Selling the City is a Task at Hand

BY KEVIN HERRERA – Daily Press Staff Writer

When you think of Santa Monica, what comes to mind? Progressive political views, gourmet cuisine and high-end retail shops? Or, perhaps panhandling, traffic congestion and high prices? Those are just some of the impressions shared by residents and tourists who participated in a series of meetings with the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) as part of a two year effort to create an image of the city that captures its distinctive qualities and unique attributes – commonly referred to in the industry as a destination brand promise.

The result: “Santa Monica … the best way to discover LA; an unforgettable beach city experience filled with eye-catching people, cutting-edge culture and bold innovations. It is the essence of the California lifestyle.”

That’s what the CVB, city officials and business leaders want visitors to think and feel so that they will spend their time and money in Santa Monica. It’s also what they hope residents believe as well when they wake up in the morning, filled with pride for their city, which may translate into a stronger, more amicable relationship with the millions of tourists who visit each year. “Perceptions are everything,” said Misti Kerns, president and CEO of the CVB. “People’s perceptions can really affect us in both a positive and negative way… What we are trying to do with the destination branding promise is to define exactly what our lifestyle is and what it is that we offer that sets us apart from other destinations. “And the important thing is everyone can own it. This is about the community coming together to say, ‘What is the experience we want people to leave with when they come to Santa Monica?’”

The brand was unveiled at the beachside Loews Hotel, where business leaders and elected officials gathered by the pool, dining on fresh fruit under a clear blue sky while members of the Santa Monica Symphony played in the background and a group of seniors wearing swim caps and floaties gathered for their morning exercises. Nearby, fit young women practiced their yoga poses, stretching out with the beach as the backdrop. And then came Mayor Fabian Lewkowicz. He was wearing a blue cap and brown T-shirt with “Santa Monica” written across the bottom in large orange letters. Except for the seniors exercising, the rest was staged as a way for the CVB to demonstrate the many amenities Santa Monica has to offer, such as a strong arts community, beautiful beaches for recreation and exercise, a pedestrian-friendly environment, and a willingness to embrace new technologies.

Kerns said the CVB has budgeted $50,000 for the branding process so far. The event Friday cost $18,000, with the hotel donating the use of the ballroom, as well as lunch and discounted valet parking.” We have an operating budget of $2 million a year, and considering that we took in about $30 million this year from the (hotel room tax), I would say it has been a solid return on the investment,” Kerns said of CVB’s work to spread the word about Santa Monica. Creating a brand that is easily identifiable is very important not only for a major corporation such as Coca-Cola or Sony, but also for a city. The right brand, such as Las Vegas’ “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” can help raise the morale of residents, as well as the financial fortunes of a city. The wrong brand, like the state of Washington’s slogan “SayWa,” can create confusion, resulting in less tourism and fewer jobs, said branding expert Duane Knapp, a speaker at Friday’s summit, who helped guide CVB in the research and development of the city’s brand.

“This is about being distinctive, being one of a kind,” he said. “It’s not about hype or slogans, but about delivering an experience that people want and will remember. It’s about how you want to make people feel.”

In developing the brand, the CVB gathered input from local businesses, elected officials, residents and other community members. The CVB conducted focus groups with tourists coming from markets such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and London -where the majority of Santa Monica’s visitors come from.

In the coming months, the CVB will host a series of brand implementation workshops to help residents and city employees become acquainted with the new brand so that each can become ambassadors to the city. There will be training programs for hotel workers and other customer service related employees who routinely come into contact with visitors. The programs will outline how to deliver an experience consistent with the brand and how to better sell the merchandise. They also will hone their skills on how to sell Santa Monica as a destination. The beach will get special attention. A series of meetings will be held with civic and business leaders, and residents that will help identify methods to enhance the beach experience at Santa Monica. There have been complaints that the beach is difficult to access in certain areas and there are not enough signs telling visitors how to get back to downtown. That has caused many people to become lost underneath the pier, according to merchants. Kerns said the branding process is ongoing and residents will be encouraged to participate and make the brand their own.

“It’s only fitting that Santa Monica has taken the lead on this approach given the city’s well-deserved reputation for innovation and staying on the cutting edge of global culture,” she said.