Four thought-provoking themes from City Nation Place Americas 2021

It’s staggering to see how far we have come since the early days of the pandemic when we held our last City Nation Place Americas conference. Last week, we welcomed over 300 leaders of place branding, destination marketing, and economic development organisations across North America for two days of inspirational and thought-provoking discussions on how places can adapt and evolve to meet the new realities we’re facing.

It was a challenge boiling the conference down to just a few key takeaways, but these are the four themes that resonated most for us throughout the conference:

Collaboration is the key to strengthening our places.

City Nation Place was founded on a belief that for a place brand strategy to be effective, destination marketing and economic development organisations need to be collaborating together. And it was great to see the strength of this conviction resonating throughout the conference. In particular, the last year has served to reinforce the importance of tourism as an economic driver for cities. “It took our industry virtually disappearing to become visible,” proclaimed Royce Chwin, President & CEO of Tourism Vancouver, a sentiment that was echoed by Visit Seattle’s President & CEO, Tom Norwalk, as he highlighted the opportunity to reset with a more collaborative focus.

However, places are also looking at building collaborative relationships with partners outside their destinations. Dave Herrell, President & CEO at Visit Quad Cities declared that “you’ve got to break down the walls of parochialism” as he detailed efforts to combine messaging behind a regional brand that would enable them to create greater impact.

Community engagement has always been the foundation of a successful  strategy – but now places are working to engage their community as their key storytellers.

For many place brand organisations, last year was a crash-course in refocussing attention inward as much of the external promotion was halted. As we emerge from the pandemic, places are looking to grow the community pride seen during the crisis. Andrea Haley of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development & Tourism shared how they developed their place brand in continual dialogue with their citizens. By listening to feedback and continually refining the strategy, they developed a narrative that reflected everyone’s experience; this momentum is being continued through an extended ambassador programme. Kansas City Area Development Council’s Jonathan Knecht also outlined how they build community pride in the place brand by leaning into the existing support for the KC Heart symbol.

These lessons are now becoming an integral element to place brand strategies for many destinations across North America, as national conversations around diversity, inclusion, and equitable development lead place branders to address community engagement in a new light. “We cannot be attractive if we’re not authentic,” shared Stephanie Clovechok, President & CEO at Tourism Saskatoon, as she outlined how they work in tandem with local indigenous groups to ensure that their actions have the full support of the community. “What I say needs to resonate with my community, and that my community need to see themselves reflected in our message.”

Al Hutchinson, President & CEO at Visit Baltimore, mirrored this sentiment: “We started discussing how do we better tell the Baltimore story about 18 months ago. We invited people to the table who were historically not always invited to the table… We felt it important that if we wanted to change our story, we had to do it from the perspective of our number one customer – and that’s our residents.”

Place branding has to take a ‘warts and all’ approach.

Many of our speakers highlighted the importance of intentionally incorporating different perspectives at the table – both to lead by example, and to create a stronger organisation through a diverse set of perspectives. But being bold enough to address your challenges head on, to vocalise the difficulties you’re working to overcome is critical to delivering real authenticity in your strategy and in making real change.

“I fundamentally believe that economic success will come to those who remove barriers and reduce those economic disparities,” explained Kelly Brough, President & CEO at Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “When we realised that it was not hurting us in our economic strategy to acknowledge our weaknesses but to acknowledge what we were going to do to fix them, we started to position ourselves to reduce disparity faster than other regions… I think that sells. I don’t think it makes us weaker, I think it makes us stronger.”

It takes long-term vision to be able to make long-term and meaningful change, however. “Solutions will not happen by themselves, and they won’t happen just because people are of good will,” outlined Mayor Steve Adler of the City of Austin. “You have to recognise that the systems themselves need to be changed in order to provide people with greater opportunities. Equality does not work in an environment where large parts of your population don’t have the family wealth that other parts of the community have, no matter how equal you’re willing to treat everyone. Recognising the difference between equality and equity, I think you begin to have a different way to assess your institutions and systems.”

We need to rethink the shape of our cities to build a  more resilient future.

Part of addressing disparities within our places needs to be tackled through a placemaking approach, ensuring that socially disadvantaged communities are able to access key amenities easily and without being out priced by nearby developments. Mayor Knox White of the City of Greenville shared how the City has been reserving land around the site of the new park development to protect affordable housing in the region: “We knew we had issues of gentrification before the pandemic… Now we’re building a new park, we had to do things differently.”

Rethinking the future of our cities was a theme that resonated throughout many discussions, particularly as lockdowns and new working trends have highlighted vulnerabilities in downtown areas. With offices empty, downtowns are being challenged to diversify to create footfall beyond the 9-5 working day, and mixed-use development is critical in this effort. “We built a baseball stadium downtown,” explained Mayor Knox White, “and one of the first things we said was that we wanted to include residential in the plans. And it means that the stadium never goes dark.”

By incorporating residential into traditionally business or commercial-centric areas, places are able to catalyse a wave of urban development and vibrancy by making the area more attractive for investment.

Interested in  finding out more? Purchase the post-event content package to get unlimited  access to two days of inspiring discussions, presentations, and case studies.

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