I spent a couple of days last week in the lovely city of Cleveland, Ohio to attend the (really fun) DisruptHR Cleveland event, and then took some time doing a bit of a city tour with some really cool people, (see the pic on the right for the crew taken in the Cleveland Indials Social Suite, which was a fantastic place to catch a ball game from).
One of the big themes that seemed to permeate everything about the visit to Cleveland was that just about everyone from Cleveland that I met was pretty heavily invested in convincing me (and everyone else), that Cleveland is, in fact, a really cool place to live, work, play, socialize, etc. Said differently, people from Cleveland are REALLY in to being from Cleveland. They love and are proud of their city, and try really hard to let you know how fantastic it is. Even though they seem to think that most of the rest of the world sees Cleveland as a kind of last century place and not one that holds much allure for non-natives.
But I think there are probably some ways that are more effective than others in 'selling' your less than glamorous city to potential employees or investors. And since Cleveland is not unique among Midwest, Great Lakes, rust belt kinds of places with having a bit of an image problem, (the place I live, Rochester, NY is right in that mix), it makes sense that lots of HR/Talent pros have to sell their cities all the time. So based on two days of listening and learning from the good people of Cleveland, here are my top 5 observations on the best/worst ways to sell your non-sexy location to someone that is inclined to believe the worst about your beloved hometown:
1. Don't constantly remind people that they already believe your city is horrible
Lots of the conversations I had (and a few of the DisruptHR presentations too), seemed to start with a statement like "I know you think Cleveland is old/backward/dirty/boring/horrible/whatever, but I am going to tell you why you are wrong..." And then they would get into the specific elements and attributes of the city that were positive to try and change my (perceived) opinions about Cleveland. But what if I didn't actually have a negative pre-conception of Cleveland? What if I didn't know much at all about the city? Don't make the first notion in my head a negative one with a "I am sure you heard that Cleveland is terrible" statement. Just lead with the strengths and drop the 'I need to change your mind" stuff.
2. If you have something cool that NO ONE else has, then talk about that. Talk about that a lot.
Every decent sized city has some amount of the following things: sports teams, art museums, zoos, theaters, fancy restaurants, concert venues, parks, and probably a dozen more things common to cities. While these are all interesting and important, they (typically) don't do much to convince any but the most passionate that your city is somehow superior to some other city. But when you have something really cool, something that no other city can replicate, then you lead with that. In Cleveland one such example is the (very cool) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The ONLY one of these is in Cleveland. I would spend probably 80% of my time talking about these kinds of unique elements if I was trying to sell someone on my city. "We have a nice library" is not really a differentiator.
3. Don't fixate on a local problem that visitors are likely not familiar with
In only about 48 hours in Cleveland I learned that the lack of downtown parking seems to be a REALLY BIG issue. Everyone seemed to mention it at some point, and two DisruptHR presenters talked about it as well. Parking seems to be a big problem, but the only reason I know anything about it is because the natives kept on bringing it up. I would not have known or realized this was an issue on my own. But since the locals seem really worrried about this, now I have in my head that parking is a problem in Cleveland. A better strategy is to not constantly remind visitors or potential transplants of what is a local problem until really necessary. Unless the local problem has something to do with random shootings, carjackings, that kind of thing. Those are the local problems I feel entitled to a little warning about.
4. People at different life stages want different things
This is kind of obvious, but still worth mentioning. Where you are in your life and career, significantly impacts the kind of places you are drawn too, and the types of features of a city that seem most attractive. The most successful cities are the ones that offer the kind of variety in housing, entertainment, employment, social, and recreational options that appeal to a wide range of people - from hipsters to young professionals to blue collar workers and to experienced professionals. Once the options that appeal to a group (in general), start to wane and they leave for other options, then a part of the city kind of falls away with it. The most vibrant cities, and sections of cities, have a diverse mix of not just people, but uses as well. If your downtown is all office buildings with limited residences and shops, then it will be a ghost town after 6PM. I am not sure this is really a Cleveland problem or not, but I think it is important to mention regardless.
5. Everyone comes from somewhere, and most people have an irrationally elevated opinion of how great their own 'somewhere' actually is.
I am not sure I have ever been to a city where the local residents are as proud of their city as Clevelanders are about theirs. Everyone I met was really in to being from or living in Cleveland. In some ways, I felt like the visitors were being 'sold' all the time. While being proud of where you live is a great, great thing, I think you also have to be careful (and be a little rational too). Lots of cities are really cool places to live. Lots of cities have most of the same kinds of things you do too. People are nice and friendly all over the place, not just where you live. My point is, sell your city, and what makes it great, but remember that the person you are selling to probably feels the exact same way about their own city too. Keep it in check and be honest - folks will appreciate that more than being fooled. Just ease off on all the parking talk.
I had a fantastic time in Cleveland. And I can't think of better ambassadors for that fine city than our gracious hosts and guides Frank Zupan and Tammy Colson.
I do think, in fact, it is true - Cleveland rocks.
Have a great week!