q & a: tom waltermire, chief executive team neo

New York, Los Angeles, Chicago -- These metropolises essentially speak for themselves in terms of drawing interest from businesses and job seekers, explains Tom Waltermire, chief executive of economic development agency Team NEO.
 
While these cities are able tell their own stories almost without trying, regions like Northeast Ohio must be far more proactive in spreading news of their good works, Waltermire adds.
 
Team NEO's business-attraction model promotes the area's assets on a regional scale. A nonprofit joint venture of several metro chambers of commerce -- and founding member of the Regional Marketing Alliance of Northeast Ohio or RMA (formerly known as the Cleveland Plus Marketing Alliance) -- the organization acts as a resource for companies considering an expansion or relocation into Northeast Ohio.
 
Waltermire expects big things for a region that's getting recognized for its strengths in biomed, advance manufacturing, and research and technology. Team NEO officials predict the area will add 169,000 jobs over the next eight years, an influx that will likely have local businesses recruiting from outside the Northeast Ohio region.
 
That projected growth also means that Northeast Ohio must continue to get its story out there. Writer Doug Guth spoke with Waltermire on exactly why a little audaciousness is needed for a region to go a long way.
 
Why do regions/cities even need to market themselves?
Like in all walks of life, if you don't put your light out there people aren't going to see it. There are wonderful cities and communities throughout the country, as well as places for talented people all around the world. If you want your share of the action, you have to explain to people why you deserve to be considered. Most every region in the country is going to be constantly competing for talented individuals.
 
What part should marketing play in a region's overall economic strategy?
There's no specific formula, but think of it like a company: Most of your resources will go into creating the "product," i.e. making the attributes of the region stronger. Then you need to have a piece that goes into telling the story. From the marketing side, we spend $100 million doing that. It's not the largest piece, but it's an essential one. There's no company out there creating a good product and then not telling anyone it exists. 
 
How is the Northeast Ohio region capitalizing on its assets to retain its marketing mojo?
For the last six years our focus has been on an aggressive regional marketing campaign. There are places in the country you want to retire to, but that's not us. We are a place with a robust economy and a good quality of life. When you get away from the coastal cities, every region needs to put its case forward for why it's a great place to live. Cities like Kansas City, Indianapolis and Minneapolis are trying the same thing. We're not in a unique situation, but telling our story is something we need to do to compete.
 
What is Team NEO's role in that marketing effort?
We're involved with business attraction activity. The target audience we're after is companies in investment mode or those looking to consolidate. There are hundreds of expanding companies thinking about where they should invest. Our job is to get [Northeast Ohio's] story in front of them.
 
How have regional marketing strategies changed in recent years?
Regions find it hard to sustain marketing campaigns. We need to build a mindset that we're in competition with other regions. Kansas City, for example, has done a good job in sustaining its marketing push. It's also a matter of size -- the biggest regions naturally get more visibility. You don't need to remind people that New York and Los Angeles are there. But the industrial Midwest has an image of slow growth with not a lot happening. Smaller sized regions need to work harder to get noticed. It's common sense.
 
Age-old wisdom says the fastest way to waste money is through a short marketing effort. People need to hear your message multiple times for it to sink in. You have lots of alternative messages out there; if you don't sustain the effort you'll be quickly forgotten and lose share of mind.
 
We've become steadily more sophisticated in how we target our message. We have to be inventive in using limited resources for the biggest impact. We think more about market segments: What segment has a bigger payoff than others? When you consider how big your audience is and how limited your resources are to go after that audience, you have to get better and better in what really matters.
 
How are you facing the challenges of marketing Northeast Ohio in 2013?
Early on, [regional marketers] would go to trade shows, set up a booth, collect business cards and hope people would notice them. You were trawling though the ocean and hoping you got a bite. Or you would do research on a company and try to make your way to a decision-maker.
 
We've learned about the challenge of identifying a company in investment mode, while remembering they're not going to advertise this themselves. Now we have thousands of businesspeople spreading the word about Northeast Ohio to companies all over the world. It takes 15 seconds to ask someone, "Have you ever thought of putting something in our area?" A large percentage of [Team NEO's] deals is someone in the region hearing something and then letting us know about it. The more we can energize the businesspeople in the region, the larger our success rate can be.

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.