Growing the Big O
Jan 22, 2019 12:26PM
By Scott Stewart
Daniel Schwarzbach knows Omaha is a great destination.
Schwarzbach first visited years ago for a business meeting when the downtown convention center was still called the Qwest Center Omaha.
The president and CEO of the Airborne Public Safety Association in Frederick, Maryland, plans to bring around 1,500 people to Omaha this summer for his organization’s 49th annual convention. He is confident they will enjoy the “great little area” around the CHI Health Center Omaha (NoDo), nearby hotels, and the Old Market. Schwarzbach picked Omaha because of these amenities, and the proximity of Eppley Airfield.
“We’re excited to come to Omaha,” Schwarzbach says.
Conferences and other large events play a vital role in Omaha’s economy, bringing tourists and creating opportunities to grow the city’s reputation—with the ultimate goal of attracting new residents and businesses to the region.
Keith Backsen, executive director of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the short-term value of bringing people to Omaha is money. Visitors who attend events at the CHI Health Center Omaha frequent Old Market shops and restaurants, helping keep that business district vibrant. The infusion of cash supports businesses and jobs in the community.
Tourism annually brings about 12.3 million visitors, who spend $1.2 billion per year in the city, according to the bureau. Those visitors sustain 17,280 jobs—about 1 in 17 jobs overall—and save Douglas County households each an average of $730 a year in taxes.
On a longer-term basis, conventions and other events help bring people to Omaha to see what the city has to offer. When relocating, people consider places they know or about which there are positive associations—adding economic value to Omaha’s tally of best-in-the-nation accolades.
The convention bureau works with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to target events that match industries where Omaha wants to attract talent and new businesses. David Brown, president and chief executive of the Greater Omaha Chamber, says the organizations brought defense contractors to Omaha for an annual convention on the space industry for several years, around the time that U.S. Space Command was integrated into U.S. Strategic Command, which is housed at Offutt Air Force Base.
Brown also says bringing Omaha to the front of people’s minds is a key for future success. Conventions and other events help introduce people to everything the city has to offer.
“It is not unusual for people to come here for a convention and it to be the first time they have ever been here,” Brown says. “But it is also not unlikely that those people will find another reason to come back.”
Many of those conventions fly under the radar, says Kayti Manley, director of special events at the Greater Omaha Chamber. The chamber works a few hundred events annually, including many targeting specific industries or interest groups that don’t receive publicity. Smaller events might be held outside of downtown venues, too, such as the La Vista Embassy Suites.
“They have a great impact on our community,” Manley says.
While conferences play a critical role, Omaha’s largest events can draw many more people to the area. The College World Series, for instance, averages more than 338,000 visitors a year and has hosted 9.9 million spectators in its 68 years in Omaha, according to the NCAA.
The Olympic swim trials are worth about eight conferences in terms of hotel bookings, Backsen says. While an average conference results in nearly 2,500 hotel rooms being used, the Olympic swim trials result in the use of around 20,000 hotel rooms. Those large events also draw media attention, bringing Omaha’s brand to a larger audience.
“Those are big image-building events that tell people that Omaha has got something going that other places don’t have,” Brown says. “In this world of tight unemployment and relatively slow population growth, being able to show people that we have the quality of life they may desire is a big deal.”
While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people live in Omaha because of events and other tourism activity, or how many businesses are directly supported by them, it’s clear that they factor into such decisions.
A Californian, for example, might say they live there because of the proximity to the beaches, forests, or mountains—even if they don’t visit them often, Brown says. Omaha residents point to attractions like Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and Joslyn Art Museum, and events like the College World Series, concerts at the CHI Health Center, college hockey games, and Broadway musicals at the Orpheum.
“It’s hard to point a finger at that individual or company that had moved here exclusively because of those great things that we do,” Brown says. “It’s rather the larger picture of us continuing to add to this collection of really good quality-of-life stuff that makes a difference.”
Brown asks people to imagine what Omaha would be like without amenities attracted by the convention center and other facility improvements in the community. He says surveys of young professionals suggest the city would be a lot less appealing as a place to live.
Millennials, specifically, want communities with sports, music, culture, arts, green space, and recreation—all those features that have blossomed in Omaha in recent years.
“What happens if we can’t check those boxes?” Brown asks. “What happens if the College World Series hasn’t been here in seven years and we now don’t have any direct correlation to that particular sport? What happens if we didn’t bend over backwards to figure out a way to have the swim trials call this home? What if we just said we are good enough? What would this place look like?”
Even if these events and attractions serve a sliver of the overall population, they contribute to the perception of what it is like to live, work, and play in Omaha.
“None of them have been built because we want to attract tourists,” Brown says. “That’s an ancillary benefit that comes along with it. It has all been built so that we have the opportunity to continue to grow this place—the place we all want to live and have our kids stay here.”
The chamber compares metrics on quality of life and other indicators with other cities viewed as peers and competitors. According to the Chamber, Omaha ranks just behind Austin in large part due to Omaha’s cultural opportunities, health care access, and short commute times. Being neck-and-neck with Austin is impressive, given that the Texas city remains one of the fastest-growing in the country.
Schwarzbach expects members of the Airborne Public Safety Association will be impressed when they visit Omaha this July. He says he has told vendors who ask him “Why Omaha” that there’s a reason why Warren Buffett chooses to live in Omaha, and why the city has a world-class zoo.
“There is a reason why these things are there,” he says. “Omaha is a really cool place.”
This column was printed in the February/March 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.