selling cleveland: through its efforts, positively cleveland helps lure 30M visitors to region

Last year, Cuyahoga County raked in $5.9 billion in economic impact by welcoming 14 million visitors who, in turn, supported 61,000 jobs. If we zoom out to the entire 17-county "Cleveland Plus" area, those numbers soar to 30 million visitors, 163,000 jobs, and $13 billion in economic impact.

"That's billion with a 'b'," notes Tamera Brown, VP of Marketing for Positively Cleveland, which serves as the region's convention and visitors bureau. "It's kind of a different way to think about tourism -- as a business."

Long a destination that appealed primarily to manufacturing conventioneers and small-town families in search of "big city" fun, Cleveland has ripened as a travel destination. Today, it's not just industrial trade shows that draw folks, but also the burgeoning medical sector, the growing LGBT scene, Broadway-quality theater and high-profile dining.

As that visitor profile changes, Positively Cleveland's staff of 35 constantly tweaks the way it sells, touts and markets the North Coast to potential visitors. On their side is the fact that Cleveland is darn easy to get to. Nonstop flights shuttle folks from countless towns thanks to the United/Continental hub at Hopkins, and for a large portion of Americans, driving here is a breeze.

"We're within 500 miles of 43 percent of the U.S. population," notes Brown, explaining the group's efforts to focus largely on folks this side of the Mississippi. Cleveland tourists hail from Chicago, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and all points across Ohio.

Positively Cleveland is funded by its 650 dues-paying members plus a portion of the Cuyahoga County hotel bed tax, from which it collects roughly $1.50 for every $100 in hotel receipts. In turn, the organization uses that money to market not a disjointed group of assets big and small, but rather the entire North Coast "tourism ecosystem," explains Brown.

"Major attractions such as the Rock Hall get people thinking about Cleveland," says Brown. "And then we add on what's unexpected or unknown." This might include local breweries, the West Side Market, Amish country, Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Akron Aeros. "Pretty soon, the three- or four-day trip is chock full."

What's more recent in the world of tourism marketing is the online – and thus borderless – world of web banners and pay-per-click ads, which account for 80 percent of Positively Cleveland's ad budget. Cyber marketing is what makes it possible to target specific demographics with razor-sharp accuracy. For example, Positively Cleveland's "Edgy Girlfriend Getaway to Cleveland," which is built around the "Women Who Rock" exhibit at the Rock Hall, is targeting women aged 25 to 54 who earn a certain income.

"The ad will follow them," says Brown, verifying that no, we're not crazy when we see the same ad appear on various web pages. "I call it stalking them," adds Brown, regarding the electronic cookies that keep tabs on our online pursuits.

For confirmation of the group's efficacy, it's useful to look to its members. For PlayhouseSquare Sales Manager Chris Meyers, a Positively Cleveland membership translates into much more than a simple directory listing.

"Positively Cleveland helps us make contact with other venues," says Meyers. "We talk about how to strengthen the tourism community and how we can package and promote the entire area." To Myers and folks like him, PlayhouseSquare is part of a tightly knit business community in which neighboring attractions aren't competition, but components of a larger network.

For Big Fun's Steve Presser, that wasn't always the case. Presser terminated his membership from the group years ago because he felt they weren't actively marketing small businesses and the eclectic neighborhoods they called home, like his Coventry Village for example.

"Then there was a change of guards down there and I was ecstatic," says Presser of Positively Cleveland. "They know what's going on and they're doing their job well."

Once again a member, Presser is seeing the results of Positively Cleveland's efforts, with Big Fun appearing on the organization's marketing material. In fact, out-of-town customers often credit their visits to the work of the visitors bureau, he says.

For Cleveland's tourism ecosystem to thrive, it must include both little fish like Presser's Big Fun and whales such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"Our visitors come from all over the world," Todd Mesek of the Rock Hall says of the museum's 500,000 annual guests. "On any given day, you can hear their different languages."

Those languages and more can also be overheard at the West Side Market in Ohio City, which sees one million visitors per year, many from out of town. The historic market is now on the top of the list for the scores of foodie tourists who come to Cleveland to eat, shop and tour the city's increasingly delicious offerings. Foodies join baseball buffs bound for Progressive Field, thespians trekking to the theatres of PlayhouseSquare, art lovers in search of the Masters at Cleveland Museum of Art, and animal lovers on expedition to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, all of whom add up to big business for Northeast Ohio.

The biggest tourism story of 2014 may just be the Gay Games, which is projected to net $60 million for the local economy.

"The number one thing an LGBT tourist is looking for is a destination that is welcoming," says Brown. To that end, Positively Cleveland has been rolling out the rainbow-colored welcome mat to gay tourists since 2007, when they published their first LGBT Visitor's Guide. The brochure focuses on many of the same regional assets -- world-class dining, museums, theatre, live music -- but in an inclusive manner. Brown believes that single gesture helped snag those coveted Gay Games.

What Clevelanders often overlook as one our most valuable albeit intangible assets is our authenticity. Born of rough-hewn Rust Belt history, steeped in an undying devotion to heartbreaking sports teams, and spiked with the hardcore riffs of rock and roll, authenticity is a quality that can not be manufactured -- nor faked.

Rock Hall's Todd Mesek calls it an "organic asset."

"It allows us to position the city as a cool, hip, fun, entertainment destination," Mesek explains. "When you use that to promote all of the arts, attractions, restaurants and other elements of destination that we have here, you have a nice opportunity."

"When you add the aquarium, the new Convention Center, the casino and the other things that are coming online," he adds, "it's an exciting time to be in Cleveland."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.
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