Travel & Tourism: Cleveland & Akron

Scripting Success
Cleveland’s branding strategy is ringing up growth
by Lynne Thompson

The most recent numbers posted by the U.S. Travel Association provide a pretty picture postcard of Greater Cleveland travel and tourism. David Gilbert, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit convention-and-visitors bureau Destination Cleveland, confirms that the area attracted 18.5 million leisure- and business-travel visits in 2017, a 2.3 percent increase over those in 2016. That figure exceeds hikes of 2 percent in visits to Ohio and 1.9 percent in domestic U.S. travel tallied for the same period.

“That was the eighth straight year that, on a percentage basis, the growth in the number of visits grew higher than the state or national average,” he reports. “It’s pretty exciting because it shows that travel and tourism is a very significant growth industry [in northeast Ohio] by that measure and by other measures.”

David Gilbert

A survey conducted by Tourism Economics shows that tourism accounted for $8.8 billion in regional economic impact.

Gilbert attributes the increase to the marketing of a brand developed seven years ago, one that he says physically manifests itself in the half-dozen script “Cleveland” signs installed in photo-worthy locations around the city. He describes the brand as “sophisticated grit—world-class experiences without world-class ego” and the feeling evoked by the marketing of those experiences around the city’s name. Cleveland, he adds, has hosted a number of high-profile events such as the Republican National Convention and NBA Finals, successes that have helped attract other big draws such as the 2019 MLB All-Star Game, the 2022 NBA All-Star Game and 2024 NCAA Women’s Final Four.

But he stresses that Cleveland “cannot take [its] foot off the gas,” particularly in highly competitive regional drive markets. He cites the continuing challenge of marketing to the much-desired demographic of millennials in an age of highly targeted media. The age group is more open to exploring new vacation destinations than older travelers who tend to return to the same place year after year. And millennials are also less likely to harbor Rust Belt-era perceptions.

“Burning River, to them, is a beer, not a joke about Cleveland,” Gilbert quips, then becomes more serious. “We are establishing a perception with them when [they] may not have one versus changing a perception as an audience generally gets older,” he says.

The best way to establish a favorable perception or change an unfavorable one, Gilbert says, is to get travelers to visit Cleveland. To reach its goal of attracting 20 million annual visits by 2020, Destination Cleveland is employing a number of strategies. A “Visit Me in CLE” campaign is tapping into locals’ increasing passion for their community by encouraging them to invite friends and family to visit. The campaign, which launched last August, was at press time slated to culminate in June with a “Visit Me in CLE” weekend of activities and attractions for residents and their out-of-town guests.

“Visiting friends and family is the No. 1 reason that people visit … most cities in America if [they’re] not a Vegas or Orlando or sort of a peer tourist destination,” Gilbert notes.

Workshops also are being conducted to foster local entrepreneurs’ and businesses’ creation of the “authentic experiences” millennials crave. Those can include offerings such as the existing opportunity to spend a night in the house used to film the holiday classic A Christmas Story. Perhaps most notable, however, is the bureau’s developing plan to expand its mission by helping local businesses and organizations attract and retain people as well as forge longer-term relationships with the travelers making those 18.5 million visits a year. Gilbert notes that the effort is essential in a city still fighting an unfavorable image, albeit an outdated, inaccurate one. 

The annual Father’s Day Car Show at Stan Hywet draws in visitors from across the state.

Father’s Day at Stan Hywet Hall
The annual Father’s Day Car Show at Stan Hywet draws in visitors from across the state.
By Jill Sell

The 20 millionth Ford, a 1931 Ford Model A, rolled off the assembly line at Dearborn, Michigan, in 1931. Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, were on hand for the ceremony. The Slant Window Town Sedan wound its way across America on a two-year goodwill tour.

The ’30s were tough times for Americans in the Great Depression. But the manufacture of Fords and other vehicles with great styling was a source of pride for a tired country.

While the 20 millionth Model A won’t be in attendance, you can see other beautiful vehicles from the early ’30s at the Inner Circle of the upcoming 62nd annual Classic, Antique and Collector’s Car Show in Akron, presented with the Ohio Region Classic Car Club of America. The annual Father’s Day Show is one of two major vehicle shows held at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens this year. The second is the seventh annual Molto Bella Auto Show in September.

The Father’s Day Car Show generates $70,000 in economic impact for Stan Hywet alone. But the event’s financial and educational arms reach much farther than the estate’s decorative entrance gates, says Gregg Mervis, president and CEO, Akron/Summit Convention & Visitors Bureau. He points to the car show at Stan Hywet as the kind of event that “allows us to tell distinct chapters of the Greater Akron history.

“Equally important, events like this contribute to our thriving local hospitality economy when visitors spend money on dining, entertainment, shopping and overnight accommodations,” says Mervis.

Gregg Mervis

According to June 2018 Tourism Economics, Summit County’s hospitality industry’s direct visitor expenditures totaled $1.59 billion, including Stan Hywet’s impact. But Stan Hywet is just one of many attractions the Greater Akron Area offers, including: Hale Farm & Village, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, an expanded Akron Art Museum, Blossom Music Center, Akron Civic Theatre, EJ Thomas Hall, and Lock3/Lock4 among numerous others. Sports fans can cheer on the Akron RubberDucks at Canal Park or catch the Akron Zips’ sports teams as well.

But for many families in Ohio, Father’s Day at Stan Hywet is a tradition. According to President and Executive Director Sean Joyce, in recent years about 8,000 people attend the show, making it the single day largest attended event each year for the estate. (In 2018 Stan Hywet welcomed a record total of 137,000 guests.) Joyce said more young people and children are also attending the car show in recent years, taking advantage of the family-friendly activities Stan Hywet now offers, like the pedal car racetrack and the Playgarden.

“To me, the highlight of the event is the parade of cars coming in,” says Joyce. “Our neighbors put their chairs along Portage Path and watch the cars come in early morning. It’s pretty cool.”

At this year’s Father’s Day Show, ten circle cars are featured, including Fords, Packards, Lincolns and Buicks. An additional 450 vehicles dating from 1915 to 1994, will be parked Sunday, June 16, on the beautiful grounds of the historic country estate in Akron. The 70-acre property is the former home of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. co-founder F. A. Seibring and his family.

“This show is for authentic, non-modified cars. No hot rods,” says Dave Henrichs, Inner Circle committee chairman and owner of Heinrichs Vintage Car Shop in Columbia Station. “I grew up in the hobby. My father started going to Stan Hywet in 1974 with his 1917 Winton. Car owners really like going there.”

Stan Hywet is also presenting the seventh annual Molto Bella Auto Show, September 15. The invitational show, in partnership with The Summit County Kidney Foundation, showcases more than 400 cars. Exotic sports cars, rare classics and custom cars are spotlighted. Both events shows feature entertainment and tours of the Manor House and grounds. n