Springfield’s tourism glass is half-full

The Corporate Review 2015

On Monday, May 11, the Springfield Business Journal invited a small group to a business luncheon for the purpose of discussing the state of the tourism industry in Springfield. It was held at the Inn at 835 from noon until 2 p.m.

The panelists included Justin Blandford, superintendent of state historic sites, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency; Karen Conn, president of Conn’s Hospitality Group and president of Downtown Springfield, Inc.; Gina Gemberling, director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau; Cory Jobe, director of the Illinois Office of Tourism and Springfield Ward 6 Alderman; and Bob Van Bergen, general manager of the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel.

The Springfield Business Journal’s editor and publisher, Fletcher Farrar, and associate editor, Scott Faingold, moderated the discussion. What follows is an edited transcript of the one-hour conversation.

The panelists were all vitally enthusiastic about Springfield tourism, each committed to its promotion and expansion and each bringing a unique perspective, ranging from the public to the private sector. The group was practical and occasionally circumspect, but always unfailingly optimistic and forward-looking.

Lincoln funeral reenactment

SBJ: We’ve come off the biggest local tourism event in recent memory with the Lincoln funeral reenactment. I’d like to get your perspective on how that went for everybody.

Cory Jobe: Any time we can talk about our history and honor one of our favorite sons here in the capital city it is good for both Springfield and Illinois. President Lincoln has many followers. Any chance we can get, here in the state of Illinois, to promote and talk about his impact – whether it be the reenactment or his living history at any of the historic sites in Springfield – we are well served. The museum is a major opportunity for us to talk about Lincoln.

Gina Gemberling: Of course I agree with Cory, any time we can get Springfield’s name out in the United States or around the world, that’s more people who will think of Springfield as top-of-mind. The local organization, the Funeral Coalition, did a wonderful job, as well as the city services, working together to make it all happen. Of course we [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau] subsidized some of the city services, but also we’ve been working for the last year on the marketing efforts for the event. We’ve been reaching out to media across the United States as well as travel media. We’ve encouraged travel writers to come to Springfield. They’ve done multiple stories, from the Boston Globe to the Washington Post, it’s been about everywhere out there. All of the articles we’ve seen are positive, and that just helps put Springfield on the map.

Karen Conn: The partnership that the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Funeral Coalition and the retail industry had was good. Any time we can bring all of that together and partner and get the word out, it’s great. From a perspective of the retail and the hotel industry – I’m going to speak for ourselves [Conn’s Hospitality] – I mean it was fantastic. We would love to see that every weekend. We broke records because there was so much activity.

Bob Van Bergen: We [President Abraham Lincoln Hotel] did very well, and not only economically. It was a great success. The people who were there were so interesting and they held Lincoln in such high reverence. To see all the people in their costumes was just terrific. They were very engaging with the employees. It was just a feel-good time to be glad you’re a part of Springfield.

SBJ: How did the funeral event impact Springfield’s historic sites?

Justin Blandford: We have state historic sites in numerous neighborhoods in Springfield, so this was a nice event in that it tied many of those neighborhoods together. It also gave us an opportunity to complete a very important preservation project, which was the restoration of the receiving vault where Lincoln was initially buried, where his body lay in rest for almost nine months in 1865. The funeral reenactment gave us the opportunity to work with new partners, the different parts of the Funeral Coalition. With most of those groups, this was our first interaction with them, and so this was a good experience for us to meet new partners. Looking forward – to touch on what Karen said – we want to find ways to keep finding the best methodology in the event planning. We want to find what worked, and see what we can take from this so we can add value to future opportunities.

Jobe: This event illustrated how giving our community is, especially when you look at all the things that were accomplished at Oak Ridge Cemetery. A lot of that was done by the private sector. Mike Lelys [executive director] and his team at Oak Ridge Cemetery deserve big kudos and hats-off. The Convention and Visitors Bureau stepping up, the city council stepping up, added to the partnership. This public-private partnership is what we at the state want to encourage even more. This was an opportunity and Springfield hit it out of the park. Everybody worked together to make it happen.

SBJ: Are there parts of it that could have been done better?

Jobe: Working with the railroad should have been the first thing to be done. The train could not travel all along the railroad. I’ve worked locally on some projects with the railroad – Canadian National in my case – it takes time and it takes a lot of persistence and willingness to have patience. All the partners that shared the railroad should’ve been worked with early on.

