Friday, June 18, 2004

A salesman for Cincinnati

'A product, just like liquid Tide'

Alan Welch is the new president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MEGGAN BOOKER
In 37 years at Procter & Gamble, Alan Welch has managed difficult tasks, such as introducing disposable diapers in England and navigating the company's global expansion.

Now, Welch will look to parlay his sales and human resources experience to help stabilize the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. Welch last month was named interim chief executive of the Cincinnati bureau following the abrupt resignation of Lisa Haller.

Welch, on loan from P&G, recently talked with Enquirer staff writer Ken Alltucker about his vision for the agency, which promotes tourism and recruits conventions and business meetings.

Question: Do you have any tourism experience?

Answer: I've had a lot of sales experience, but I've had no sales experience in the tourism business. It's a product, just like liquid Tide or Pampers. This is a new world, so I have a very steep learning curve. It isn't daunting; it's just a matter of getting myself up to speed. Our primary customers are hoteliers. Soon as I got the job, I called them and said I need to count on them. I got tremendous education and learning from my contacts.

Q: When you are out there selling Cincinnati, do you anticipate the city's image will be a challenge?

A: It's one of the best-kept secrets in the country from my perspective. Not just because I have this job. I stayed here and raised my family here. It's growing, so there's a lot more things here that didn't exist in 1976. The expansion of the convention center will be a tremendous help.

I don't think we have anything to apologize for. There are problems in this city that we have to overcome and we need to get rid of images here or there. They're all fixable. We're not the only city that's had these problems. There isn't anything that is non-fixable in my mind.

Q: As you go out and meet hotel managers, what do you hear about the job the bureau has done?

A: Certainly people have said the relationship between the bureau and hotels is not as strong as it should be. I haven't found that yet in any of my discussions. One of the questions I'm asking is if that's true, tell me why and what we can do to make it better. It's a genuine question because I have no basis for knowing whether any issues exist unless somebody tells me so.

Q: There's been a lot of staff turnover. How deep a concern is that?

A: We have had turnover, the numbers speak for themselves. Turnover is never good for an organization. It's not so much the money that it costs you, it's the experience and knowledge that you lose and you have to start over on training.

I'm going one-by-one with all of the people in this organization so I can get an understanding of them personally and their jobs. In those discussions, you also get attitudes, feelings and perspectives. Actually, I have been extremely surprised and pleased. They feel good about themselves and good about their work. Sure there are things that they probably would like to have better around here.

Q: As the convention center expands, some space won't be available. How do you bridge the next two years until the expanded center opens?

A: I can only do so much about generating meetings in the convention center. I have read some of these articles about Redsfest and three conventions leaving here, the sky is falling, the world is collapsing. It's not that bad. We have to find other creative ways in building excitement and filling rooms.

I'm going to throw up on a wall all sorts of ideas that we haven't thought of before and see if they'll work. Some of them won't, but some of them will, and we'll get more rooms (bookings) than we would have had before.

Q: How important is forming a regional tourism group?

A: Greater Cincinnati is the biggest area in the world that could benefit from a regional tourism approach. If you're a consumer coming to Cincinnati and you are looking for a Web site, you have to go to Cincinnati's, Northern Kentucky's or Warren County's Web site. People aren't going to do that.

Change is threatening. It takes time to get people to see the value and be practical about it. It is inevitable. If it doesn't happen, we're going to be in serious trouble long term. We have so much more to offer than our competing markets. I understand the politics. I don't like politics. I hate politics. I'll learn to live with it and learn how to deal with it.

Q: One challenge is the bureau's sparse marketing budget. Do you see a need to grow that budget?

A: I know we are one of the lowest CVBs (convention-visitor bureaus) in terms of funding. We don't have enough marketing dollars. We don't have enough sales dollars. We may have that money in other funds. That's what I'm talking in terms of constituencies and politics. The county has some, the city has some, we have some and Northern Cincinnati has some. If you put it all together, you might actually have a pretty darn good budget. That's not going to happen tomorrow. I'm not naive. I'm a firm believer in stop crying about it. Whatever you've got, you've got. I'd like to make more money (than I do) , but I don't make more money, so I can't go and buy that Bentley.

Q: What's your top priority?

A: Our number one priority businesswise is to fill more beds. That's what we get paid to do. We need to assist and continue to work on regional tourism ... the leaders in Northern Kentucky are very anxious to start this regional tourism concept. I wish the other CVBs were equally willing, but at this point, not. That's OK. We can get started with these two entities. Now we're in the details of getting a plan developed. The point is, both CVBs are working together, big time.


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