Back in August, Paul Astleford announced that he would be retiring from his post as President and CEO of Experience Columbus, our city’s convention and visitor’s bureau. After thirteen years at the helm of the organization, Astleford has seen a lot of change in the culture of Columbus and how perceptions of Columbus have changed both internally and externally.
We sat down yesterday with Astleford to discuss some of those changes as well as what the future holds for the ongoing expansion of the Columbus Convention Center facilities and the growth of Columbus as a whole. The full transcript of our interview can be read below.
WE: You’ve been at the helm of Experience Columbus for thirteen years. We’re talking about Columbus being 200 years old this year, so 13 is just a small piece of that history. If we look back at 1999 when you first started, the Convention Center had just begun an expansion that year and Experience Columbus had a different name. What were some of the big changes you saw happen since then?
PA: The big changes go beyond Experience Columbus and the Convention Center. If you’re talking just about our industry, I think some of the big changes really had to do with how this community was starting to project itself to the big wide world. A decade ago there wasn’t the same level of pride in the community. In fact, it was almost, in many cases, self deprecating.
Our community was somewhat trapped in a non-competitive world where a lot of people were trying to maintain their comfort zones. I remember speaking at a couple of events where people in the audience would get up and say, “Why do you want to do this?” “Why do you want to create these things?” when talking about expansion. They’d say “We like it just the way it is.”
What I would say to them is, that’s fine, you’re just comfortable. Any community that is mired in a comfort zone of isolationism, is falling behind. There’s no staying level. You have to compete to win, and that is very difficult in today’s global marketplace, and you’d better understand that. Otherwise, you are allowing things to go backwards. It might not be hard on you, but it’s going to be hard on your children. We talked about building the prosperity of the community. You’re going to have to understand what the new global marketplace and the new global world is about. It’s competitive.
In our industry, we were talking about the expansion of the strategic hotel development. We knew that 90% of the business that we lost had to do with our lack of a hotel package. As a city, we had built a lot of hotels, but the hotels weren’t strategically built around the needs of the customer. They were limited service properties that were built by developers who were trying to make a buck. When we talk about the hospitality industry, it really relies heavily on what is happening with the leadership dimension of our community. At the time, we were very much a silo-driven projects mentality.
A silo-driven projects mentality was driven by what I’ll call community developers, some are very high-profile, doing good things for the community, but doing a lot of projects that were for profit and legacy motivation. They had nothing to do with a strategic development plan for tomorrow. The biggest transformation, the thing that has kept me here for thirteen years, was the transformation from this silo-driven projects mentality, to a whole new collaborative visionary strategic mentality for the future. That is going to pay off big for this community from a prosperity-building standpoint, and from quality of life standpoint. We now are looking at our community as part of a global world market. Whereas before, we were in our isolation zone.
That to me, is the biggest transformation in Columbus in the past decade or so. And we are still, right now on the verge of really emerging into the larger world market. I think the people who are involved with developing this community are going to have a very good time in the next ten to twenty years.
WE: Speaking of the Convention Center and the area around it, it is very different now with the build out of the Arena District and the uprising of the Short North and area around the North Market. How has that leant itself to the convention and tourism industry? Has it made things easier for attracting those conventions?
PA: There’s no question about it. When you bring a meeting professional to our community that has not been here before, the reaction is remarkable. They will literally say, “oh my goodness, look at the Convention Center, look at where our people can walk.” Now with the cap over I-670, they don’t see a dividing line to the Short North. And look at what they can do in the Arena District and even going down to Capitol Square. And they say to us “why aren’t you telling the world about this place?”
It’s interesting to smile when they say that, because we know the change that has occurred is directly related to the support from organizations like ours, which is an economic development part of Columbus. We get support now for image development, brand creation and marketing. But I will tell you Walker, literally, a decade ago, no one in our community even wanted to hear the word “brand”. Today, because of the transformation that the anointed leaders of our community facilitated in creating a much broader collaboration, there is a new level of pride in Columbus. Pride in any community is critical to creating energy within that community. That’s an energy that people want to brag about when they talk about where they live and what they enjoy here. That then leads to a new consciousness.
So we have to be out there marketing. If you’re watching Indianapolis or Michigan or any other region doing their marketing and talking about their destinations, and realize that we were working with a budget at Experience Columbus that was half the size of any of these other top twenty competitive cities that we go up against… it’s because there was not a level of pride to create the energy or to create the desire to be talking about our community to the world. That has all changed.
WE: When working on creating that pride in locals and turning them into “ambassadors”, is it too early to say that that’s caused a cultural shift in the mindsets of people? It feels like Columbus is a very transient city, and you’ve got people who’ve lived there their whole lives, and you’ve got people who are coming here for jobs, for school, and you get different mindsets in different cultures. What’s your take on how that is shaping out?
PA: I don’t know if you’ve continued to watch statistics, but Columbus is one of the few cities in Ohio where we’re actually getting younger. I was talking to a group of private sector leaders here ten years ago and I remember saying to them that there’s going to have to be a major transformation in this community from a leadership dynamic. There’s got to be an embracing of a larger, collaborative of younger leaders coming in to the community. That will happen in one of three ways.
