Four thought-provoking themes from City Nation Place Americas 2022

After two years of virtual conferences, we were excited to be in Pittsburgh this week for our first in-person City Nation Place Americas since 2019! Not only was it wonderful to meet old friends and make new ones, we also heard from a line-up of trailblazing industry leaders how place branding is evolving to face new challenges and take advantages of new opportunities. It’s always a challenge to summarise a day and a half’s worth of content into a single article (the wine at the after party almost certainly didn’t help!), but here are our key takeaways from the conference.

What makes a legendary place brand

There was – of course – a lot of discussion around what makes a truly great and effective place brand. Scott Beck, President & CEO at Tourism Toronto, suggested that “it’s not about us creating a brand. Toronto is the brand – we just need to lean into it.” Places who can move beyond sharing ‘what’ they are and focus instead on the ‘why’ will likely have a much bigger impact. Your place brand is essentially your reputation, how your place is perceived by the people who live there, who might visit, or who might invest, and this will be based on assets and people and values. Place branding is the strategic process of understanding what your brand is, understanding if there’s a disconnect between how those who live there and those who don’t perceive your place, having a vision for how you want to be perceived and putting in place the investment and policies need to create those changes. And a place brand platform is the communication of that reputation and that vision.

However, as destination marketing, economic development and place brand organisations, it’s important to be flexible and fast-reacting, predictive and aware, and to embrace innovation and disruption in your operation. In his keynote speech, Adam Burke, President & CEO of Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board said that “we need to become our own disruptor rather than waiting for something else to disrupt us,” and that sentiment will allow our industry to be far more resilient to future crises.

Destination marketing is economic development. Economic development is destination marketing.

Increasingly, the lines between destination marketing and economic development are becoming blurred, and it’s never been more important – or timely – to collaborate effectively with the other key stakeholders within your place. As the visitor economy drives recovery for cities across the USA and Canada, destination marketing is becoming a force for economic development. And as employers increasingly prioritise what their employees would want from a place of residence, economic development is becoming destination marketing. Mark Arend, Editor-in-Chief of the Site Selection Magazine, highlighted that “what’s changing in site selection is the growing importance of what matters to employees, as well as to employers.”

By collaborating between all your place reputation stewards, you can create a far more effective and impactful strategy. As Michael Heckman, President & CEO at Houston First, shared – “we all have different messages, but it has to come from the same brand essence.”

The talent market is in a stage of transformation and cities need to prepare for the future.

According to Whitney Lee, Senior Client Solutions Manager – Marketing Solutions at LinkedIn, 87% of employees would prefer to remain remote at least half of the time, and job changing us up 37% amidst the great reshuffle. In a world where an increasing proportion of the population works remotely, cities need to change their proposition. If cities aren’t spaces that people have to visit for work, then you have to create more spaces for people to live and cultural attractiveness to encourage people to spend their leisure time there. We heard from Michael Edwards, President and CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance, that the District now sees itself as a “social district” more than a business district.

However, beyond rethinking the purpose of districts and downtowns, you also need to understand and refine your quality-of-life proposition. With talented individuals able to work from anywhere with reliable WiFi – and large companies such as AirBnB announcing that they will be working remotely full-time – cities and regions will increasingly be targeting individuals rather than organisations.

To do that, you have to be able to demonstrate a compelling reason to choose your place to live in over any other. If you can do this, you’ll also strengthen your tourism industry. As Adam Burke, President & CEO of Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, stated, “we need to become resident-centric organisations, because what’s good for residents is good for visitors – and the reverse isn’t always true.”

Destinations need to seek out and amplify diverse stories to ensure their place narrative is representative of their population.

At the beginning of the conference, Mayor Ed Gainey of the City of Pittsburgh stated that “if you’re not diverse, how are you going to compete globally?” and across the two days we heard a number of great strategies from places who are looking to break down barriers and raise up all members of their community.

Patrick Seeb, Executive Director of Destination Medical Center in Rochester, explained how they’re prioritising community co-design within their strategy and are breaking down barriers to participation by paying participants for their time so that those who would be unable to take time off work or pay for someone to watch the children can still participate. Several other speakers highlighted that they have waived membership fees for black and minority-owned businesses to ensure they’re able to access support systems. Bethany Hartley, Chief Strategy Officer at South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership, said “it’s great to hear all the data points, but it’s the stories that stick,” and the importance of amplifying voices from across the community was clear in the work of Martha Sheridan, Greater Boston CVB, Rachel Ferguson, Visit Philadelphia, Cleo Battle, Louisville Tourism, and our international guests, Nick Hill and Helen Te Hira of Tātaki Auckland Unlimited.

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The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.