Blandford: When we’re looking at events this size, a hallmark of any community that does it well is safety. That’s something that we want to continue to look for ways to improve upon. Now this was a very safe event but nonetheless, the temperature did touch into the mid-80s and there was the need for emergency responders at Oak Ridge. Whatever we’re planning, we want to ensure that the guests who are coming are going to have a safe experience.

SBJ: Any other “do-overs”?

Van Bergen: The biggest disappointment I heard was the train, that it was too crowded down at the train station and difficult to get around. That was probably one of the most sought-after experiences, to see the train.

What’s coming up?

SBJ: Looking forward, what projects are you working on now?

Gemberling: At the Convention and Visitors Bureau last fall we launched our “Always Legendary” brand. Part of that was bringing our tourism product, our leisure product and our convention products together so that we have one consistent message. We’ve expanded our media buys and our media outreach significantly this year. Instead of just summer media campaigns we are now doing summer, fall and spring campaigns. We are getting ready to do some commercials right now in the Chicago area. That is the first time in my history at the bureau that we’ve done any TV advertising, so we’re trying to improve on that. Our main feeder cities are Chicago and St. Louis. We want to be top-of-mind in those communities for a weekend or a three- or four-night getaway.

Jobe: We just launched our brand new “Find Something More” ad campaign. For the first time ever in the history of the Illinois Office of Tourism, we are doing national cable television buys. We typically advertise in the feeder markets within the Midwest. With our “Find Something More” campaign we’re now changing a bit to talk about the emotional feel of travel. Our Springfield spot highlights a grandfather and his grandson taking a train ride on Amtrak down to Springfield to visit the historic sites.

Blandford: We’re looking at ways the “History Comes Alive” brand can be sustained for the future. That’s something that we’ve partnered with the Illinois Office of Tourism on for many years. We’re now looking at the capacity that past investments have helped us build. We’re excited about the chance to be able to sustain that program among our local sites and our partners and the private sector businesses that want to see those things continue in their community.

SBJ: Can you say more about what “History Comes Alive” is?

Blandford: Through our cooperation with the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, “History Comes Alive” is our Springfield living history and arts brand. These tend to be focused in a 10-week period during the summer, but we’ve been successful at bringing them back during the holiday season. In the future we might try to find ways to attract families during the spring break periods by putting out a concentration of living history performances or musical performances. Last year was the first year we had all of the sites working together on that. So we’re excited about this summer, when we hone in and find out what we can make happen with the existing resources and continue to do a great job. The early planning meetings we had were extremely positive. It’s important in a tourist city to reach capacity to sustain events. That shows a capacity that we did not have five years ago.

SBJ: You mentioned partnering with the private sector. We have two private sector people here. Are there any things you’d like to see happen to bring people into the market?

Conn: “History Comes Alive” is great, I can’t speak enough about it. To use the Lincoln Funeral weekend as an example, the feel of having everybody dressed up in the Lincoln Home area on Sunday morning was solemn. You could hear a pin drop. If we could create that kind of experience, that’s going to ripple throughout the country and people are going to know, Springfield, Illinois, it’s home of Lincoln. It’s an experience in itself, it’s educational, it’s take the family, let’s get away, let’s do a weekend getaway or let’s do a living, learning experience for our kids. Let’s just continue to enhance that experience.

Van Bergen: The coalitions that we experienced recently, they were great and showed what you can do when you work together. There’s a number of these opportunities coming up. The University of Illinois is coming here this November for basketball, requiring a lot of people to work together to make that happen. There are other major sporting events that we can work together to get. Working together, all things are possible.

Conn: We should not overlook continuing to nurture those relationships. Once the event’s over let’s not just forget about it, let’s continue to nurture the relationship with those groups and coalitions.

State cutbacks mean volunteer opportunities

Jobe: Justin and I have talked about this quite a bit – how do we continue this “History Comes Alive” in terms of volunteer effort? Sometimes the funding may not be there at the levels it has been there in the past, and so we have to think more strategically, more creatively. Look at the number of volunteers who gave their time and dedicated their weekend. What’s the next step? We probably can look at some volunteer opportunities. How do we keep that momentum going? I don’t know if the Funeral Coalition has ideas of the next step or what kind of legacy they want to leave behind, but what a great opportunity.

