Sunday, June 15, 2003

The Perfect Moment

How can Cincinnati capitalize on the new buzz?

By Ray Cooklis
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Julie Harrison Calvert, the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau's vice president for communications, displays on her office walls press clippings about Cincinnati from around the world
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
Timing can be everything.

Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center demonstrated that two years ago by choosing architecture's rising international star, Zaha Hadid, to design its brand-new Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art at Sixth and Walnut streets downtown.

Members of the city's marketing community showed that by working for months to bring national media attention to the center's May 31 opening.

The bonus: a bonanza of positive "buzz" for Cincinnati.

New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp topped all the raves when he anointed the Rosenthal Center as "the most important American building to be completed since the end of the cold war."

The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek and others also took note of the new museum - and used the occasion to comment on the city's other charms.

And with the recent openings of the Reds' Great American Ball Park and the Cincinnati Wing at the Cincinnati Art Museum - not to mention coming events such as this fall's Tall Stacks and the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center next summer - local leaders see a unique chance for Cincinnati to cement an image as a city that is reinventing itself.

It is, to use a phrase from a previous local exhibit of note (Mapplethorpe), The Perfect Moment.

But moments pass. Are we capitalizing on this one as well as we could?

"The trend is upward. Cincinnati's stock has risen. There are a lot of real positives in this city," said Timothy Rub, Cincinnati Art Museum director, addressing the Cincinnati Wing opening as well as the Rosenthal.

"The task is to leverage them."

Priming the pump

So how can we strike while the iron is hot? Those who make their living promoting Cincinnati would turn that question around: How did the iron get hot in the first place? The recent flurry of positive press isn't simply a happy "if-you-build-it-they-will-come" accident. It was cultivated and nurtured.

"We started this whole pitch probably a year ago, looking at all these big events coming up," said Julie Harrison Calvert, vice president of communications for the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau.

It was a methodical, below-the-radar exercise in "guerilla marketing": She helped track publications that had written articles critical of Cincinnati in the wake of the 2001 riots, and followed up, challenging them to take another look at Cincinnati.

The convention and visitors bureau and other local groups invited travel writers, art and architecture critics to town.

"It was a risk, but it was worth it to us to show people we're moving in the right direction, and we want new ideas, fresh faces and diverse voices to be part of our solution," Calvert said.

As the number of stories praising Cincinnati mount, the "buzz" builds.

But how do you make the most of that? A few ideas:

Get it together

Cincinnatians have long lamented the inability of local civic, business and community leaders to get onto the same page. But that has started to change in a big way - and the 2001 riots were the catalyst.

"The negative news two years ago taught us we have to be more strategic about our communication and marketing," Calvert said.

"I think this community had a wake-up call that told us if we don't get better about collaboration and communication, we'll get a whole lot worse as far as our national image is concerned," said Nick Vehr, vice president for economic development at the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.

A year ago, the convention and visitors bureau put together an informal group called the Cincinnati USA Communications and Marketing Alliance, with representatives from the bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Cincinnati Inc., City Hall, Greater Cincinnati Foundation and various arts and sports organizations.

The task was to figure out "how can we all work together and do our job, which is to sell this city," Calvert said. "Collaboration is something we really hadn't done before."

The effort has been low-key, but its handling of the Rosenthal opening demonstrates that this kind of alliance can work, Vehr said. "All our organizations were collaborating with the CAC to wring every ounce of ink we could get on it."

The crowd of 10,900 people who attended the May 31 Rosenthal gala included "a lot of people you don't usually see downtown," said Anastasia Mileham, vice president of communications for DCI.

Her organization works with other groups on promotions to "drive people from one event to stores and restaurants downtown." Gala attendees, for example, got discounts at downtown restaurants, which were packed all evening.

"We hope they will come downtown and realize there are all kinds of things here, plenty of things going on any given night of the week," Mileham said.

Collaboration is the key to keep that going, Vehr said. "We did the same thing with Great American Ball Park and the Cincinnati Wing, and we will do it with the Freedom Center and the Taft Museum reopening," he said.

"We have better coordination than in the past, but it's still not great."

Find a focus

Cincinnati may be cursed by an embarrassment of riches. Unlike other cities, it doesn't have one dominant, obvious selling point.

As our April 20 Forum feature "Dealing Cincinnati a winning hand" showed, you can create a playing card "deck" of 52 world-class Greater Cincinnati attractions and still have plenty left over.

It is a range of features that most other cities would covet.

But it also means that, in marketing terms, we may suffer from weak "brand identity."

It has been difficult to sum up what Cincinnati is, develop that "brand" and market it.

We're not alone. Pittsburgh leaders have begun what they call the Pittsburgh Regional Brand initiative, a community dialogue to figure out ways to close the "perception gap" between a region's actual image and desired image, reflecting the region's "new dynamism." Sound familiar?

"Pittsburgh is one community that's really wrapped its fingers around this issue," Vehr said. "It has been putting out some really thoughtful material."

Should we take the cue? Hey, Procter & Gamble: Assign a brand manager to Cincinnati.

