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Detroiters are their own worst enemy...

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TOM WALSH: Detroiters must become better hosts

January 29, 2004

BY TOM WALSH

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Metro Detroit's own citizens are the region's worst enemy when it comes to attracting conventions.

It's often easier to sell people from other states on the merits of visiting Detroit than folks from neighboring counties, a panel of meeting planners Wednesday told the Metro Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"From an outsider's perspective, there's excitement about the Detroit riverfront development, new stadiums and restaurants. But the low self-esteem and crass opinions of local people are difficult to change," said Nancy Berg, executive director of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. The SME pulled its 2003 Midwest Machine Tool Show out of Cobo Center and held it at the Novi Expo Center after several years of declining attendance at Cobo.

Berg and other meeting planners spoke candidly about Detroit's attributes and drawbacks as a convention city at the MDCVB's annual meeting.

Nancy Eren of SAE International said Cobo Center is too small and too expensive. Carol Crossland, whose Tree Care Industry Association will gather in Detroit for the first time in October, said the convention bureau worked hard to overcome her members' concerns about safety.

Mired in a slump

Blunt talk is just what MDCVB President Larry Alexander was seeking when he invited the meeting planners to speak.

"These are our customers," Alexander told me. "We need to hear what they're saying, both good and bad, so we can better compete."

Poor service and high labor costs at Cobo, along with less-than-stellar downtown hotels, have been cited by groups such as SME and the material handlers association, which pulled conventions out of Detroit in recent years.

The SAE World Congress, Cobo's second-largest annual event, has lost attendance in part -- like the SME machine tool show -- by failing to convince engineers in Detroit's suburbs to come downtown to attend the shows.

When asked about expansion or replacement of Cobo Center, Berg said, "Until the root causes of service and convenience are addressed, I don't think it matters whether you have a new building."

Despite big wins like landing the 2009 NCAA basketball tourney, Detroit's tourism and convention business is in a three-year slump.

In 2000, the MDCVB booked events worth nearly 295,000 room nights of business for Detroit-area hotels. But a year later, when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks hurt the travel industry, bookings dropped 30 percent. Business is reviving, but last year's bookings were still 13 percent lower than in 2000.

Capitalize on big events

Alexander believes a string of high-profile sporting events -- Ryder Cup golf matches this September, the 2005 baseball All-Star Game and the 2006 Super Bowl -- can support more aggressive marketing of Detroit as a destination for conventions and other events.

After a five-year lapse, the MDCVB is reestablishing a two-person sales office this year in Washington, D.C., where many of the nation's trade associations are located.

"We think we've got some momentum with these big events and some new hotels coming on-stream," he said. "We need to strike while the iron's hot."

That's fine, trying to capitalize on big events to drum up business. But any gains will be sustainable only if we shape up as convention hosts so that everyone -- outsiders and Detroiters alike -- feel welcome and well treated.

Contact TOM WALSH at 313-223-4430 or [email protected]

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