Blandford: One group that is a sort of a segment of the funeral planning group is called “Company’s Coming Again.” That is a restart of the effort from the opening of the museum 10 years ago – a completely volunteer-guided effort both to help clean up the downtown and to prepare volunteers to answer questions and provide that hospitality that’s going to set us apart from maybe another experience in a different town. When that was re-formed, the U of I games were specifically part of the discussion. It was very clear that there was another opportunity where there would be a heavy concentration downtown of people who would come out of that convention center and not know where to go. That’s a group that’s already gearing up for those visitors.

SBJ: Would you clarify the funding situation for “History Comes Alive”?

Blandford: The Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition is working with the tourism office and pulling together some funds. Springfield’s iconic living history person is Abraham Lincoln. So that’s what we’re focusing on in step one. I’ve reached out to the Old Capitol Chorale, which is a group of about 20 volunteer musicians who sing. These folks practice about 30 weeks a year, every Tuesday night at the Old State Capitol. How can we engage them to provide a weeknight experience, after 5 p.m. in one of our historic sites? Another great example that we’ve already talked about is the 114th Volunteer Regiment volunteers. They’ve been doing a program out at Lincoln’s tomb for a very long time and when “History Comes Alive” was created we were quick to say, ‘You’ve already been doing this but it’s now a part of the Living History brand,’ so that Tuesday night event is going to continue to happen because of the strength of those volunteers. We have an ice cream business that stepped forward and said, ‘If you do an activity, we’ll give you a better rate on ice cream so that a family of five can each have ice cream for a $10 bill. Those are the kind of partnerships and relationships that we want to keep attracting. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Memorial Medical Center – they stepped in five years ago and made a matching grant for the last five years so that the Civil War Medical Encampment could take place in our community, and what a wonderful contribution for them to make.

SBJ: The U of I basketball games at Prairie Capital Convention Center will be huge, and not specifically Lincoln-centered. This provides an interesting opportunity to get people in town, get them interested in Springfield and what we have to offer. The question was raised: What do they do once they walk out of the convention center?

Gemberling: We’ve been having those conversations with the convention center since the day they announced. We have a Friday and Sunday event, what can we do to get them here on Saturday? We started last fall, we ran some radio spots on the Big Ten network, again trying to get the season ticket holders and others in our feeder cities to think, ‘When the games are in Springfield, we can stay those two nights and spend a whole day in Springfield.’ We talked about working with DSI on creating some other opportunities and activities for that Saturday.

New governor and mayor

SBJ: Let’s switch gears. We are at the front end of two new administrations, on the state and the local level. There is going to be restructuring going on as well as budget issues. What kind of effects are we looking at so far?

Jobe: From the state’s perspective, we’re looking more strategically in terms of our partnerships. We just announced new numbers last week. Last year was the fourth consecutive year for domestic visitor growth in the state, the third consecutive year of increases of hotel-motel tax revenues to the state, and just last year we moved from sixth to fifth in the country in terms of domestic spending, beating out Nevada. And we have no shoreline – think about that. It shows the diversity of the state, whether you’re enjoying the big city of Chicago and the museum campus and everything that’s happening in the Loop right now, to the great neighborhoods in the Chicago area, or historic sites in Springfield or Route 66 or the scenic beauty of Shawnee National Forest and the Great River Road – we have so many great things to see and do.

Those numbers are great, but we are looking at difficult times in the state. Tourism continues to create jobs, over 300,000 direct and indirect jobs were created by tourism the past year. The governor understands this. He has said he will judge the economic development turnaround of the state by tourism. We’re making difficult choices. We’re looking at streamlining efforts, trying to work with our 42 convention and visitors bureaus around the state to see what needs they have, that have or have not been met over the years. I think fiscal year 2016 will be a good year for us. We’ll think leaner and meaner. Our core responsibilities at the state are to promote and advertise the state of Illinois to domestic and international visitors. Over the years we’ve strayed away from that in some areas and that’s hurt our partnerships.

SBJ: Any other thoughts about things under Gov. Rauner?

