Positively Dave: Would a Gilbert by Any Other Name Care As Much about Cleveland?

David Gilbert is not the only D. Gilbert who works as an executive in the field of Cleveland sports. Dan Gilbert, the Quicken/Horseshoe/Cavaliers magnate, is perhaps the region's most recognizable. But Dave, as president and CEO of both the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and the tourism agency Positively Cleveland, toils daily to attract major events like the Senior Games and the Gay Games and NCAA tournaments to the 216. The Fed Cup—the international women's tennis championship—is coming to Cleveland this weekend and Scene was able to catch up with Gilbert during a busy morning at the company's HQ on Euclid and East Fourth Street.

I suppose we ought to address the elephant in the room.

I get called Dan on a weekly basis.

And is that...is that frustrating?

Believe me I take no offense. As long as my wife doesn't call me Dan, I'm okay.

Fair enough. Speaking of people who are not my wife, can we expect to see Serena Williams at the Fed Cup this weekend?

She is scheduled to be here. My understanding is that the USTA chooses the line-up and she has agreed to be here, presuming she's healthy. We certainly expect her to be playing.

Well, the tickets are certainly selling like hotcakes.

They're selling really, really well. It's the first national USTA event in Cleveland in many, many years.

The public auditorium should be a cool venue.

We had a tennis event there about a year and a half ago called Smash Hits Tennis. It's an event put on by the Elton John AIDS foundation, and he does it with Billie Jean King. They brought in John McEnroe [and others] and we set up a whole court and really got to see what it would be like as a tennis venue. We had a couple thousand people there and it worked out really well.

You're also in charge of Positively Cleveland. What's this I hear about a new branding effort?

We are kicking it off in March. And this is mostly for out-of-market people. Our job at Positively Cleveland is to advance the travel and tourism industries, and ultimately to bring more people to town. We've done a huge amount of research. We brought in the largest and best destination-branding firm in the world. They've done work from Barbados to Buenos Aires to Trump Hotels. It's a firm called MMGY Global and they blew our whole committee away with their approach.

What was so special about it?

They really did a lot of research of people's perceptions, and the fact is there's a visceral reaction to the word "Cleveland." They'd really never encountered this before, at least not at this scale. Their contention is that those crazy jokes about Cleveland exist and you have to meet them head on. You can't stick your head in the sand. Ultimately, what the brand is about is changing the narrative of the word Cleveland.

My sense is that those visceral reactions are much more pre-programmed in the older set. The boomers.

The research shows that absolutely. And not to the exclusion of others, but this effort will be geared more toward Millennials. The reason being that Millennials are the most open to visit Cleveland and the most open to new experiences. Right now, Millennials make 11 percent of travel decisions, but by 2020, they'll be making 33 percent of all travel decisions in America. It's the market segment where we need to target our resources to get the biggest return on investment.

As a point of clarification, you're getting your revenue from the hotel room tax, right?

That's correct.

So you must be pretty thrilled about all this downtown hotel construction.

Look, the number of room nights sold throughout the county—not just downtown—has gone up. Room rates have gone up too, so that certainly does help. For us, for all the main components of Positively Cleveland, if there are extra funds, it's all about return on investment. How can we do more with those dollars to try to bring more people to town?

I know that one aim is to draw major events here. Surely you've been a part of conversations about drawing one of the major political conventions. Is that on your radar?

It is. There's a group of organizations exploring the possibility of putting in a bid for one or both of the conventions. And we feel that from an infrastructure standpoint, particularly with the massive hotel development, we're far better positioned than we've ever been in the past.

Any other big-ticket events worth noting?

We just had the National Senior Games, which by the way had more athletes in town than the Summer Olympics had in London.

Get outta here.

There were just over 10,000 athletes in London. We had just under 11,000 athletes here in Cleveland. The Gay Games this summer, the NCAA Regional Basketball Tournament here in 2015. We were just awarded the NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championships in 2018. We actually just today were announced as a finalist for a big event called the U.S. Transplant Games which would bring probably 5,000 people to town. We're one of three finalists.

And what is that?

It's such a fascinating event. Think of it like the Olympics but for people who've had organ and tissue transplants. What's interesting about it is that it's such a meaningful event, much more than just an athletic event. The people that come are not just recipients, but donor families and living donors. It brings in a huge number of people. And these things build on each other. The success of the Senior Games, and how the community got behind the issues related to active aging, helps us when we go after something like the Transplant Games.

On an unrelated note, what's your take on the Skywalk downtown? At Scene, it's been pretty divisive. One group hates to see the streets lose valuable foot traffic. The other group thinks we should cater to the casino and the money it's bringing into town, even if it means catering to people who can't spend 30 seconds outside.

I don't think the two notions are mutually exclusive. Clearly having people on the street and making Cleveland a 24/7 city is critical. But I think the fact is whether we like it or not, there are certain people who don't feel comfortable. I'd rather have people come downtown and use the Skywalk than not come downtown at all. And I think for people who want to venture out on the street, to see what restaurants are around the casino, I don't think having the Skywalk there is gonna hamper them from doing that at all. I don't see a problem with it, even though I'm a strong advocate for increased connectivity of on-the-street experiences.

Man, so diplomatic.

I'm a big advocate of downtown. Even though we market the whole region—and you have to—from a visitor's standpoint, when you talk about visiting a city, you think first of a downtown. That's where the central point is and people funnel out from there. And I don't see the Skywalk as part of a movement to create a set of skywalks to keep people off the street. That casino is getting nearly five million visits a year. It's almost as many unique visits (not visitors, but visits) as almost every other major downtown destination combined.

To end on a fun note, you were one of Inside Business' Power 100 this year. Any designs to improve your ranking next year?

Not at all. To me, I love what I do. I feel very fortunate that I'm in a position to work hard to try to make a difference for Cleveland. It's what I've tried to do my whole career. Whatever that means to other people, that's up to them.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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