One of the biggest news stories of the last year occurred on December 3, 2013, when the city of Detroit became the largest municipality in the United States to enter Chapter 9 bankruptcy.  A decades-long economic decline saddled Detroit with $18 billion in debt, high crime rates, extensive urban blight and, it would seem, a problem marketing itself to potential visitors.

But Detroit is one hard city to knock out.  (It is the home of Joe Louis, after all.)  From the Model T to Kid Rock, the Motor City has contributed enormously to the manufacturing, musical, and cultural life of our nation, giving it an enduring appeal.  The only northern city to have hosted two Super Bowls, Detroit plays annual host to marquee events such as the annual North American International Auto Show, and has one of the best theater scenes in the country.  Throw in three casinos, hydroplane races on the Detroit river, and loveable local fare have a Coney dog while you’re in town and there are a whole lot of reasons to make a trip.

Perhaps most curiously, at the same time that Detroit’s bankruptcy is playing out, the city is undergoing an undeniable resurgence.  Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, has not only invested mightily in city real estate, but has led a movement in which employers are relocating thousands of jobs to the downtown core.  Neighborhoods like Midtown and Corktown are bustling with energy, development projects, and attractive new restaurants not to mention hipsters.  It truly is a pivotal moment in the history of a proud city, and one that offers plenty of lessons for urban tourism marketers.

 The Way I See It

  • I see events that make the rich history of the city relevant today like the Woodward Dream Cruise, in which classic car owners cruise Detroit’s main drag before crowds of one million people as an ideal avenue to introduce tourists to the appeal of the city.
  • I see the current revitalization of Detroit as an ideal time for new brands like Shinola to build on the city’s manufacturing heritage and use it to their benefit in marketing.
  • I see Detroit’s image as a positive, not a negative.  Everyone loves a hard-fighting underdog (remember Avis’s “We Try Harder” campaign?), and despite the city’s economic challenges, I think today’s conventions and tourists are more eager than ever to experience unique, authentic locales rich in arts and entertainment.

The Way the Industry Sees It

I sat down with Renee Monforton, Director of Communications with the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, to hear more about the fascinating task rich with challenges and opportunities in marketing the city of Detroit.


How has the bankruptcy of Detroit affected your approach to marketing the city to conventions and other tourists?

The bankruptcy has actually served as an opportunity to tell the correct Detroit story while the eyes of the world are watching our city. Simultaneous with the bankruptcy, which is largely a city government issue and hasn’t impacted any services or amenities to visitors, another story is being written.  The story is that there has been more private investment in Detroit in two short years than in any time in decades.  More than 15,000 new employees have come downtown in the past two years and the city that was downtrodden a decade ago has now a 100 percent residential occupancy rate.  The city is undergoing an amazing transformation, truly earning its title as “America’s Great Comeback City,” the theme of our latest advertising campaign.  That’s the story we are now getting the opportunity to tell.

What’s the top reason that visitors want to experience Detroit? Also, let’s talk about the city recently remodeled its convention center.  How important has that effort been in attracting conventions to the city, and what amenities are they most interested in?

Detroit has a multitude of events and world class attractions that lure more than fifteen million visitors a year. The five main attributes of our destination for tourism are cars, culture, gaming, music and sports – we have unmatched opportunities on those fronts.  And on the meetings side, our $279 million renovation of the Cobo Convention Center has served as a major catalyst for new convention business. Everything there has been upgraded: from the facility, to the labor agreements to the customer service.  And as a result, we more than doubled the number of citywide conventions we are hosting from 2013 to 2014.

The “Pure Michigan” campaign has been very successful, but some might associate it more with Michigan’s lakes and northern destination cities.  Has Detroit been able to leverage that campaign to its benefit?

Absolutely.  Detroit is a partner on the Pure Michigan campaign.  We have two Pure Michigan television spots in rotation in national markets that have served us very well and have driven thousands of new visitors to our website.  Pure Michigan has done a lot to change the perception of Michigan as a state and when visitors come to this state, chances are they will take the time to visit its largest city.

What are the biggest misconceptions about Detroit, and how do you seek to correct them?

The belief that Detroit is ugly and crime ridden are probably the biggest misconceptions about Detroit.  Like most other large urban areas, Detroit has had its challenges but leaders in government, corporate and public sectors have stepped up in a big way to tackle those challenges and they have.  Many initiatives to highlight green spaces, clean the city and reduce crime have been in place and have made a huge difference.  We always say, “if you haven’t been to Detroit lately, you haven’t been to Detroit.”   The perception and reality of Detroit do not match at all.  Visitors are always pleasantly surprised and amazed by our city when they actually come here.

How does the city’s proximity to Canada play into your marketing efforts, if at all?

It’s huge.  We have partnered with our neighbors in Windsor, Ontario on many campaigns over the years surrounding the unique “Two Nation Vacation” experience we can offer visitors.  For example, we have partnered on African American Heritage initiatives.  Detroit was the last stop on the Underground Railroad before slaves fled to Canada and we’ve built tourism experiences around that historical event.  Windsor and Detroit have four casinos and we’ve jointly marketed those in the past as well as our gorgeous riverfront opportunities.  The tourism assets Windsor and Detroit offer are very complimentary to the other and together offer a rich vacation or convention experience.

What is the coolest object in your office?

I can only narrow that down to three.  I have a framed magazine article touting Detroit’s success in flawlessly hosting Super Bowl XL in 2006; a unique bid package that we presented and that landed us the American Society of Association Executives Annual Meeting (the “Super Bowl” of conventions) for next year.  And my personal favorite is from my Alma Mater, my Michigan State University Spartan troll.  Go Green!