How Columbus, Ohio’s Tourism And Convention Programs Are Getting ‘Smarter’

Columbus was already a "Smart City" thanks to grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Vulcan Inc. But as city tourism officials note, Columbus is focusing on ensuring visitors recognize it.

Experience Columbus and the Greater Columbus Convention Center have combined efforts to make visiting the Ohio capital easier to navigate by rolling out an app that reflects its Smart Cities ambitions.

The mobile app, Columbus2GO, will host specific “content channels” from city departments and local organizations to promote information about dining, arts, sports venues, entertainment, transportation aimed largely at travelers.

The app is powered by hyperlocal tech company Loud-Hailer, whose Connected Cities project began last fall with the launch of the Providence2GO app for the Rhode Island city. The app allows local businesses and public facilities operators to communicate with users via Bluetooth-connected mesh networks.

In touting Columbus’ visitor industry, the city says that it succeeded its 2017 goals and is looking to do the same for this year. Among 2017’s successes, last week Columbus officials pointed to bed tax collections hitting “an all-time high” of $46.8 million, which Experience Columbus and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission “beat production quotas, booking a record 508,859 room nights. And, Experience Columbus welcomed 186 new members, totaling 1,118 members and partners.”

And with unique visits to totaling more than 1.6 million — an increase of nearly 19 percent over last year — the view was that mobile-centric travelers will be expecting more portable access to what the city has to offer.

City officials also wanted to build on its existing Smart Cities program that started in November 2016. At the time, Columbus was one of seven cities — out of 70 competing — that was awarded $40 million from the Department of Transportation and $10 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s philanthropic organization Vulcan Inc.

The city has also raised $90 million from other private partners to carry out its plan, including $19 million in public money giving Columbus a total of $140 million to upgrade the transportation network, which paves the way for autonomous vehicles, electric car charging stations, traffic signals that can send messages to cars on its roads.

“As the recipient of the $50 million ‘Smart Cities’ grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Vulcan, Inc., Columbus is already known as a smart and open city. It was natural for us to be interested in becoming an early adopter of this discovery and engagement technology offered by Loud-Hailer,” said Greater Columbus Convention Center Senior Marketing & Communications Manager Jennifer Davis. “We launched our participation just before one of our huge annual events and are looking forward to seeing how guest engagement is driven and further enhanced through Loud-Hailer’s new Columbus2GO platform.”

A winter carriage ride in Columbus, Ohio.

“As people come to the convention center and visit the city, the Columbus2GO app can help them to explore and learn more about what else is going on during their visit,” said Loud-Hailer CEO Jack Chen. “In addition to focusing on the convention center, our technology will also be at the John Glenn International Airport. When people download Columbus2Go, they can start receiving local content and information as soon as they land.”

As Columbus officials work to increase awareness and bolster the city’s national image, Experience Columbus and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission is also pursuing marketing strategies with a new advertising agency, BVK. In April, an innovative ad campaign will launch in key markets to ensure that our national reputation matches our city’s progress and reality.

The community also is preparing for large, high-profile events and new attractions that will raise our destination profile and draw more visitors. In 2018, Columbus will welcome 28 large citywide conventions, a 17 percent increase year-over-year.

From March 30 to April 1, the NCAA Women’s Final Four National Championship will take place at Nationwide Arena. The event is expected to attract 80,000 fans over the four days, including 30,000 from outside the region, who will generate $20 million in direct visitor spending.

In the fall, the Hilton Columbus Downtown will break ground on an expansion that will add 470 convention hotel rooms. The additional rooms will give the city its first 1,000 room hotel attached to the convention center that national meeting planners require when booking large events.

With all that going on, Loud-Hailer’s Chen is billing the all-in-one city app for Columbus and other cities, such as Sacramento, CA., as a simple way to get visitors comprehensive information with as few clicks as possible.

“Because of the channel format of our apps, what we can do is, create an app within an app,” Chen said. “It’s a way to address app fatigue. Because right now, if you want to make your way throughout a city, you may need to download one for the convention center. And another app for an art exhibit, plus another for local experiences.

“What we’re building towards here is a single app platform whic different organizations can work off of,” Chen added. “In addition to reducing app fatigue, it also reduces the user acquisition challenge, since a user that’s acquired by one organization is a user that everyone can share. And that’s a win for the city and the visitor as well.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.