Rally 'round the arts

One solution to the focus problem might be for Cincinnati to find its identity in the arts.

A new survey by the Performing Arts Research Coalition found that more area people attended performing arts events in the last year than Reds and Bengals games combined (Web site) .

The survey also noted that in Cincinnati, arts attendance is strongest among school children and adults ages 45-54, but is nearly as strong at the key demographic age group of 25-34.

In a forum at the Mercantile Library June 5, urban consultant John Alschuler said Cincinnati should get over its obsession with retail and use the arts to lure people to the central city.

Cincinnati City Council had the right idea in April when it voted to boost arts funding to $2.2 million, but it allocated the money to specific building projects and programs for certain arts groups.

The money might better have gone to promote and market Cincinnati's arts scene on a larger scale - something individual arts organizations or even arts councils can't do themselves.

The arts practically scream out "thriving big city."

"They are predominantly urban experiences," Rub said.

"They are a huge reason why people go to live in cities - particularly young professionals - and Cincinnati has all those attributes."

As Alschuler put it, the arts "help answer the question, 'Why downtown?' "

The Festival of the New, a June-through-October slate of cutting-edge Cincinnati cultural events being promoted nationwide, has linked up with the Web Fares site of Delta Air Lines, which has a Cincinnati hub.

The Web site features the festival prominently, and offers special weekend fares to Cincinnati from Washington, Chicago, Newark/New York, Houston and other cities.

How about an aggressive air/hotel/events package deal to get art lovers from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to see the Rosenthal and other attractions?

The next level

The effort to boost the Rosenthal buzz was accomplished "without spending any real money," Calvert said, "but our work is just beginning."

The stakes could rise next summer when the Freedom Center opens, an event that may be even bigger nationally than the Rosenthal Center unveiling.

When that happens, "We need to pull all of ourselves together and come up with a big marketing budget and a vision to market ourselves as a new region," Calvert said.

As Vehr pointed out, local organizations did a good job of leveraging their resources to promote the Rosenthal opening. But the more dollars there are, the more leverage you have.

The task is to take Cincinnati to the next level, Calvert said.

"How do we get the Today Show to come to Cincinnati? How do we get Matt Lauer to do a "Where in the World" segment here? How do we get the networks to show we have really cool places - and get them to attract that creative class to live here?"

Instead of just marketing a new venue, she said, "we have to get the nation to start looking at Cincinnati as a destination."

According to the Chamber of Commerce, a University of Cincinnati study has calculated that 18 major building projects recently completed or in the works on or near the riverfront will have a total $5.4 billion impact on the region's economy, and will create 60,000 jobs in the next 10 years.

The chamber is calling it a "Renaissance on the River."

"Very few cities on the face of the earth are realizing such massive investment in their cores," Vehr said. "We have big stories to tell."

Meanwhile, Cincinnati continues to ride the Rosenthal Center wave.

"It is a great symbol, almost an icon of this region's commitment to arts and culture. If it provides a hook to get people to take a deeper look at what our region has to offer, we'll use that hook," Vehr said.

"We intend to beat it into the ground. We will repeat the message with the regularity of a metronome. We will talk about it at every opportunity."

The metronome may be ticking, but so is the clock.

Cincinnati can't let The Perfect Moment pass.

Local Web sites that tout Cincinnati's features:

www.cincinnatiusa.org - Web site for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce's Partnership for Greater Cincinnati. A wealth of information and statistics about our area, oriented to businesses, developers and job seekers.

www.cincinnatiarts.com - Enjoy the Arts' Web site, with calendars of events, ticket access, news, arts advocacy and more.

www.cincyfun.com - Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau site, offering hotel packages, information on regional attractions and events.

Recent articles in major publications about Cincinnati openings:

New York Times on Rosenthal Center - www.nytimes.com/2003/06/08/arts/design/08MUSC.html; www.nytimes.com/2003/06/08/arts/design/08LLOY.html

Los Angeles Times on Rosenthal Center - www.calendarlive.com/galleriesandmuseums/nicolai/cl-et-ouroussoff30may30.story

Washington Post on Rosenthal Center - www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58573-2003May30.html

Newsweek on Rosenthal Center - www.msnbc.com/news/911566.asp

London Times on Rosenthal Center - www.timesonline.co.uk/

Chicago Tribune on Rosenthal Center - www.chicagotribune.com/

New Yorker on Rosenthal Center - www.newyorker.com/critics/skyline/

Chicago Sun-Times on Great American Ball Park - www.suntimes.com/output/travel/tra-news-detours01.html

Washington Post on Great American Ball Park - www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A31605-2003May23.html

Ray Cooklis is an editorial writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer; phone (513) 768-8525, e-mail rcooklis@enquirer.com.

The Perfect Moment
Jim Borgman's new world
Wright Brothers: Ohioans first
Video gambling: Tax revenues
Religion in public schools
Amos disregarded the jury's findings
Yearbook opened new chapters on Dad's life
Readers' Views