It’s become more challenging for DMOs to maintain their funding, according to the DestinationNEXT 2023 Futures Study, as local governments are increasingly diverting funds to pay for broader community needs.
That’s been “a concerning shift in the last few years for DMOs,” said Rob Gard, Destination Madison’s director of communications and public affairs, when he spoke with Convene in July, even though he hadn’t yet read Destinations International’s just-published report. “Government entities are basically saying, ‘We want your money, we’re going to dissolve the DMO as we know it and hire out a marketing firm,’” Gard said. Taking that approach, he said, would mean “losing that local connection and the experts who know how to do meetings and events.”
A closing event held at a historic off-site venue during the annual PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) Travel & Tourism 2023 Section Conference, which Convene attended in late June, gave Destination Madison a chance to demonstrate that expertise. “We wanted to show the community the importance of meetings and events and how bringing people outside of Madison to our community benefits everyone,” said Gard about the event, not only with the “infusion of spending” in the destination but by growing an awareness “of what a great city we are, maybe [event-goers] will extend their stay or come back. When we can show a diverse group of business owners what we do, it cements the fact that our organization is critical to the health and quality of life of our community overall and consequently we can get that support that we need to continue to bring meetings and events and sporting events to Madison.”
The closing event, called a Media Mixer, also showed how Destination Madison is taking more of what the futures study spotlighted as a growing role for DMOs: supporting more destination development initiatives, specifically small business and community/neighborhood development in ways that improve the visitor experience. Here’s how.
Local History Lesson
When Gard and his colleagues took the PRSA planning committee around Madison to look at several different sites for the closing event, “Garver Feed Mill was the one that rose to the top,” he said, “because it is such a great story.” Originally built at the turn of the century as a sugar beet processing plant, the facility was later converted to a feed mill — “one of the first places in Wisconsin, if not the country, where rather than farmers milling their own grain on their farm, they would bring it to a central facility to have it milled and then sent out,” Gard said. The facility closed in the early 1970s, and over several decades of disuse, fell into disrepair. “The city was going back and forth for many years on whether to tear it down,” Gard said. Eventually, a development company came in to rehab the property and it opened in 2019 as a mixed-use space — a special event venue with around a dozen small business tenants.
“What appealed to PRSA about Garver that it told that story of revitalization, it told a story of history, and the tenants in there tend to be smaller, artisanal, whether it be a coffee shop or a kombucha production facility or spa,” Gard said. Throughout the year, Garver Feed Mill holds events and festivals that showcase and support local artists and makers. “We got to thinking, from a planning perspective, that when you’re at a meeting or event, you can’t dive into the community, really — maybe just what’s around the convention center, if that,” Gard said. “So we thought, how can we bring our community to attendees? We came up with the idea of doing a mini makers experience” at Garver to shine a light on Madison’s diversity.
For the PRSA conference audience of tourism and travel writers, getting that sense of a host destination is part of the reason why they attend in the first place. They “enjoy not only the valuable programming and networking, but the opportunity to experience and explore a new destination,” said Suzanne Brose, executive vice president for J Public Relations, who served as chair for the PRSA Travel & Tourism 2023 Section Conference.
Destination Madison curated the makers for PRSA’s closing event, which marked the first time the property was taken over by a conference group, with the goal of capturing “as many segments of Madison’s diverse population as we could,” Gard said. “Our thinking was that event attendees wouldn’t have a chance to get out and see that diversity within the confines of a typical conference. We wanted the arts reflected and local makers — there was an Indian American woman there who made kitchen implements out of wood, there was a Puerto Rican baker. We wanted different offerings from different communities that call Madison home.”
Upon arriving at Garver Feed Mill from the host hotel via shuttle bus, PRSA attendees were given two $5 tokens provided by Visit Madison to spend on items on display by makers, as a way to encourage interaction with them — “enough to cover a small purchase, but hopefully inspire people to add more to it,” Gard said.
Convene was among the participants who enjoyed samples from local favorite restaurants including Ahan, a 2023 James Beard semifinalist, while sipping a local brew, whiskey, or customized cocktail. When we weren’t speaking with the vendors, we could explore the historic building in the wide-open atrium, get a relaxing hand massage at the second-floor spa, and listen to live music in the art gallery and on the patio.
As much as he tried to explain the concept beforehand to both PRSA and the vendors, “it wasn’t until they got there that they understood how the interplay really happened,” Gard said. “We heard anecdotally from a lot of people who had attended PRSA conferences before who said this was the best closing event they had gone to, because it really brought them into the community.”
This was the first time PRSA had hosted an event like this, “with destination purveyors setting up shop to showcase their offerings” to PR pros and media guest attendees, said Amy Moore, PRSA’s event manager for special interest sections. It served as an “experiential representation of what makes Madison special,” she added. “It was a big hit.”
PRSA’s Media Mixer also tapped into the maker movement — artisans, crafters, DIYers, and inventors around the globe who are changing the world, Mark Hatch wrote in his 2017 book, The Maker Revolution: Building a Future on Creativity and Innovation in an Exponential World. And that movement has only become stronger as a result of the pandemic, according to online data company Sogolytics’ blog.
In 2014, Adweek wrote that the maker movement had “its own magazine Make:, as well as hands-on Maker Faires” — Make: continues to be published and the fairs held nearly a decade later — “that are catnip for DIYers who used to toil in solitude. Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design, and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in-China merchandise.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.