Bennish D. Brown
President & CEO, Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitor Bureau
As 2012 rolled in, instead of discussing New Year’s resolutions, my wife and I talked about our willingness to accept new adventures in life and in our careers if opportunities came along in the near future. We are “empty nesters” (with one adult son) and had settled into comfortable jobs in our former community (Rock Hill, S.C.), which was our home for 12 years.
A few days after this conversation, I received an email from a recruiter (obviously, I was one of many people to receive it) announcing the opening for the President & CEO position at the Tacoma Regional CVB. I submitted the requested resume and cover letter, moved through the process and was extremely fortunate to be offered the position. The TRCVB opportunity jumped out at me as a logical next step in my career.
Prior to accepting the invitation to become the new leader of the Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitor Bureau last spring, what were your impressions of Pierce County and its tourism activities?
I honestly didn’t know a lot of specifics about Tacoma and its tourism assets at that time. I was familiar with the name of the destination, and had some general knowledge of the geographic location, but I was technically “neutral” as it related to any impressions.
However, after researching Tacoma and Pierce County online as part of the interview process, and after a personal visit during the interview process, I was absolutely amazed by the natural beauty of the area and variety of tourism, leisure and entertainment opportunities.
What problems did you identify that the area had or has as far as marketing itself and attracting tourism?
Tourism is recognized globally as a major economic engine for state and local economies, which has made it a very competitive industry. One problem the area has, as far as marketing itself, is the lack of a statewide tourism office to help brand the state as a tourism destination. This is coupled with the need for stable and increased funding at the local level for consistent marketing to make us “top of mind” among people making the decision about where to take their meeting, convention or family vacation. One other issue that is common in our industry is fragmentation. We are an industry where different segments and pieces have to work together to make the whole (i.e., lodging, restaurants, attractions, entertainment, transportation, retail, etc.). I hope we can overcome fragmentation and seriously work as a unified local industry.
What were your initial goals when you became President and CEO of the CVB last June?
I presented a five-pronged plan to the CVB Board when I was initially hired. It was basically a short-term plan to get my feet on the ground and get my bearings with the position.
I jokingly first asked for about 80 days to learn how to correctly pronounce all the unique community names — like Puyallup!
I used the acronym “CSI-BB” (my wife and I love the CSI and NCIS television shows, and the BB is obviously my initials).
C: Convention Center Sales and Marketing.
Discussion had already begun about the possibility of the TRCVB partnering with the City of Tacoma in some way to assist with convention center sales. My plan was to identify at least four strong models that I was familiar with and identify best practices and structures for convention center sales. Four immediate models I was familiar with were CVBs that provided sales and marketing for convention centers in Charlotte, NC, as well as Myrtle Beach, Greenville, and Columbia in South Carolina.
I wanted to spend some quality time with the TRCVB staff and totally understand what they do. Listening to assess their daily activities and understand the outcome of those activities.
I: Investors (including governmental entities and private industry).
I wanted to begin building a relationship with local elected officials associated with our funding entities, as well as the respective employees working with us “where the rubber meets the road”. I also wanted to have conversations with a cross section of our investors and stakeholders to get their opinion about the relevance of our organization and understand their expectations of us.
I wanted to make sure I understood the TRCVB’s budget, and drill down to the “why” of every line item and cost center in the budget.
I wanted time to get to know the TRCVB Board of Directors better, on an individual basis. They are key members of the community. They are my bosses, and strong advocates for our industry.
Do you feel these goals have been met? What are the next steps?
Yes, I believe I’ve made good strides in accomplishing these initial plans. My next steps are to get into more formal plans and solidify a unified tourism vision.
What is your long-term vision for the Tacoma Regional Convention + Visitor Bureau?
My long-term vision for the TRCVB is directly tied to my long-term vision for the overall Tacoma andPierce County destination. First, my greatest desire is that we become a unified, well-oiled tourism team, both within the TRCVB and throughout Pierce County. I would like to see us focus on more global initiatives, from a countywide standpoint, where success will yield positive results for the entire county. It is a natural reaction to try to narrow our goals and activities down to what we’re doing for each individual funding community, but because tourists don’t recognize geographic boundaries like city limits or county lines, we need to look at activities that have the greatest opportunity to impact the broadest areas of this county at any given time, but still capitalize on all the unique assets of our individual cities and towns.
I have identified four key priorities as part of my long term vision, and will work with the TRCVB team and other community stakeholders to build collective strategies and goals around these priorities:
Boost the economy
Increase our market intelligence
Ensure Pierce County is an attractive place for visitors
Secure stable and sustainable funding for competitive longevity
We’ve noticed some shakeup with the staff at the CVB, especially the hiring of a new sales manager. Is there a re-organization happening at the staff level? What other changes should we be seeing now and what might we see in the future?
This year has been a very unusual, and in some ways disruptive, year for our organization and our team, not the least bit caused by the absence of and active search for a President. Unfortunately, one of my initial responsibilities was to “right-size” the organization in the aftermath of some budget reductions at the beginning of the year. We have actually eliminated 3 ½ positions since I came in June, and we’re excited about moving into the New Year with a very energetic, focused and capable group of professionals that make up our Destination Marketing team.
