Hartford has joined forces with two cities — both significantly smaller — to increase convention bookings to all three locales.
The cities: Madison, Wis., and Spokane, Wash.
Added together, those two metro areas have fewer people than Greater Hartford's 1.2 million. And the Spokane and Madison areas combined produce two-thirds of Greater Hartford's yearly economic output in goods and services.
So, if Hartford dreams of itself more in league with Columbus, Ohio; Nashville; or San Antonio — mid-size cities of comparable economic size, with major league sports teams — why is it pairing up with such small cities?
Convention centers in other mid-size cities have formed similar partnerships — notably Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh; and Milwaukee, and also Sacramento, Calif.; Baltimore; and Fort Worth, Texas.
The answer is that, for Hartford tourism and convention officials, the partnership has more to do with convention center space, hotel rooms and the general feel of the place than it does with raw size.
"The point is to work in conjunction with the other cities to see if there isn't business we can jointly drum up that would be good for one, two or all three places," said Michael Van Parys, vice president of sales for the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
In fact, Van Parys said that Hartford — looking to link with other capital cities — first approached Sacramento before being told that the California capital had already committed to another threesome. They also explored working with Austin, Texas, which was also already matched up.
It wasn't just convention officials who thought that the matching between Hartford, Madison and Spokane would work.
Hartford-based business consultant Suzanne Hopgood said that the particular cities made a good match with Hartford.
"It's brilliant. It's an impressive strategy," said Hopgood, of The Hopgood Group, which has worked with many hotels, among other clients.
"It should pay off. It should pay off big time for them. ... If you're looking at geographic, similar-sized cities, then that is exactly where you would look."
Ron Van Winkle, a West Hartford economist and town official, also said Madison and Spokane were good comparisons for Hartford, "livable places where people actually settle down and mow lawns."
"Cleveland, Baltimore, Charlotte, we are not even close to those cities," Van Winkle said. "They are entirely different in size and power. ... We are never going to be a Baltimore."
About half of the organizations and associations that book conventions rotate locations each year based on geography. Some even have bylaws that state they must visit different parts of the country over a certain number of years.
By linking Hartford with Madison in the country's midsection and Spokane near the West Coast, organizers hope they can market and sell the three cities together.
"It made sense to combine our marketing efforts to capture these groups that do these rotations," said Tom Farley, director of marketing for the Greater Madison Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "We were never in competition with each other, anyway, and now we can guarantee that for three years our customers will be assured a quality of care at each city. And we can also guarantee a unique, distinctive and authentic experience at each location."
The cities already have had, by chance, the same clients. Both Hartford and Spokane hosted Skate America, and the Outdoor Writers of America have visited both Madison and Spokane, Van Parys said.
Greater Spokane has a population of 440,000 and $13.3 billion in annual output, recent figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce show. Greater Madison, known for the University of Wisconsin, has 536,000 residents and $26.3 billion in output.
With $60 billion in total annual output and 1.2 million people, Greater Hartford is one of the nation's most productive regions.
But a comparison of those measurements will not make or break the matchup, local economic development officials said.
"I don't see it as a partnership with the cities, but a partnership with the convention centers, which is quite a different thing," said Nelson "Oz" Griebel, president of the Metro Hartford Alliance.
"It's purely a business decision among three distinct business centers."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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