Debbie Cotton has gone from helping people travel around Phoenix to trying to convince people to travel to Phoenix.
Cotton, the former director of the Phoenix Public Transit Department, is about six months into her role as director for the Phoenix Convention Center.
“The biggest difference for me is that each day is very different,” says Cotton, who replaced John Chan, who became community and economic development director for the City of Phoenix. “Each customer of the Convention Center has their own set of individual needs, so we have to come in here and reinvent ourselves every day so that we can fulfill our clients’ needs.”
Catering to convention-goers’ needs are more important than ever. To compound the hit that the economic downturn placed on the convention industry, Arizona’s tough stance on illegal immigration has put the state in a negative light in some decision-makers’ eyes, and an incident where a lesbian couple was asked to leave a downtown restaurant ignited a social media firestorm.
“People are very aware of some of the social unrest we’ve had in the community,” Cotton says. “That is one of the things that people have questions about when we talk with them about coming to Phoenix.”
If you look at the numbers, the controversies don’t seem to have an impact on tourism’s bottom line. A report from Dean Runyan Associates shows that gross sales at state hotels have increased more than 12 percent since 2010, and travel spending in Arizona has increased 7.9 percent since 2009. Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 — the strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in recent history — into law in 2010.
“In the next five years, we will have 900,000 delegates come through the Convention Center doors with an economic impact of $1.3 billion,” Cotton says. “That is a slight increase from the previous five years.”
A $600 million expansion project that tripled the size of the Convention Center and was completed in 2009 has raised the profile of both the center and the convention industry in Phoenix. In 2010, the Convention Center received the Inner Circle Award from Association Meetings Magazine, which ranked the facility as one of the 15 best Convention Centers in the nation for service excellence. And in April, the Phoenix Convention Center was ranked seventh among the best U.S. convention centers by Business Review USA.
“The addition of ASU and CityScape have given downtown more vibrancy and a youthful exuberance that has really made a difference for visitors,” Cotton says. “People want to play and have fun here. We need more of that.”
To get the Convention Center to the next level, Cotton and her staff plan to launch a redesigned website and use social media — Twitter and Facebook — to engage their customers and increase their speed to market.
“One of the things that we’ve found creates a more dynamic experience for visitors are the Downtown Phoenix Ambassadors,” Cotton says of the orange-shirt-wearing, information-wielding walking concierges of downtown. “We want to get them more involved on the front end so that we differentiate ourselves from other communities. Once we get them here, we know they will come back.”
To help fill some of the vacancies the Convention Center has on the books, Cotton instituted a sales training program that will complement the comprehensive guest experience training that the staff has undergone since the center was expanded.
“We have been so busy over the last few years with our growth, that we didn’t have time to slow down and focus on some of the finer details,” Cotton says. “Now that things have slowed down and our expansion is complete, we have more time to incorporate training, build leads and close deals. Now it’s time for us to become the best of the best.”