Lorah Steiner is retiring next spring, and she wants to leave the city with a strong identity — a positive image that is evoked when Columbia comes to mind.
Steiner, now in her 23rd year heading the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, asked board members during their September retreat to make a list of what attracts visitors to the city.
“I went around the table, and I said, ‘What would bring you to Columbia if you didn’t live here?’” Steiner said. “After we listed those, we ranked them. In other words, what’s the most important in terms of getting you to make that decision to come?”
They chose four categories: arts, music, films and sports.
Bob McDonald, chairman of the CVB board and general manager of the Marriott Courtyard, said, “We’re right now on the cusp of saying, ‘Here is Columbia; this is who we are; come and see us.’”
“It’s that edgy, kind of Austin-like atmosphere that we have,” Steiner said during the CBT Power Lunch on Tourism, held on Sept. 22 at the Top of the Tiger Hotel.
The tourism leaders also have decided to start using CoMo rather than Columbia in promotional materials and have purchased the domain name gottagocomo.com.
“It started with the young kids,” Steiner said of the nickname. “I remember junior high school students were all saying CoMo, and now it’s everywhere. So, we love that. We think it really sort of defines us — it’s a great moniker for Columbia.”
However, Steiner, McDonald and other tourism development leaders said formulating Columbia’s brand is just the start. Now they need a strategy for promoting the brand — like the Texas capital does with its moniker “Keep Austin Weird.” Next, the city’s attractions need strengthening, and it needs to be easier for visitors to get here and find their way around.
They brainstormed during the forum and came up with ideas:
• such as pooling the resources of the city and its colleges to improve “wayfinding,” the signs, guides and gateways to Columbia;
• partnering with entrepreneurs who know how to solidify and sell a product;
• more specifically, adding “International” to the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival that takes place early in the fall (Oct. 1-2 this year).
“That immediately just elevates the significance of it,” said Marjorie Beenders, whom Steiner refers to as her “mentor and marketing guru.”
“I think we could live up to that,” said Steve Sweitzer, an ad agency co-owner and partner in Thumper Entertainment, the company formed to run the festival, now in its fourth year.
“We’ve had bands from all over the world come and play on the show,” Sweitzer said. “The farthest away was probably the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars from West Africa.”
Then Sweitzer recounted how the famous blues musician Taj Mahal called the Columbia festival “one of the best in the country — any country. And we use that line in our promotions.”
On Sept. 20, City Council granted the CVB’s request to spend an additional $104,000 for a new marketing campaign. The ads will promote CoMo and its festivals — Roots N Blues, Ninth Street Summerfest and the True/False Film Festival — along with other downtown attractions and the Katy Trail.
Council also agreed to give developers of the Columbia Star dinner train five years, rather than two, to make one of their vintage passenger cars accessible to people with disabilities. Central States Railroad Associates said requiring the company to spend $175,000 to make a 1930s rail car accessible to people in wheelchairs would kill the fledgling project.
Steiner said the trains will now be brought to Columbia, and sometime this fall the company will start dinner rides along the city-owned rail line from Columbia to Centralia and back.
During the lunch forum, Steiner pointed out that Columbia has had a run of bad luck when it comes to its few other paid attractions. The YouZeum is closing, the Missouri Theatre is shut, at least for the near future, and the Jefferson Farm and Gardens project has stalled because of funding cuts.
Visitors to Columbia/Boone County spent $302 million last year, according to a report from the state Department of Revenue and Labor and Industrial Relations. Tourism-related employment, the report said, was more than 9,550.
Although the industry has grown, Steiner said there are key deficiencies. One is what’s known in the tourism business as “wayfinding.” “If you’re in a destination, and you can’t find your way around, that’s kind of frustrating,” Steiner said. “Our signage is old. It’s aesthetically not as pleasing as maybe it once was. And it needs to be updated. That, unfortunately, is a $100,000 to $250,000 investment, but it needs to be done.”
LeAnne Stroupe, coordinator of MU’s Visitor Relations, suggested a cooperative venture to improve the signs at the five main interchanges into Columbia.
“That’s a really great idea,” Steiner said. “We can also talk with Stephens College and Columbia College.”
Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig-Hopkins said the Missouri Department of Transportation will change the highway entry signs next spring when the new census numbers are released.
Heather Hargrove, general manager of the Holiday Inn Executive Center, and other forum participants said it’s important to Columbia’s sports tourism sector for voters to pass an extension of the Park Sales Tax.
Forum participants also agreed that improving air passenger service is critical but expensive. Hertwig-Hopkins said the estimated cost of recommended runway reconstruction and extensions is $25 million. The city is also trying to add another hub to the north or west for air passenger service. For now, the only connection is through Memphis.
Steiner also said Columbia is lacking when it comes to corporate travel. The Columbia Lodging Association and the Hotel Marketing Association are working with the city’s economic development executives to do joint marketing designed to “build our corporate base,” she said.
One area that is showing promise is the film industry. Steiner is president of the new Missouri Motion Media Association, a statewide organization for film, television and other motion media professionals.
At the end of the Power Lunch, Steiner said she hoped to build on the brainstorming and start a series of breakfast meetings that focus on specific areas such as wayfinding.
Sweitzer agreed: “The energy generated by this group of people was palpable. We have the opportunity to place Columbia firmly on the list of cultural destinations.”
Power Lunch Participants
Presenter: Lorah Steiner; Executive Director Convention & Visitors Bureau
Marjorie Beenders, The Beenders Walker Group
Norm Benedict, CEO, Norman-Robert Communications
Brent Beshore, CEO, Pure, Arable Entertainment
Randy Gray, chairman, Downtown Leadership Council
Betsy Farris, Division Director, Thumper Entertainment
Heather Hargrove, General Manager, Holiday Inn Executive Center
Paula Hertwig-Hopkins, Assistant City Manager
Gary Kespohl, 3rd Ward City Council Representative
Richard King, Owner, The Blue Note
Bob McDonald, General Manager, Marriott Courtyard
LeAnne Stroupe, Coordinator, MU Visitor Relations
Steve Sweitzer, Woodruff-Sweitzer; Partner, Thumper Entertainment
Teri Weise, Sales & Marketing Director, Holiday Inn Executive Center
The Callaway Bank:
Gary Meyerpeter; President, Boone Co. Market
Caroline Gower, Advisory Board Member
Debbie LaRue; Vice President, Marketing
Craig Brumfield; Business Development Officer