Ronnie Burt, the incoming leader of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, does not accept the idea the city’s competition these days is places like Omaha and Oklahoma City.
The new guy from Washington, D.C., says his targets are Minneapolis, Louisville, Indianapolis, Nashville and cross-state rival St. Louis.
“That’s why Kansas City is swinging for the Republican National Convention,” Burt said. “It speaks to the city’s ability to compete.”
A couple of years ago, when Kansas City’s convention business was cratering, some convention association board members suggested the city’s best course was to lower its expectations and concentrate on being a “third tier” destination the likes of Omaha.
Burt, whose former job was vice president of sales and services for Destination D.C., believes Kansas City has the assets to make a run at grabbing business from cities such as Indianapolis, which in recent years became one of the nation’s bigger convention destinations after opening several large downtown hotels.
He rattles off new amenities including the Sprint Center, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and a rejuvenated downtown anchored by the Power & Light District as ammunition for convincing more conventions to come to town.
“People are very passionate about what’s happening here, and the mayor is very supportive of the hospitality industry and the effort to pursue the Republican National Convention,” he said.
“There’s a lot of excitement being generated by Kansas City and the alignment between stakeholders, the city and state to create ways to tell the history of the city and generate buzz.”
Burt said he didn’t know much about Kansas City before being hired, although he did live here briefly in the 1970s when he was a fourth-grader. His mother is a native of the area.
When he looks at the city’s strengths, he points to Bartle Hall and its 388,000 square feet of column-free space, its proximity to the performing arts center, entertainment district and the arena, and its relative proximity to the hotels at Crown Center as well as the Kansas City Marriott Downtown.
With the arrival of the streetcar line next year, those connections should be even better.
He is aware of the city’s long pursuit of a proposed 1,000-room convention hotel and the obstacles toward building such a project. City leaders have said they will not accept a plan requiring taxpayers to subsidize the deal if it fails to perform financially.
Though it would help to have another big hotel close to the convention center, “if the decision is not to move forward, that will not define how to be successful moving our market forward,” Burt said. “We’ll get the job done.”
Once he officially starts June 11, the new Convention & Visitors Association leader wants to pull together a “destination team” of representatives from the hotel industry, the convention association and other civic leaders. The idea is to determine what kind of business to pursue and align those goals with the city’s hotel capacity.
Burt’s background is in sales, and he wants to reach potential convention organizers who aren’t familiar with Kansas City.
“I want to expose them to the great things in this market, bring them in for a day or day and a half,” he said. “Customers are overwhelmed with people trying to get information in front of them. We want to break through the noise and clutter.”
He also wants to improve sales results by convincing conventions to come back for multiyear bookings. On the flip side, Burt said Kansas City needs to woo existing business from other cities.
“The competition is extremely tough, and other cities have made similar investments to Kansas City as well as hotels,” he said. “As we improve the product, it will improve our position.”
Important allies Burt wants to recruit are the people on the front line of the convention and hospitality business — the hotel staff, cabdrivers and other workers who meet visitors first.
“We want to get them excited … so people feel good about visiting their city,” he said.
Washington, D.C., holds a cabdriver appreciation day that includes giving cabbies a cap and a list of coming conventions.
“Again, it’s a way to get the front line to do the welcome,” Burt said.