Kevin Kane will gladly run the numbers for you.
As President and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, he is all about the digits: dollar figures, rankings, crowd flow, ticket buyers, economic impact and all.
One interesting number is 26 – the number of years he’s been at the helm of the CVB. That’s a long time to stick around in that kind of job, but the Memphis-born, Memphis-raised smooth booster is all Memphis all the time.
Kane uses the word “great” a lot and takes a back seat to no one when it comes to touting the city. He’s also realistic.
“We take negative happenings in our city as personally as if it was happening to our own family,” he says. “We bleed for Memphis. We bleed the Memphis product. And what Memphis represents. Yeah, we’ve got some room for improvement but we’ve got a lot more things going right for us than going wrong.”
The CVB works on several levels to put Memphis in the best light. “We have really been able to fine-tune, hone, mature, and really promote the brand and the brand appeal and target the potential visitor bases for this area,” Kane says. “The Convention & Visitors Bureau is about driving revenue. We don’t just hand out brochures with pretty pictures and say come visit our attractions. We’re very strategic in what we do.”
The heart of the CVB’s operation is convincing organizations to hold events in Memphis. Key to that is its management of the Cook Convention Center and the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. The wholly owned subsidiary to CVB is the Memphis Management Group, which handles both facilities. “By us doing the marketing and management of facilities, it really allows us to promote ourselves as a real one-stop shop for events and groups and conferences that want to come to the city,” Kane says.
The reality of the industry is that conferences and tournaments require incentives to come to a particular market. “They don’t usually just go to a city because the city may have facilities or because the city’s in a good location,” Kane says. “Usually somebody has helped with bid fees, helped with incentives, helped with promotions to lure those events to the community. The reason communities pay for those events is because when you fill up your hotels, all of those people have to go out to eat, they want to go shopping, they want to visit your attractions. It just feeds the whole cycle of what this industry is all about.”
There remain challenges, though, with the convention center built in 1973 being the biggest. “In the next few months, we’ll be doing probably an $80 million to $90 million upgrade, modernizing and bringing that facility into the 21st century the best that we can,” Kane says. “We think that what we are proposing doing over the next two and a half years on the convention center will be transforming. It will certainly help keep us competitive in the meetings and conventions marketplace.”
There are limits to what can be done. It’s not realistic to try to compete with the Nashville Music City Center, a 2.1 million square foot facility that opened in 2013 and, at $623 million, is the most expensive municipal-financed civic project in the state’s history.
These days, the Convention Center stays reasonably busy. In 2016 there were 40 “dark” days, meaning that it was buzzing with some sort of activity more than 320 days.
Kane says it has the largest ballroom in the Mid-South at 27,000-square-feet and the largest air-conditioned, covered main hall with 125,000-square-feet of column-free space.
Kane says the improvements will give it a new look and feel. If it’s now a fairly typical 70s-era concrete block, basic building where people simply convene and conduct business, the new version will be more twenty-first century. “Contemporary facilities have shifted more to almost hotel quality finishes,” he says. “These are places where people can gather informally, more with a personality of the community and certainly trying to incorporate more of the outdoors, more glass, more vistas, taking advantage of our waterfront, our ridge, our natural beauty that is around the building right now that you really can’t see if you’re in there because there’s very few windows and very few places to look out.”
The building, he says, won’t be a lot bigger but will be more functional, flexible, and efficient.
Another key consideration is that the Nashville complex is surrounded by big hotels, a situation in which Memphis falls short.
“We need some larger hotels,” Kane says. “It’s one of the challenges we have, especially when it comes to the big group business. We’ve done a lot of research that shows that we’re very under served when it comes to the big full-service hotels. We only have one hotel over 500 rooms — the Sheraton, at 600 rooms. And we only have five hotels larger than 300 rooms in all of Shelby County, and that’s counting the Guest House at Graceland. That’s a real challenge for us when it comes to the group business when we want to bring in large groups and conferences. Planners want to bring in as many people under one roof as possible so they don’t have their delegates and attendees spread out in 20 different hotels.”
So the push is on to get a hotel or hotels that can bring that about. Kane says he’s met with a hotel consultant hired by the city in hopes that the ball can get rolling in earnest.
“For big hotels, in order to make them work, you probably have to give some type of public incentives to make them work — the land, the parking, some type of tax incentive,” Kane says. “I think the city recognizes that public incentives with a big box hotel is something they have to do.”
To attract both leisure and business sectors, the CVB works with a number of other entities in the theory that everybody benefits one way or another.
“We’ve had a relationship with the Mississippi Department of Tourism & Economic Development for over 20 years,” Kane says. “We have a very strong strategic international marketing relationship because Mississippi needs us and quite honestly we need the assets and amenities that they have to offer with the Mississippi Delta rich blues music heritage.”
The CVB works with the Tennessee Department of Tourism, of course, but also with the cities of Nashville, New Orleans, and Atlanta. “We market and sell internationally, the Memphis and the Mid-South region,” Kane says. “We sell it as a whole section of the country, and it works. We’ll have over a million visitors this year from outside the United States. Our strongest international markets are Canada, the UK, and Australia. As a result of that, earlier this year, we hired a full-time sales and marketing representative for us. He’s based in New Zealand and he spends his time in New Zealand and Australia, working that whole market for us because the folks from Down Under feel right at home in the South. The Southern culture really resonates with them.”
The range of activities and services done by the CVB is wide, beginning with reaching out to potential visitors.
