My narrative as a former community marketing exec began with the 1976 DMO startup in Spokane, Washington, one of three I helped shape during my four-decade career.
But “origin” stories never begin that abruptly, and to leave the impression they do is an injustice to those who left earlier finger prints.
That first opportunity started when I answered a 1973 job listing in the newspaper placed by a retired Shell Oil exec a week or two before my daughter and only child was born there and two months before I would enroll at Gonzaga School of Law.
So I could attend classes at night, I needed a full-time job during the day and my new boss needed someone who could call everyone in a huge, dusty library-type card catalogue to see if the people there were still alive and willing to bring a convention to Spokane.
At 56, Don Dagman had taken early retirement from Shell in 1971 and taken a job in response to a study the year before by Economic Research Associates.
Seven years older than my father, we were “Mutt and Jeff” when it came to the cultural divides at the time. I wore my hair long, opposed the Viet Nam War and anticipated, based on new revelations by John Dean, how Watergate would play out.
Don was a company man who never questioned authority.
He was a baritone-voiced, deep-chested descendent of Swedish immigrant farmers who, “out on the edge of the prairie,” migrated up the western edge of eastern North Dakota’s Red River where he was born.
As a twenty-year-old he ventured to the Pacific Northwest and began his self-taught career with Shell in Portland, Oregon. But Spokane was his home and remained so until he died at age 90, just a handful of years before I would conclude my career in community marketing.
That consultant’s report on behalf of the Spokane Centennial Commission was entitled the "Plan and Feasibility of Proposed Spokane Ecology Exposition,” and it called for formation of what is today called a community destination marketing organization to leverage follow-up.
Dagman, whose more than thirty year career had basically been public relations for Shell, was drawn to my resume because I had been involved from 1970-1972 in startup of a campus destination marketing effort while completing an undergraduate degree at BYU.
But for a little less than two years before he hired me, he had already been setting expectations in the news media, giving visitor-centric economic development a face there and making up for any lack of background or expertise in community marketing with hutzpah and bon vivant.
We made a good team. I brought a knowledge of startup intensity and ramping up an organization from scratch, a penchant for data analytics and as an omnivert, just enough extroversion to be a good sales person.
I learned by watching Don Dagman the importance of earned media, also known as publicity, as a more powerful, more credible and far more cost effective part of marketing than advertising.
Looking back, this was also part way through an incredible “sense of place” span that began in 1965 with passage of the Highway Beautification Act, followed in 1966 with the creation of the National Historic Registry.
Then came the clean air and water act, which validated the importance of nature, followed by renewed interest in recycling waste and Spokane’s 1974 environmental World’s Fair.
Concerns about heritage, rootlessness and the unintended consequences of so-called urban renewal reached a tipping point during the 1976 American Bicentennial, followed by the 1978 landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court validating preservation of place as a government goal.
This twenty-year span culminated in the early 1980s with an essay by Wallace Stegner who anointed the overarching term “sense of place.”
Our offices during that two year transition, while embedded in the chamber of commerce, were in the 1930 Civic Building with spectacular views from our offices along a back wall down a deep gorge at the base of the Spokane Falls.
In front, this capstone “second renaissance revival” building, a sub-style of Beaux Arts had wonderful archways and a terra cotta roof.
Taken together with others it formed a sweeping contiguous arc of historic buildings begun in 1902 and identified a few years later by the Olmsted brothers as part of a grand square, war memorial statuary and all.
As we worked away inside, a successful nomination was being readied for creation of this area as the Riverside Avenue Historic District including a cathedral, a Carnegie library and a series of social and community buildings.
In a lower level one day, Don, always the consummate promoter in search of publicity, emptied out refuse collected by housekeepers from wastebaskets in a handful of local hotels during four days of a convention I had booked.
He had us sort the wrappers we found from 50 different stores and then invited a newspaper reporter to view them as an example of induced and indirect economic impact.
This was decades before the far more scientific input-output model, pioneered just the year before, would become a feasible alternative for visitor-centric economic development metrics at the level.
Neither Don Dagman nor I realized that a little more than two years after we teamed up, I would change career paths and be appointed to lead the transformation to Spokane’s stand-alone community marketing organization, when he was ensnared in a controversy.
But Don and I also happened to bridge another generational divide that Spokane stills struggles to cross today.
At the time, community marketing was transitioning from a minimized role primarily in response to erection of edifices in need of traffic such as convention centers to more holistically role viewed as the means to fuel overall visitor demand by leveraging sense of place and making all amenities, if market driven, feasible and sustainable.
I moved on a little more than three years after being named its exec first to Anchorage for a decade, to complete a startup just begun, then another from scratch in Durham where I worked for more than two decades before retiring.
