Phoenix, AZ – The old saying about truth being the first casualty of war was found to be true this year when tourism leaders in Phoenix led the city on a war of words over Arizona’s controversial state law on illegal immigration.
The stunningly quick passage of the law, known as SB1070, stirred up calls around the U.S. for a boycott of Phoenix just as the city’s convention and trade show industry was beginning to rebound from the recession. The possibility of a trade show organizer or meeting planner cancelling a booking or dropping Arizona from consideration for a future event was a call to action that the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau (GPCVB) could hardly ignore.
To counter the negative fallout, the CVB quickly developed an outreach strategy to the exhibition industry that largely followed the playbook used during natural disasters. The payoff has been the loss of only a few smaller events and an otherwise stable calendar for the newly expanded Phoenix Convention Center.
“Since the bill was signed by the governor on April 23, we have had more than 60,000 delegates convene at our convention center,” said Steve Moore, president & CEO of the GPCVB. “They have all done so safely, and all but one of our groups has had higher attendance than they expected.”
Convention centers and destination marketing organizations have contingency plans in place for hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters. They are also ready to respond to man-made disasters, including a terrorist attack or a structural failure. But a public relations uproar can be just as damaging to a city’s image and often comes without much warning.
Moore and Chief Marketing Officer Kevin Kamenzind outlined the steps their organization took to Trade Show Executive:
- Formally urged Gov. Jan Brewer not to sign the bill. “She mulled it over for six days, and our industry was very vocal in urging her not to sign it,” Moore said. “But politics ruled the day and it became a national issue.”
- Formed a coalition. The CVB recruited allies among the business community and faith-based organizations to reaffirm the message that Phoenix was no police state and that all were welcome. “We demonstrated the fact that the fifth-largest city in the nation didn’t get there by not being diverse and inviting,” Moore said.
- Remained above the fray: Rather than trying to predict the future, the CVB based its response on the wording of the law itself. The debate over SB 1070 was for a time an emotionally charged political football that was not helped by sometimes sensationalist media coverage. The media may depict things differently than the way they really are, Moore pointed out. “And that’s whether you are looking at an oil spill or recovery from a natural disaster,” he said.
- Just the facts: Using excerpts from the bill without any predictions on their effects or their constitutionality allowed show organizers and associations to draw their own conclusions. Legal opinions from attorneys were left out. “The first thing that we as a CVB had to undertake was to find the real facts and get as much factual information as we could and get it into the hands of the customers who wanted to know what was going on,”said Kamenzind.
- Selected outreach: Once its outreach strategy was in place, the CVB redeployed some of its financial resources and put together a schedule of personal visits to customers in major markets such as Washington, DC and Chicago. Otherwise, only groups that had specific concerns were engaged. “We didn’t want to raise an issue that wasn’t an issue with the majority of our bookings,” Moore said.
Laurel Erickson, media manager for Crisis Media Coaches in Los Angeles, said the strategy enhanced the GPCVB’s credibility in a situation that was not of their making. “The CVB was smart in that it stayed above the fray,” she said. “Some experts have suggested this blow-up won’t mean much in the long run, but in the short run, it could have meant millions of dollars going elsewhere.”
SB1070 slipped in largely under the radar of Phoenix’s political and business leadership and the news media. “It was an Arizona issue,” Moore said. “It never was a Phoenix issue. In fact, the city council voted on three different occasions to oppose this legislation, and it was not supported by the municipalities or the tourism industry.”
But the ball wound up in the court of the Greater Phoenix CVB and they fielded it cleanly.