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Battling negative perceptions – among visitors and locals alike – has never been easy for any destination. And when those negative perceptions result in low visitation, how is a destination meant to change minds? For the city of Cleveland, it meant standing up, squaring its shoulders and facing its detractors head on. By encouraging, facilitating and curating the passionate, authentic stories of the residents who were proud of their city, Destination Cleveland activated its locals and helped reshape the story of the city. Negative perceptions turned positive and Cleveland’s pride shone. Destination Cleveland rebranded and reimagined itself as an orchestrator of community collaboration.

In this Leading Thinkers series (featuring the insights of participants who attended Destination Think Forum 2016), we have invited David Gilbert, President & CEO at Destination Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and the 2016 Republican National Convention Host Committee, to explain his destination’s key challenges and solutions.

“Successful DMOs will be the ones who pivot from viewing themselves as sales and marketing organizations to orchestrators of community growth through travel and tourism.”

Destination Think: Can you tell us about your new brand that’s rooted in what Cleveland really is? It’s been a few years since your organization rebranded – how is the brand working, what have you learned from moving into this direction and where are you moving forward with it?

David Gilbert: Our branding efforts were rooted in a great deal of research that discovered, not surprisingly, that Cleveland had a strong issue with its perception. People had a visceral reaction to the word “Cleveland,” stemming from highly publicized, decades-old issues proliferated by comedians and media. As one person put it, Cleveland had become the “mother-in-law joke” of cities. What was needed was a completely changed narrative of the word “Cleveland” itself. We took a bold and somewhat risky approach, but one that is truly authentic to the proud unpretentious “sophisticated grit” that now defines our community. Our research shows that perceptions are changing, in some cases dramatically, in all of our market segments. Our key is to advance the brand in a thoughtful and creative way, without compromising its essence.

At our previous Social Media Tourism Symposium (SoMeT) conferences, Corinne Allie, Senior Interactive Media Manager for Destination Cleveland, spoke about how you have activated locals who love your city to improve perceptions of Cleveland among potential visitors. Is this approach informing part of your wider strategy? In what other ways does Visit Cleveland continue to involve its residents in marketing activities? How do you think they help to tell your destination’s story?

David Gilbert

David Gilbert, President & CEO at Destination Cleveland

The notion of a strong need to change our community’s self-image came from the confluence of two facts: one is that advice from locals is the third-most-used resource in choosing a leisure destination. That was coupled with research showing residents of our region would recommend Cleveland as a place to visit far less than comparative cities. In short, if our own population would not choose Cleveland, why would others? So we employed a significant multi-pronged strategy aimed at getting local individuals and organizations to engage in, believe in, and tell the story of their own community.

How can this approach (collaborating with citizens, advocates and community) benefit other destination marketers? Is it something you’d recommend?

Becoming a successful visitor destination starts with a mindset. There needs to be a community belief in the travel and tourism industry as a driver of economic development, community confidence and growth. When this happens, it becomes the job of the entire community. When successful, it can exponentially expand a community’s destination marketing efforts.

How do you see DMOs’ roles in the travel industry changing in the next five years?

DMOs need to assert themselves as economic development organizations. Successful DMOs will be the ones who pivot from viewing themselves as sales marketing organizations to orchestrators of community growth through travel and tourism.

How do you see your organizational structure and capabilities evolving as a result of those changes?

We have added a significant facet to our organizational structure and capabilities that focuses on Destination Development. These talented staff concentrate on how we look, act and feel as a visitor destination, and how to engage the community in these efforts. We partner with dozens of organizations each year to advance our strategies and initiatives, creating a strong sense of community ownership and accountability.

What is the highest priority issue for your destination and how do you intend to tackle this?

Without a doubt, our top priority is to take advantage of a momentum and community self-confidence not seen in decades, and not be afraid to take risks in the process. We need to coordinate the efforts of our entire staff and an ever-expanding number of partners and collaborators, giving each a stake in the outcome. It is like sticks that we constantly rub together. The more we do it, the more sparks fly.

Gain more valuable insights from speakers, panelists and participants from Destination Think Forum, where the world’s leading destination marketers gathered to address their greatest challenges. Read more interviews with Forum’s Leading Thinkers, and download the “Leading your destination into the future” whitepaper for strategic insights on the role of the DMO.

Featured image credit: Destination Cleveland


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