Jobe: When Gov. Rauner was in the private sector, for three years he chaired “Choose Chicago,” which is their convention and visitors bureau. He was the one who transformed “Choose Chicago” into the engine it is today. Look at the successes over the past three years – just in this past 10 days the NFL draft was held in Chicago for the first time it’s been outside of New York in 51 years; the James Beard Awards – which is the Oscars of the food and beverage industry – the first time ever outside of New York City and we have it for the next two years; and then the Microsoft conference. He [Rauner] helped guide that transition so he clearly understands the economic impact that tourism brings to our state.

SBJ: We’re also looking at a new mayor. Any obvious changes on the horizon from Mayor Langfelder?

Jobe: Well, let me put my other hat on as an alderman [general laughter]. If you want to ask about finances, I’ll put my comptroller hat on too! As an alderman, I think it’s refreshing. Mayor Langfelder has already reached out to me more than a handful of times, and we were just sworn in on Thursday. He text-messages me all the time. I think you’ll see that will be a refreshing approach, whether it’s related to tourism efforts or greening and cleaning the downtown. We just announced the new streetscape project around the Lincoln Home area which I think will stimulate additional growth and activity. He has this can-do attitude. I’m kind of caught off-guard by it a bit, because my first term in office, that wasn’t the attitude from the administration. But it’s refreshing that he’s reaching out. I think so far, so good, but we’re not even past the first week. Ask me in a year [general laughter].

Conn: I’ll second that. Jim does have an open mind, a can-do attitude, he’s approachable and he just re-appointed Gina [congratulatory applause from group].

Gemberling: My conversations thus far have shown he knows the importance of tourism. His first official act after the inauguration was to stop by our “Legends in Tourism” awards and did a quick welcome. We think that’s a good sign.

Jobe: I think he understands. City hall operates heavily off sales tax, received revenue, so what better industry to support than tourism? The more conventions and meetings and sporting events that Gina can book and attract, that means more heads in beds, which generates our hotel-motel tax receipts, and butts in seats, that generate our sales tax receipts. Sales tax is critically important but so is our hotel-motel tax, to continue to fund operation of the visitors bureau and expand our marketing opportunities. We need to keep pushing an emphasis on tourism and how we can expand our efforts. He gets all that.

SBJ: When it comes to attracting tourists, we have the historic elements all in place. Are there attempts to court younger people to come visit Springfield, to perhaps make Springfield more like Champaign, with its robust cultural climate?

Gemberling: The millennial market wants those individual experiences. Yes, they’d be happy to see the Lincoln sites, but what really sets you apart as a community? And it’s also how you market to them. We’re more into the digital world, of course, just like everyone else.

Jobe: At the Illinois Office of Tourism, we partner with organizations like Atlas Obscura – we’re the first state to partner with them in terms of packages and unique trip ideas and tours. They focus on the uniqueness, of the mysterious things of travel in certain areas of the state. We’re going to launch a couple of new opportunities that’ll be focused on millennial travelers later this summer. We’re going to put a stronger emphasis on “made-in” type products in the state, with the craft distilleries and the microbreweries and the great culinary scene. Millennials love that. Friday night when they come home from work they’re hitting the road, and money’s no object. They’re quick planning, last minute, spur of the moment. That’s why you’ve got to be so heavily reliant on digital.

SBJ: We did a little bit of crowdsourcing via Facebook to ask the online community what kinds of things they might look for in a visit to Springfield. There were suggestions of things like bike rental stations, more nightlife options, interactive technology, larger music events. How can we best serve the desire on the part of millennials for these kinds of festivals and events?

Jobe: When I hear someone in Springfield say there’s nothing to do here, I quickly tell them here’s what’s going on here! You could be busy every weekend, or every evening, practically. Special events, a vibrant downtown, are great, not only for our citizens but they send a great message for the visitors too. Tourism really does drive the quality of life things. Tourism should be involved in how our parks look, how our downtown looks and the various special events. They all have an economic impact and benefit tourism. We’ve had some unfortunate missteps over the years with music festivals or things like that, which might send a message that Springfield doesn’t care about these sorts of things. To the contrary, we do care about those events. The music and downtown festivals are important.

Conn: I don’t think that the city’s against music festivals but you have to look at everybody’s perspective. Business owners get a little upset, residents get a little upset when there is loud music, the street’s closed and my customers can’t get to me. You have to take into account everybody’s perspective.

