Q&A with Mike Burns: Convention center will change events in OKC
In October 2020, Mike Burns was named as the interim president of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau after serving as its vice president of convention sales and services.
Burns comes to Oklahoma City in an interesting time for the region’s hospitality industry: while conventions and events have been severely impacted by COVID-19, the city is also on the cusp of opening a new convention center and its corresponding headquarter hotel. Read on for Burns’ thoughts on the current state of the hospitality industry and how we can expect it to rebound in the next few years.
VeloCity: Set the scene for us by giving us an idea of where Oklahoma City’s hospitality industry was before COVID hit, and what it looks like now.
Burns: When I look back to where we were in February, we were seeing a major increase in lead generation for Oklahoma City with new customers interested in all of the exciting things that were going on in Oklahoma City, including the new convention center and the Omni Hotel. Lead volume was up 20% year-over-year, and we actually expected that to increase to 40% year-over-year. And then March hit. We had to spend the next two months looking at new strategies and doing more with less. There was a lot of hard work and resiliency on display within the hospitality industry during that time, and a real spirit of “we are Oklahomans and we can get through this.”
Things changed dramatically, but as we look at where we are today, we have seen a decent recovery and have every expectation that the industry will continue to rebound with the announcement of two successful COVID vaccines being distributed in 2021.
As you mentioned, Oklahoma City will soon see the opening of a new convention center and its headquarter hotel. What approach are you taking to marketing these new venues? What kind of interest are you seeing from meeting planners?
Our mission is really to put heads in beds and promote tourism, primarily to people outside of 50 miles of Oklahoma City. A big part of accomplishing that mission is through convention sales. We’ve been working on promoting these new venues since construction began, but it definitely helps when people are able to see them in person. COVID has definitely slowed that aspect of our promotion plan.
Once people see what we have to offer, it really resonates that we have a unique community culture and a lot of first-class assets that in many instances are better than big cities. And once we get customers here, we have a conversion rate about 75-80% of the business that we want to find and bring in.
Right now, we are working with the Oklahoma City Convention Center, the Omni Hotel and other partners in the community to host members of the Professional Conference Management Association January 12-16, 2021. We’ll be one of the few places to host as an in-person, live event where we hope to bring in up to 200 customers that have not previously experienced OKC. That will help accelerate the opportunity to get people to understand our destination and what we have to offer. While it intentionally isn’t a large event, these are the people that are decision-makers for literally thousands of meetings and events throughout the year.
What kind of competitive advantages do you see for Oklahoma City in a post-COVID era?
I think we will have a competitive advantage in a couple of ways. First, the Oklahoma City Convention Center is state-of-the-art. You can’t underestimate the draw of a new venue to people who host events year after year. It’s also an advantage to have the connection between the convention center and the outdoor space offered at Scissortail Park, especially as many events are using outdoor programming to increase safety.
I think our biggest competitive advantage is that we are currently able to host events when many cities are not. We've been blessed with the fact that we've been able to execute horse shows and other events safely at the Oklahoma State Fair Park. We've had more than 500,000 attendees since May that have actually safely participated in the various events in Oklahoma City. We’re well ahead of the curve as far as welcoming people back into the community.
Prior to MAPS 3, Oklahoma City was at the lower end of the second-tier cities based on our convention space and hotel rooms. Since that time, we've added tons of hotel rooms now with the Omni and all the benefits of the new convention center. Who do we compete with now with the new assets we have?
We're moving out of a regional destination set, into a completely different competitive set that includes as an example Houston, Louisville, Fort Worth, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. It’s a much broader national scope.
What can Oklahoma City residents do to support the hospitality industry while we wait for the COVID vaccine to be distributed and event business to rebound?
I think the most basic thing we can all do is continue to do our part to slow the spread of COVID. Right now, our numbers make hosting events more challenging, and the sooner we can get this pandemic under control, the sooner we can see a return to larger indoor events.
I also think that residents can often be complacent in taking advantage of the attractions of their own city, so I would also encourage people to explore a new museum, park or district during the holiday season. These partners have been very innovative in how they’ve implemented safety protocols without impacting the overall experience.
In addition, you can also connect the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau to any organizations or companies that host annual events. A simple introduction from you to our sales team could be all it takes for us to land a new event.