The first way is through a crisis — financial, natural, man-made or whatever else. A crisis will bring a community together to create a new direction for the community. But the flaw in that is that it creates a “fix-it” mentality. That is very detrimental to a community in today’s world which has to be thinking about innovation, change and creativity. So yes, a crisis will bring a community together, but not for the long-term good.
The second way that a transformation will take place, is that we all sit around and twiddle our thumbs and wait until the anointed leaders are dead and gone. The new leadership that is being bred in Columbus is made up of younger leaders being brought up in a much different world with a much more global insight. It’s not this narrow-minded look of “comfort-zone living” in Columbus. Those leaders will start to create innovation and look at creativity for tomorrow. And that will be very healthy, but that would take so long that in the meantime our community will fall far behind.
The third and best way is that the anointed leaders of this community facilitate the transformation. They would invite in the new and younger leaders to participate. That creates a much larger collaborative sense between the private sector, public sector and civic organization. You bring them together and talk about the vision for tomorrow. If we do that, in a very short period of time, this community could be putting itself on the national and global map.
WE: Experience Columbus has the unique position to speak about the brand of Columbus to both locals and to the outside world. What is the balance there and what emphasis is placed on each side of the equation?
PA: It’s really an excellent question, and many times we’re torn. A lot of this has to do with both personal and financial resources. But our mission is to be bringing people in from the outside and the prosperity that they can generate for our community. Very few people realize that the visitor industry for Columbus generates $7.8 billion dollars annually in spending. That’s direct, induced and indirect spending. That is huge for a community like ours. When people start to know that and realize that, they support your mission to go out and talk to the outside world about Columbus and the customers that we can bring in.
In the meantime we realize that unless we go out and participate with the Mayor and the county commissioners, City Council, and the Columbus Partnership and others — unless we participate in speaking to our local citizenry about Columbus and what it means to the people from outside our community, we will not get the support that we need.
When you are limited in resources and in people working in your organization, you’ve got to decide where you’re going to put your efforts. We know we’re being measured by the amount of bed taxes that we’re creating and the new business in the hospitality industry. Yes, that is our mission, but we’re also going to have to be involved with the local community in a much broader way. It can become very difficult to balance the two.
So we know how we’re measured, and at the same time, we’re doing our darndest to support, for example, the 200Columbus program, which is intended to build the pride of our community. I remember we were talking with the Mayor about our participation from a marketing standpoint for 200Columbus and we put two proposals on the table. One with all the marketing effort it would take for a full year, which was a $500,000 proposal. The other was a $5 million proposal and with that one we could take the idea of the 200Columbus Bicentennial and project it to the outside world and all of the consumer audiences that we touch.
We knew going in that we were never going to do the $5 million proposal, but we wanted everybody to see what it would take. We knew we didn’t have the resources to do that. But we were very happy that we ended up participating in the local pride building for Columbus. It cost under the amount that we had talked about, but that became very important to getting support for our mission to talk to the outside world.
WE: When you look back at 1999 or 2000, and you were speaking to convention hosts, or event planners, what sort of things were they saying about Columbus back then, and how have their impression of Columbus changed since then?
PA: It has dramatically changed, and the changes occurred in a few different areas. If you talk about the customer areas, we still have a long way to go. We still have to compete with 20 cities that we identify as our primary competitors that we go up against. Their budgets have been significantly above ours for so many years. That they are out there and they have projected themselves and have created a distinction for their communities that sells for them. So we have some catching up to do there. There’s no doubt about that, but it is happening. And we’re getting more and more customers to actually agree to come in and see Columbus whereas in the past, they didn’t even want to bother.
When you’re talking about the broader general public related to Columbus, there is also starting to be a new kind of momentum that we are creating. It’s because of the partnership that we are creating with the likes of Columbus2020 and the Columbus Chamber. We have all come together to identify for ourselves what our brand essence really is. Unless you have a brand essence that the community agrees with, everybody tells their own story and those stories get mixed up and nobody knows anything about Columbus. But now, with the brand essence being ‘smart and open’, that has helped us do a creative application of our brand for marketing purposes. So now, to all of our audiences, we’re all telling a similar story of Columbus or of the Greater Columbus community. And that is catching on. People are starting to hear it out there, outside of Columbus. It’s starting to create a level of intrigue about this place that they previously knew nothing about.
So when that buzz starts, that’s when we are able to kind of… forgive the term… but cash-in on that. We can get new businesses to come here. We can get more meetings and trade shows and conventions to come here. We can get the businesses that are already here to grow. And that is happening. When you look at Columbus as compared to most of the other cities around the nation, we are prospering. Our local leaders need to take credit for that because they’re the ones who have really pushed our image out in a way that the community is now supporting. That’s not an easy task. I’ve said to many people, you can’t run a community like you run a corporation. In a corporation, the boss can say “here’s my vision, who would like a paycheck”. In a community, you cannot do that. You can only invite ownership for the vision and the strategy moving forward. That’s why the kind of work that you do with Columbus Underground is also important to our community. Because we’re talking amongst ourselves about where we’re going with Columbus.