Since 2012, Craig Davis has helmed VisitPittsburgh, the official tourism promotion agency for Allegheny County. As President and CEO, Davis is responsible for selling his adopted hometown to the rest of the country as well as the world, to convince tourists and organizations alike to choose Pittsburgh as their next vacation or convention destination. How much does tourism benefit the city? Visitor spending in Allegheny County amounted to $5.6 billion in 2013, and the tax revenue generated by visitors is estimated at $349 million.
How has the growing perception of Pittsburgh as a “hot” destination affected your job?
Oh, my gosh. It has made my job exponentially easier. When we approach our job, we’re no longer approaching it as we had, say, even 10 years ago, from a position of defensiveness. Now we understand that the traveling public that is paying attention knows that Pittsburgh is a wonderful destination. We’re not having to immediately change misconceptions and we’re actually able to grow on their initial, very positive perceptions. It’s getting easier and easier.
Do you still face challenges in selling Pittsburgh? If so, what is the biggest challenge?
Generally speaking, the only challenges we face are people who have never been here before. I’ll give you an example: sometimes, if we’re selling a convention, and we bring the meeting planner in, he or she will fall in love with the destination and they will go back to their board meeting and say “we want to take this convention to Pittsburgh.” Invariably on that board of directors are people from all over the country. You’re going to get a couple people who have never been here before that will say, “we can’t take this to Pittsburgh; it’ll never sell.” So we have to convince them. It’s rare, but it still happens.
Is there a misconception in the local community with what exactly VisitPittsburgh does or doesn’t do?
Yes, there can be, and I’ll tell you the reason why. If we’re doing our best work, we’re doing it outside [of the city]. Our job is to bring the outside in, so all of our sales and marketing are concentrated to try to bring those travelers from outside. Success for us is when we fill a hotel room. That’s our mission. So we’re not spending a lot of time marketing and selling to our locals, and we should probably get better at that.
Speaking of hotel rooms, how is Pittsburgh doing when it comes to hotel occupancy rates, especially when it comes to similarly sized markets.
Well, it’s a lot more than just hotel occupancy. It’s average room rate – that’s the cost of a room. Ideally we want both to be very high. And the reason is that our partners and our attractions make more money. We’re bringing in people who have more of an ability to pay for their trip come in. So for years we were number one. And in just this past year we decided to put Nashville, Tennessee on our competitive set. And they’re doing so incredibly well that we are now number two, when compared to them. But we do routinely beat our competition in occupancy and average room rate. And our competition consists of all the cities that you would probably guess: Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Charlotte, Louisville, Memphis …
Setting aside pragmatic and budgetary concerns, is there a dream project that you would like to see implemented in Pittsburgh to help attract visitors to the city?
That’s a great question. Let me think. A dream project would be to connect our downtown to the airport with subway, so that visitors could take the T in all the way from the airport.