“We have a whole effort that we do toward the masses,” Kane says. “We go after mom, dad, the kids, the seniors with our websites, publications, television commercials, radio spots, and all the outreach that we do.”
Beyond that is a team of sales people who target national travel planners, corporations, meetings, trade shows, and conferences in the hope that Memphis might host those events.
Kane says that one thing that separates the CVB from a Google or Expedia, is that, “we can pick up the phone and get the mayor to come welcome your group to the city. We can get a street closed if you’re having a special little party. We can make things happen to make your experience memorable and special. I’m not sure a lot of third parties in other parts of the country can know how to push all the buttons in the city and get the same results, especially as quickly and efficiently as we can.”
CVB’s leisure group side in the tour and travel market industry targets people who do excursions, to, for example, Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum. Much of that work is done at national and international trade shows directly with operators to get them hotel deals.
“We have a whole dedicated area towards an operation called Memphis Sports Council targeting the amateur and youth sports market,” Kane says. “We work to lure everything from working with the University on getting NCAA Regionals here to youth baseball, soccer, gymnastics, cheerleading, fencing, volleyball, and so on.”
Marketing and promotions is another effort entirely, pushing brand awareness, national campaigns and media.
“We also have a whole team of people that do nothing except work with journalists and videographers,” Kane says. These are the people that come to do news and feature stories on, for example, Elvis week and next year’s 50th anniversary events surrounding Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
“We track just about every story in the planet where Memphis is mentioned or featured, we get a report on it,” he says. “We keep up with the positive and the negative images that come up on the destination. We work the PR and the communications angle very, very impressively.”
There’s also social media, including the well known “I Love Memhis” blog that’s been around for several years. “We were one of the first marketing, tourism organizations to hire a full-time blogger and give them total independence,” Kane says. “If you’re going to blog, you can’t be ‘You’ve got to promote only members of the Bureau and people that support us.’ They have total independence to speak freely in the blog about their experiences and their perceptions. We get some heat from that sometimes, but it keeps it real and as a result of that, it’s trusted and it’s a source a lot of people lean on and find useful information. The digital side of what we do is really becoming financially a much bigger and bigger piece of the pie where we’re spending our resources on. The sheer numbers that you can reach through the digital platforms out there are huge. Social and digital are obviously a very, very important part of what we do.”
The CVB also runs three Visitor’s Centers around Shelby County. “I don’t know how much longer those will be relevant,” Kane says. “They still service hundreds of thousands of people but I think the day’s coming where everything is becoming so mobile that they may be going to the Visitor’s Center to just use the rest room. The centers are in areas where you can buy attractions tickets or various things. Obviously they may have a little bit longer of a shelf life, but I don’t know how long we will continue with them.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
In 2023, the CVB will be 100 years old. Kane would like to welcome the organization’s new century with a list of ongoing changes, not the least of which is the improved convention center and a couple of big hotels nearby.
Other changes he’s hoping to see include better international air service with an improved airport and a re-imagined and more vibrant riverfront. The airport changes are underway but he’s like to see more movement along the riverfront. “I think we do a pretty bad job giving people access to the river and taking advantage of the fact we have a body of water.”
Kane says the development of outdoor recreational tourism in the past decade has made Memphis a player with Shelby Farms, the Greenline, and the Big River Crossing. “We’ve got this unbelievable opportunity for people that want to take advantage of cycling and jogging and canoeing and kayaking. We’ve got these elements there and we’re really starting to flesh them out and enhance them and make them as visitor friendly as possible.”
And there are the aspects of the city that have long been troubling. “I look forward to the day when we have a city where crime and poverty don’t always tend to dominate the conversation,” he says. “The more that we can bring people out of poverty and get more people in the part of society it will help having this community operate a lot more functionally. There are a lot of people from the public, the private, and the philanthropic side working very diligently to try to address a lot of these issues. Look at what the Chairman’s Circle is doing at the Greater Memphis Chamber with the cleaning issue with eradicating blight, developing more entrepreneurs. Look at some of their key new mission activities. Those things all fall into making us a stronger destination to attract visitors and improvements to the city.”
PAYING FOR IT
Kane says some residents may not be clear on how the CVB is funded. “Our funding comes from hotel taxes. We are not draining or living off the general fund tax dollars of residents of the citizens of Memphis.”
Even the ambitious plans, such as renovating the convention center, will largely be paid for through tourism development and some hotel license tax revenues. “We’re basically being paid for by the visitor,” he says. “And the improvements to the airport are being paid for by airplane landing fees and contributions from the federal government.”
“This is such a clean and pure industry that really works tirelessly on behalf of the citizens of Shelby County,” Kane says. “There are times when the city will invest in a park or invest or add money to the Zoo or into Beale Street or wherever, but some of those things are expected just to have the quality of life for the citizens that live here too. Where would we be as a community if you took all the amenities away? You may have a lot of people that brag that they’ve never been to Graceland or that they’ve never been to the National Civil Rights Museum or they’ve never been on a riverboat. Take all of those things out of here and what kind of city would we have? What would the city really be like if you didn’t have those unbelievable amenities that we have?”
For Kane, it’s very much about selling one of the best packages ever. “We show the best that Memphis has to offer,” he says. “It’s our food. It’s our musical legacy. It’s our entertainment. It’s our culture. It’s these one-of-a-kind, unique amenities that you can’t find or replicate anyplace else. We are very blessed in this region to have an overabundance of these things.”