But Spokane, despite the evidence of far broader visitor appeal during Expo ‘74, has in many ways remained at least partially trapped on the far side of that community marketing divide, as far too many communities have.
I not only read carefully that 1970 ERA report from which so many others merely quoted from the summary, but I rescued a series of old 1930s and 1940s newsletters along with some community brochures dating to 1907 that were being thrown out one day.
They showed that Spokane back then had seized on the idea of community marketing only two decades after the first spearhead had been formed, even participating in the See America First cooperative.
Those documents also permitted me to piece together metrics from those much earlier roots for community promotion that had somehow been long forgotten,
This including evidence of a publicity and news effort dating to when motor vehicle tourism first took root and convention metrics reported decades before those in the ERA report.
For example, by 1942 Spokane was hosting press tours and cranking out news releases and distributing photographs to 200 publications across the country.
City-wide, it was estimated that Spokane hosted 172 visitor-related conventions attended by 34,000 delegates spending $750,000 that year.
By 1947, convention attendance had increased to 37,000 delegates spending $1 million but Spokane was looking more holistically at overall visitor spending of $9.5 million.
But spending by just the fraction of visitors attending conventions had peaked in the early 1960s at $6 million annually and declined by 1970 to $4.2 million, along with any consciousness of visitors overall, when experts advised that a community marketing agency be created.
But no one had connected the dots of that decline to when Spokane had suddenly stopped promoting the community, something I was able to verify by those old index cards I was asked to sort through in 1973.
I also took time to verify convention-visitor impact. Instead of beginning to climb again to the more than $6 million as Don had been led to report for 1971 when he was hired, by 1972, the year before I was brought on board, it had continued to fall to $3.5 million.
Through community marketing including harvesting exposure created by Expo ‘74, that impact had been nearly tripled to $10 million, all without a convention center.
By the time I left in 1978, we had pushed it to $17 million dwarfing the $1.8 million harvested by having a convention center, an adaptive reuse of one of the pavilions also recommended in that 1970 study.
But my eyes had been opened to the far greater potential of marketing holistically to visitors overall rather than limiting focus to conventions.
Projections of visitor spending overall for 1974 had been only $9.6 million but the 5.4 million to attended the six-month Expo ‘74 had generated $90 million in spending from visitors alone and studies showed that by leveraging overall sense of place including the new Riverfront Park it would generate even more going forward.
But In the early to mid 1970s, consultants were typically brought in to justify public facilities as real estate anchors to shore up private property values or as a barrier against advancing blight.
If they knew, they failed to explain to communities that facilities such as hotels and convention centers aren’t demand-generators but activity-centers created by harvesting visitor demand generated by marketing the community as a whole.
Failure to connect these dots until 1997 led to a quadrupling of convention center space across the nation over a period when conventions and meetings tipped into decline and the vast majority of events began to opt instead for meeting space in hotels.
But this hindsight wasn’t available with the 1970 report, which estimated that conversion of one of the World’s Fair buildings into a convention center by 1975 would result in an additional $1.8 million in convention visitor spending that year alone.
That turned out to be only 18% of what would be generated by aggressive community marketing alone and two-hundredths of one percent of overall visitor impact.
Today, Spokane generates $870 million from visitors annually (not counting closer in daytrip visitors.) This includes the 28% generated from delegates attending conventions, a ratio inflated ten percentage points by the fact that Spokane has no major nearby population centers from which to draw leisure visitors.
But attendance at events using the Convention center has been flat to slightly down since 1999 with only a third counting as value added to the Spokane economy, about the same ratio of overall conventions as it represented in 1975 before two expansions.
While failing to look at market share or weighted proportions nationwide or warnings by other consultants beginning in 1997, many still use the same dated formulas from more than four decades ago to recommend expansion as a solution.
This fails to account that today convention centers compete not with other convention centers but with space within hotels in the same community, often giving them a net negative impact.
Nor do they take into account that this is a mature market in gradual decline or that groups broken down by size are getting smaller and smaller.
Though consultants never dispute one another, a far more strategic consultant report notes, just as that 1970 study did, that it is scenic beauty, outdoor recreation and a lively downtown that give Spokane its appeal and far greater overall visitor potential.
Just one of many communities with factions that continue to push aside “best practices” and data-driven decision-making to argue instead for “worst practices,” Spokane is extremely blessed to have a skilled data analyst who blogs there anonymously.
If he is looking down, Don with that characteristic twinkle in his eye, would probably give a wink, knowing that Spokane is still struggling to cross over that community marketing divide one of us leaped four decades ago.
He would also agree that while I may have been a startup/organizational innovator, it was always on the shoulders of those whose finger prints I found there stretching back decades.
I dedicate this background to making sure Don’s never fade away.