The only possible change on the horizon is a partnership under development with the City of Tacoma. We are working through the details of the City of Tacoma contracting with us to manage the long-term sales efforts for the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center (GTCTC). They will fund a sales team that we will hire and manage for the purpose of securing meetings and conventions business that bring guests who will stay overnight in area hotels.
Having been on the job for a few months, what in your opinion is the region’s strongest attributes when it comes to attracting tourism and conventions?
Natural diversity and beauty
Lively and interesting cities and towns (and unique festivals and events)
Vibrant arts culture
Places for adventure or escape and relaxation
Fabulous foods, local wineries and breweries
Top quality venues and facilities
Location — accessible by land, air and water
A heart for hospitality
Specialty (niche) markets: golf, maritime, agritourism, history, cultural arts
What are you expecting to see in 2013? Do you have any specific projections as far as conventions, meetings and tourism activity/spending?
I’m interested in trying to establish exactly what our benchmarks are. I want to firmly establish what our potential is to deliver on our various metrics, like room nights and media exposure, then figure out where we can stretch to do more. Over the past two years, we have averaged booking between 10,000 and 11,000 room nights per fiscal year. Our expectations will line up with our final budget, which won’t be confirmed until the final budget votes are made with all our funding communities.
I do expect us to continue to book high profile meetings and conventions that will bring business here in future years. We have already gained recognition and respect within the industry by recruiting two major conventions for 2014: the Go West Summit and the WSAE (Washington Society of Association Executives). The Go West Summit will bring 150 group tour operators from around the world to Tacoma and Pierce County. These tour operators are interested in bringing group business to the Pacific Northwest. One significant point about the Go West Summit is that in its 25-year history, this is the first time the organization has held its convention in Washington state!
What are you most looking forward to accomplishing in 2013? Any new programs?
I’m excited about the rollout of our new visitor guide and meeting planner guide in early 2013. We are working with a new company called SagaCity Media, who is taking a totally new approach to our two major marketing publications. They are moving us from the obsolete listing-style publications to a magazine-style product that attracts a visitor’s interest with stories about our destination. Stories that help potential visitors “experience” what it’s like to be here from a firsthand account.
Other than this, I’m looking forward to diving into activities that will point us towards success with those four priorities I mentioned earlier. Some of the activities on my list include:
Rolling out a re-brand of our destination (using input from visitors, customers and local stakeholders to identify our unique selling proposition as a destination)
Preparing for the world stage of the 2015 U.S. Open
Working more with local partners to capitalize on the Asian market for business and tourism
Pursue marketing opportunities at Sea-Tac International Airport
Pursue marketing opportunities in in-flight magazines of respective airlines (coordinating a destination profile section for all of Pierce County in select airline magazines)
Promote Pierce County as a year-round destination, extolling the opportunities at Mt. Rainier National Park and Crystal Mountain
Creation of a hospitality training module for front-line hospitality employees (hotels, restaurants, etc.), where they are trained on all the tourism assets throughout the county, and can readily answer visitors inquiries about things to see and do regardless of where the attraction or activity is
Cultural Attractions Pass that promotes our strong cultural attractions and makes it easy for visitors to purchase multi-attraction passes online
Support destination development initiatives going on throughout the county, including waterfront development and the possibility of attracting small cruise ships
Become a model with our Visitor Information Center and Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA) partnership
Work within the collective local tourism industry to annually generate $1 billion in visitor spending (currently we generate around $880 million annually in visitor spending)
What are the biggest obstacles your industry faces, either locally or nationally face in the coming year?
Besides some of the issues I’ve already mentioned — among which the greatest is the need for competitive funding — the biggest obstacles we face as an industry are those things over which we have no control, such as natural disasters, the economy and consumer confidence, political and civil unrest around the world, etc. All of those can have a devastating impact on tourism.
What, in your opinion, will be the big trends in the tourism industry during 2013?
We look to key industry research to help us forecast and identify trends. Here is information from one organization speaking to 2013 travel trends: http://www.ustravel.org/news/press-releases/us-travel-industry-add-nearly-100000-jobs-2013.
What issues or projects would you like to see the rest of the business community and public officials move forward on in 2013? For example, do we need to build more hotels in anticipation of hosting the U.S. Open in University Place?
I’ve already mentioned some priorities that hopefully will generate interest among our business community and other stakeholders, such as looking at opportunities for greater exposure at Sea-Tac International Airport. I applaud efforts in the City of Tacoma and in other cities and towns to provide wayfinding signage that leads visitors to our major attractions, and ultimately to our cash registers.
It would be tremendous if we could get some traction and some interest from serious developers as it relates to the findings of a report presented earlier this year about the GTCTC. The report clearly states that we have a deficiency of available hotel rooms in close proximity (walking distance) around the convention center, and this creates a competitive disadvantage for our destination. I’d love to see convention-caliber hotels built to help satisfy room inventory that we are currently missing. Additional hotel rooms near the convention center would provide long term economic benefit for our entire county.
Finally, I would love to see more partnerships marketing our cities and county collectively: economic development, chambers, tourism, etc. A unified message that extols the virtues of our destination as a great place to live and raise a family, a great place to work, a great place to do business, a great place to own a business, a great pla