IRV Day 3 –Tourism Panel – Getting at the Heart of a Region

IRV Day 3 –Tourism Panel – Getting at the Heart of a Region

In the Works Theatre at the Carnegie Science Center, the Hampton Roads delegates continued to learn what makes Pittsburgh tick. Just like everything else that has contributed to the region’s success, a strong foundation for tourism came from collaboration. Bringing together experts from VisitPITTSBURGH, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and the Air Service Development, the tourism boom Pittsburgh has experienced is a team effort.

Jason Fulvi, Executive Vice President of VisitPITTSBURGH, shared their organizations aspirational mission, “Life would not be complete without visiting Pittsburgh.” This is the story that they tell to get people to visit, stay overnight, and spend money. “We are marketing Pittsburgh for the world,” Fulvi said. Part of telling Pittsburgh’s story is getting help from the media. VisitPITTSBURGH invites 200-250 travel writers a year to the area. As a result of these visits, Harper’s Bazzar rated Pittsburgh fourth best city on the rise. Zagats declared Pittsburgh to the be the best “foodie city” in the nation. “We took that and we ran with the marketing for that. Here, we are Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a foodie destination,” Fulvi said.

So, why is Pittsburgh hot? Fulvi outlined their world class hotels, impressive convention sales numbers, the fact that many people are just finding out what Pittsburgh has to offer, and the legacy of being a sports town. “The real special sauce is the collaboration. We had problems, but everyone gets together and gets a say on how to fix it. We had to diversify our portfolio. When there’s a problem, we really the wagons and all come together to find solutions,” said Fulvi. This takes elected officials, organizations and businesses working together toward continued transformation.

Fulvi added that making sure their downtown was safe and walkable and having an energized airport have been key as well. “I have been in this industry for 32 years and I have never seen the collaboration with the airport that I have here. Our tourism success is a result of that collaboration. We continue to look at how we provide collaborative efforts for all the counties not just those in Allegheny, but to the north and south as well.”

Rona Nesbit, Executive Vice President of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (PCT) discussed the importance of exposure to the arts. The PCT is a public-private partnership founded 30 years ago to redevelop what was the “red light district” in Pittsburgh. In the mid 1980’s, Jack Heinz had a vision of urban renewal through the arts and worked to create what is now the Cultural District. “The Heinz vision took faded elegance and lovingly, and carefully restored these buildings to their original design,” said Nesbit. The result is a thriving cultural center with nine theatres. These stunning buildings were built from the 1860’s to the 1920’s and have been restored to their former grandeur, thanks to the Heinz trust and other philanthropic efforts. Blank walls transformed into art murals, adult book stores and other noxious use venues were transformed into performance centers, comedy clubs, art galleries and a children’s theatre. The results were a completely renewed 14 block area with rotating public art. “We wanted to create a sense of place, where you know you are in the cultural district,” Nesbit said.

“Many of the buildings have been dedicated to educational programs. You hear about collaboration partnership a lot when talking about Pittsburgh. The arts has the collaborative efforts of leaders who could imagine a different version of their city to thank for the success of the cultural district. It’s important to have something that appeals to everyone, and we have free and family friendly events as well as international festivals. We import the art, we want to enrich our own community. We also work to incubate up and coming artists so they can create the arts of tomorrow,” said Nesbit.

Bryan Dietz, Vice President, of Air Service Development, shared the impact the airport has on tourism. It is evident when you touch down at Pittsburgh International Airport, that Pittsburgh is a unique and exciting destination. “Airports are the first and last impression of a place,” Dietz said.

Even though Pittsburgh International no longer has an airline hub at their airport they have worked to attract airlines. “Air service development is a form of economic development. Here in Pittsburgh, we know what that means, and what it means when you don’t have that. Airlines don’t serve airports they serve markets. We can have the best runways and concessions, but unless there’s a draw no one is coming to an airport to see the airport,” said Dietz.

Again, what makes this possible, collaboration. “We spend the majority of our time outside of Pittsburgh. What we have to do is work on behalf of the region and in conjunction to act as an extension of the region. If the cultural trust has an event going on we let the airlines know they may want to create capacity. The aviation industry changed dramatically since 9/11 and we had to understand that the hub, (U.S. Airways) was not coming back to Pittsburgh. We had to shift our thinking and become a destination market instead just like Orlando, Boston or Portland,” said Dietz

The Air Service Development has worked extensively on marketing how to bring people to the region. In their research they found China to be part of the largest growing middle class and they strategically invested in marketing to China. They know have flights going directly to Shanghai. “We decided to invest in China, so they could have the authentic American experience in Pittsburgh,” said Dietz the market, rather than maybe doing another project at the airport. They have also doubled the number of nonstop destinations and focused on international destinations to tell the story of Pittsburgh.

The airport includes a children’s playground, pop-up bars, exhibits from the Carnegie museum, local art, references to Andy Warhol and Fred Rogers and all that makes Pittsburgh a destination, so that when you land you are excited and ready to explore. “What it comes down to is collaborative spirit. It’s not about us, it’s about the airlines. How do we get airlines excited about coming here,” asked Dietz. This is a question they have worked hard to answer and their airport which was rated second in the world behind Hong Kong in 2017 is a clear sign, they are doing something right.

When the panelists were asked about how they were so successful in shifting the culture from individualistic to collaborative, Jason Fulvi said, “This didn’t happen overnight. It took several major events to change that. We hosted the G20 summit in 2009, and whether or not we were the right place for that, what it did was bring this community together.  Everyone sat at the table and said, this thing is coming, we need to show up and set the tone, and we need to do this more often. We continue this. We get together regularly to say what are you working on, how can I help?”

Nesbit said, “The first few years were rocky, but we had to keep at it and keep cheerleading it. What’s essential is these monthly meetings, developing a sense of trust and understanding every organization has had to compromise to some degree, but this is about something bigger than us.”

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