by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | February 01, 2008

BaltimoreSacramento, Calif.Fort Worth, Texas

The cities of (from left) Baltimore; Sacramento, Calif.; and Fort Worth, Texas, have pooled resources to form an effective marketing alliance.




Lately, some rather diverse and far-flung American cities are being mentioned in the same breath -- and at first glance, the groupings don’t seem to make much sense. Consider the following:

* Hartford, Conn.; Madison, Wis.; and Spokane, Wash.

* Milwaukee; Pittsburgh; and Portland, Ore.

* Baltimore; Fort Worth, Texas; and Sacramento, Calif.

* San Jose, Calif., and Virginia Beach, Va.

Where these easily can be mistaken for head-to-head, full-combat city rivalries, they actually represent arm-in-arm marketing alliances. And they are springing up across the country as increasing numbers of convention and visitor bureaus see the benefit of forging partnerships and pooling resources to present themselves as a package option.

“As the competition grows more fierce, you have to look for innovative ways to bring groups to your destination, and collaboration is just that,” says Krista Flanagan, vice president of sales and marketing for the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, which spent eight months forging its alliance with Hartford and Spokane.

The concept is not exactly new, but it is still a rarity among bureaus that have long operated under the competitive business model of hyping only the attributes of their own destination. In 2003, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Portland were the first to try the partnership approach, an alliance that since has yielded impressive results in terms of marketing reach and business booked.

“In 2007, the partnership really clicked,” says Michael Smith, vice president, convention sales, for Travel Portland (formerly called the Portland Oregon Visitors Association). “We’ve got five groups actively considering us and one, for the first time, that has booked all three cities, which we are absolutely thrilled about.” Snagged was the Madison-based Society for the Study of Reproduction, which has contracted to hold its annual meeting in 2009 in Pittsburgh, followed by Milwaukee in 2010 and Portland in 2011.

Common ground

Similar size (population-wise), hotel room inventory, convention center exhibit space, air access and overall destination appeal are some of the things CVB heads take into consideration when scouting for potential city partners. A comfortable working relationship among respective sales teams is another key component.

Take, for example, the case of Hartford, Madison and Spokane. All three of these river cities are major university centers, and all have invested significantly in economic development in the past five to seven years. Spokane alone has spent almost $5 billion in a downtown renaissance, while Hartford has plowed more than $1 billion into its revitalization since 2004.

What’s more, the cities’ air access has grown exponentially. Madison has spent $65 million to accommodate more direct flights, while Hartford’s Bradley International Airport has grown from a suburban backwater airstrip into one of the nation’s fastest-growing airports, with direct flights to Europe.

Likewise, while Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Portland might seem to have little in common, their metropolitan footprints are quite similar. Each city is in an educational corridor with several universities and colleges within a 30-mile radius of downtown, and environmental sustainability is a priority for each. In fact, both Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence and Portland’s Oregon Convention Center are LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.