Destination St. John’s sells the city to its own rotary club

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Josh Pennell
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City doing very well in the meeting-convention market

Destination St. John’s CEO Cathy Duke speaks to the Rotary Club of St. John’s Thursday. — Photo by Josh Pennell/The Telegram

Tourism is a business and like any other business, you’ve got to be competitive. Luckily for St. John’s, Cathy Duke, CEO of Destination St. John’s, is in the city’s corner.

Duke was the guest speaker at the Rotary Club of St. John’s luncheon Thursday, where she enlightened listeners on how to sell the city and who’s buying into the city of legends.

Destination St. John’s is a private-sector, non-profit organization that works with but not for the city. The outfit answers to a board of directors and has eight staff, three of whom are full-time sales managers. The sales managers are on the road 12 months of the year spreading the good word about North America’s oldest city.

They measure their success by the number of hotel rooms sold, and by that benchmark St. John’s is doing alright.

From 2000-11, there was a 60 per cent increase in the number of hotel rooms being booked, Duke said.

Much of the city’s visiting clientele are people from the meeting-convention market which makes up about 77 per cent of Destination St. John’s work. The meeting-convention market accounts for 45,000 hotel rooms a year in the city, according to Duke.

If hotel rooms aren’t the kind of currency most people can get excited about, perhaps straight-up cash will do the trick. In 2012, non-residents (people from out of the province visiting St. John’s) and residents (provincial people visiting the city) spent a combined amount of more than $ 1 billion.

“So we were really excited about that,” said Duke.

Duke said even during the financial crises of 2009, when other destinations were experiencing lulls,

St. John’s still had a modest increase in the number of people coming here.

When people do bring their conventions here, they often have larger registrations than when they bring them elsewhere because people legitimately want to visit St. John’s. Duke said half the people who visit for work extend their time into a vacation and travel outside the city.

What’s the reason for the success?

Part of it can be attributed to the ad campaign of Destination St. John’s, Duke said.

It’s really based on the colourful people, the colourful language, the colourful architecture and that kind of thing. Cathy Duke, CEO, Destination St. John’s

“What we’re doing now is selling the experience that people can have when they come here.”  

A new theme is “Colourful Encounters” and how that phrase relates to St. John’s.

“It’s really based on the colourful people, the colourful language, the colourful architecture and that kind of thing,” said Duke.

Along with the award-winning ad campaign by the province, Destination St. John’s is selling the city specifically  — and that means the urban experience — as well as the adventure the province has to offer. Duke also said part of the urban setting of St. John’s is actually having nature right in the city through the trail systems that compliment the growing cosmopolitan cuisine and nightlife.

Duke says St. John’s is limited only by its size and what it has to offer, and that limitation is diminishing.

“In 2009 we felt there was a demand out there for larger conventions wanting to come to St. John’s and we couldn’t host them because we did not have the space,” she said.

With a new convention centre being built and a slew of hotels springing up around the city, Duke said, larger conventions are a demand that the city is increasingly able to meet.

Even the fog, which certainly adds to the ambiance of the place but holds people back, is soon not going to be an issue for travellers. Duke said people have been nervous to book meetings and conventions here in May and June due to the probability of fog upsetting the schedule if flights can’t get in.

A new Category 3 instrumentation system at the airport will ensure 99 per cent of all passengers will land in the fog, she said.

Whether the promise of this new system has anything to do with it or if the lure of St. John’s is growing stronger, Duke said the month of June is sold out for conventions up until 2018 — a good indication that Destination St. John’s is living up to its name.

 josh.pennell@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Rotary Club

Geographic location: North America

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