How a Focus on Public Policy Got One DMO $500 Million

Creating one of the first positions of its kind, San Francisco Travel hired Jon Ballesteros as SVP of Public Policy. His office works with the Mayor’s Office, Office of Economic & Workforce Development, and other city departments to better understand the visitor experience in San Francisco.

“We act as the voice of the visitor, and oftentimes when visitors come, they encounter something that will either enhance their travel to San Francisco or impede them from coming back, yet there was no real interaction with policymakers before,” says Ballesteros. “One of the major public/private partnerships that we were very active in and helped push through was the expansion of the Moscone Convention Center. It was a $500 million project that we got through the board of supervisors without any major opposition and without any appeal votes, which is almost unheard of in San Francisco for a development.”

Ballesteros’ job is to educate government officials and policymakers on the impact that their decisions could have on the visitor, and thus the travel and tourism industry as a whole. He adds that his role is rare, with only a few colleagues at other major DMOs, such as Jack Johnson at Choose Chicago and Patti MacJennett at Discover Los Angeles.

Greater Detroit CVB has a great comeback story after an almost apocalyptic bankruptcy following the downturn of the automotive industry. Led by billionaire Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, and the Ilitch family, owners of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, the resurgence of Detroit is well underway with a dramatic rise in convention bookings in 2014.

The DMO is leveraging that story and building networks of business leaders such as Gilbert and General Motors CEO Mary Barra, who speak at industry events about business development and leadership.

“The one thing that each major convention that comes to town needs, whether it’s corporate or association, they like to have speakers coming out of the Detroit market,” explains Bill Bodhe, SVP of sales/marketing for the Detroit Metro CVB. “We have a plethora of high profile people and organizations, such as Dan Gilbert with Quicken Loans, who’s done so much for our city by buying up 60 buildings. He and his staff are readily at hand to speak about Detroit and its renaissance.”

Due to the bankruptcy, there’s been a fervent groundswell of young local entrepreneurs banding together in a grassroots effort to save their city. These are a driven group of people who are making a real impact in their city, and they’re also available to meet with groups to speak about themes of resilience and innovation.

“You’ve got a lot of different dynamics going on in Detroit right now,” says Ted Balowski, founder of the Hatch Detroit business accelerator. “You have sort of the large scale things like Detroit Venture Partners and Dan Gilbert…. But then below that you have this whole uprising of artists and creatives and independent retailers and small business people working really hard to sort of fill the gap.”

Just one example of the local pool of young entrepreneurs available to speak in Detroit, Phillip Cooley has been influential in revitalizing Detroit’s Corktown. He now owns two restaurants in the area—Slows BBQ and Gold Cash Gold—and also the nonprofit PonyRide, an incubator for entrepreneurs and artists. His wife Kate Bordine is Creative Director at PonyRide and she’s a partner at Our/ Detroit Vodka distillery.

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Greg Oates

Greg Oates is an Editor at Skift.com exploring the convergence of tourism, urban & economic development.