Importance of communication

Blandford: Another thing that’s really important is to remain positive and to communicate. We’ve recently had a lot of good dialogue between tourism offices and state offices on fast-moving opportunities that if we don’t act upon we’re going to miss. It just serves us all best in the long run when we can make sure that we’re communicating and remaining as positive as possible throughout the discussion. That’s going to put Springfield in the best light and that’s going to help us reach our potential. We recently worked with several state leaders to host the first ever Cinco de Mayo at the Old State Capitol. Hundreds of people traveled to Springfield to be a part of that and had we not remained positive, had we not found the potential in that event and had we not worked with the Hispanic Caucus that would have been an opportunity lost. But we kept the dialogue going, we found a can-do attitude and we made sure that a very important event continued to happen in our community.

I think it sometimes can be easy to look at the half-empty glass a little too early. We’ve got to make sure that we’re the ones who continue to keep pouring the water in and insisting that, no, it’s indeed half-full.

Conn: Yes, for the whole tourism industry we need to continue to be positive and to nurture our partnerships and to communicate, because when we have a bad event or we have something that we’ve planned that’s not successful, it’s usually due to a lack of communication. I’ve advocated for years that we should have an advisory board made up of Historic Sites, Convention and Visitors Bureau, Illinois Tourism, industry partners, as well as the city – so we can just get together and talk.

Jobe: That’s a great idea.

SBJ: I’d be interested in the hotel perspective. Are events a good driver for hotel rooms? Are some better than others?

Van Bergen: Some are better than others. I’m all for events. The little disruption that they cause in trying to reach us or get out of the parking garage, I usually never complain about that because the overwhelming benefit of the events supersedes my personal needs for that particular day.

SBJ: What’s the best kind of driver for your business?

Van Bergen: The best kind of event is a multi-day event, like the State Fair. Conventions are great. The U of I basketball games will be very good for me.

Convention-al thinking

Jobe: Something the state’s missing out on and something that Springfield would benefit from, is a greater emphasis on attracting meetings, conventions and sporting events that have left the state and bringing them back. It’s something that the Rauner administration wants to put a bigger emphasis on. When we know those convention attendees, those moms and dads or grandmas and grandpas attending little Johnny’s sporting event for a weekend, drive major return on investment. They spend for multiple hotel nights, multiple restaurants, shopping, dining. It’s something that a Springfield, Peoria, Rockford, can all benefit from.

Gemberling: We are fortunate in Springfield because we have both products, and when you look at most other cities, even second-tier cities, we still have more visitor leisure products than most of those cities that are much larger than us around the Midwest. We are very fortunate that we have both leisure and conventions. Now we need to look strategically at how we can use one to help the other. How can we reach out to our convention attendees to further market to them so they come back on the leisure side? Or it may be reaching leisure travelers to understand just what Springfield has so maybe they’ll consider bringing a meeting or sporting event or something else to Springfield.

SBJ: What kind of statistics do you have about how this year’s going for tourists visiting Springfield?

Gemberling: We receive the Hotel Occupancy, the Star [Smith Travel Research Global] report. As far as occupancy, we are pretty much holding our own, give or take maybe less than a point. Three years ago, in 2013, we all of a sudden saw a huge spike in our local occupancy, we spiked 4 percent. Over the past 30 years, Springfield has never spiked that 4 percent before. Unfortunately we’ve been unable to specifically pinpoint where that 4 percent came from three years ago. But we have been able to maintain that the last two years so we’re happy with that. We usually don’t see the large spikes and increases like some of the other communities. Right now, Chicago’s seeing a huge increase. But we are maintaining.

Van Bergen: For the hotel, I measure myself against my prime competitors through the same report that she has for the whole city. For my prime competitors, of which I identify five, business is very stagnant. It’s not growing for those five. It’s growing for me, but at the expense of others. I think there’s a lot of positives in the future, with what the Crowne Plaza and the Holiday Inn Express and the Hilton are doing with their renovations, and we [President Abraham Lincoln Hotel] are going to continue to keep up. So the whole community is rising to create a better experience for everybody that comes to Springfield and that’s always good.

The other thing I want to say about tourism is I think you have to get your local community to embrace tourism. They can be your biggest ally, the 100,000 people who live here, to build more tourism because they all have relatives who want to come visit, they all have high school reunions, they all have organizations they belong to that can come to Springfield and they are the ones that the people interact with that come here. If they put forth a positive tone it’s all going to be great for us.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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