DC Influencer: Gregory O'Dell, Events DC (Extended)

Events DC's president and CEO Gregory O'Dell talks to Bernadette Casey about the rebranding of the organization and its global initiative.

Events DC's president and CEO Gregory O'Dell speaks with Bernadette Casey about the rebranding of the organization and its upcoming initiatives.

How would you gauge the convention business overall and DC specifically?
Given the economy of the last couple of years, business has been very tough nationwide, but I think we've faired pretty well. DC on both the convention and the leisure side has been somewhat more recession-proof than other destinations.

We've been very fortunate having the federal government here. It's always been a gift and a curse for us. It's a gift because we have a lot of transient business coming here, but it also makes it a challenge to make sure we have the appropriate hotel inventory for our convention business. Second-tier cities have now become more competitive and there's certainly been a build-out of more convention inventory, such as Denver or Indianapolis. Where we used to see a traditional East-West rotation, conventions have now gone to some cities in the Midwest and some smaller-tier cities.

A specific challenge for us had been not having a convention center hotel, but now that we've finally broken ground, we've already started to see customers start to book with us because they know there's certainty that we're going to have Washington Marriott Marquis Hotel online in 2014.

The Washington Convention and Sports Authority is now known as Events DC. Explain why the organization went through a rebranding process.
We went through this rebranding effort to better describe all the events, activities, and missions of our organization. We also wanted to better align ourselves with all of the other entities responsible for hospitality in the city and with the branding for the city, so we went through an exercise not only to better describe our purpose as an organization, but also align us as an industry.

How did you get the message out? What were some of the more effective ways you were able to communicate?
We had a number of very high-impact launch events at the end of June for the rebrand. We invited not only local stakeholders, but obviously customers and members of the industry so we could articulate the reasoning behind the branding.

We're now in the process of the other elements of the campaign, which include traditional methods, online and social media channels, and events. We're going to be very aggressive in the next three months and for the remainder of our fiscal year.

One example on the sports side is a football game we've created called The Nation's Football Classic, which is played between historically black colleges and is being kicked off by Morehouse from Atlanta and Howard University here in Washington, DC. It's a rivalry game that we're rekindling a bit that will be played in September. In addition to promoting that game, it's also a good opportunity for us to promote the rebranding of our organization.

Are you running any other big initiatives?
RFK Stadium is one of our assets where we do some event programming. Most notably, we host the Major League Soccer team DC United there. This year happens to be the 50th anniversary of RFK, so we have a whole program that we're developing to celebrate. There will be specific elements and event activities associated with that campaign, but again we will be leveraging that opportunity to roll out our branding.

Another example is the visitor center. We just acquired a building that we're going to control. It's the old historic Carnegie Library and we're going to roll out a state-of-the-art visitor center there. This is something that will support not only the leisure, but the convention market, as well.

How has the rebranding shaped internal and external partnering?
We've been through this merger for a year and a half, so we feel as though we're now mature, at least in terms of some of the coordinated activities we have.

We still have distinct divisions. We have a convention and meetings division; we have a sports and entertainment division; and now we've created a third, which is a special events division that really captures all of the different partnerships we have.

Even when we don't host an event ourselves, we still make strategic investments and partnerships. A good example is the National Cherry Blossom Festival. We have a marketing partnership with the festival and are a major sponsor. It's a huge event in the spring with about 1 million visitors, half of which are from outside the DC area. The event has a huge economic impact for us.

What are customers looking for with conventions? Have you seen any changes?
It's all about value with our customers, more so than ever before. In my estimation, there's less of a subjective process from our customers when it comes to selecting a destination and more about how much value objectively they can get when they hold their event here.

Traditionally, we basically act as a host, but we collectively, as a destination, are really trying to roll up our sleeves and help our customers market their events to make sure they get the attendees they want. Any way we can add value, we're going to try to help our customers because their success is our success. We want them to come back.

You've just hosted the Fancy Food Show, which attracted more than 20,000 convention attendees. What are some other priorities on the convention side of the business?
Our current focus on internationals is very important to us. Destination DC, as our marketing arm, has done a great job of focusing on the international leisure side, but something we haven't focused on was the international convention business. We've made an investment through Destination DC to build that infrastructure and start attracting that business.

Or example, we recently signed a joint marketing agreement with Visit Brussels. Brussels is very similar to Washington, DC, because it is the capital of the EU and there are a ton of international associations based in the city. Washington is the capital of the US, home of the federal government, and has more than 2,500 associations based here. We will go to trade shows together. When we go to Brussels they will set up meetings and dinners with their customers and we will do the same when they come here.

On the leisure side, we also signed an agreement with Rome specifically targeting things that will help attract more leisure business for both cities. Signage on government building or signs on taxi cabs and buses are the types of things we can exchange to help market each city.

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