to Chicago includes Mayor Andrew J. Ginther; Columbus Councilman Shannon Hardin; all three Franklin County commissioners; Tom Katzenmeyer of the Greater Columbus Arts Council; Steve Lyons of the Columbus Partnership; Doug Ulman of Pelotonia; and Chris Coffin, general manager of the Hilton Columbus Downtown.

Most will be on hand Tuesday when Columbus hosts the Chicago event’s final-day luncheon and officially is “passed the baton” as next year’s ASAE meeting host.

It took a year of planning and investment to land the meeting of association executives, an effort that started in 2015.

In January 2016, the group’s president and CEO, John H. Graham, and two other ASAE representatives came to Columbus for a 24-hour site visit that included a helicopter tour of Downtown with Ginther.

The group’s leaders cited strong public-private support in Columbus, and the city’s revitalized Downtown, as among the key attractions that led to the decision to hold the 2019 meeting here.

Ross said that with Columbus taking center stage in front of officials of top hotel chains, tourism powerhouses such as Disney and other convention bureaus, the awareness of the city and its attractions will be spotlighted to those who matter most.

Firsthand experiences and word of mouth can have a greater impact than traditional advertising and marketing.

“You can’t buy that kind of PR,” Ross said.

But while it can’t be bought, it isn’t free.

Columbus has committed to raising $4 million ahead of the association group’s 2019 meeting to help defray costs. It also will be on the hunt for volunteers as it approaches central Ohio companies and organizations about donating to the cause.

Worthington Industries is one local company that has long been committed to boosting the profile of Columbus. Cathy Lyttle, vice president of communications and investor relations for the company, became chairwoman of the Experience Columbus board last year and will make the trip to Chicago.

“We feel it’s our corporate responsibility to support organizations like Experience Columbus because they’re selling our city,” Lyttle said. “We know that growing conventions and tourism strengthens our economy. It supports infrastructure, our social services, and enhances quality of life.”

Lyttle said she believes that bringing in meetings and visitors definitely has an impact on economic development.

“I do think we’ve attracted new companies (to central Ohio) by raising the profile of the city,” she said. “Profile and image definitely mean something.”

And Lyttle said some groups already are considering Columbus more seriously because the association group has put it in the rotation with cities such as Toronto, Las Vegas and Chicago.

The next few days will be a whirlwind of meetings, entertaining and handshakes. Then the planning for 2019 will resume back at Experience Columbus’ Arena District offices.

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