Tourism is up in Detroit. What does that mean for the city's economy?

After several years of advertising Detroit as "America's Great Comeback City," the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau unveiled a new marketing campaign this year, shifting focus from changing perceptions of the city to selling it as a bona fide tourist destination. Whereas billing Detroit as America's Great Comeback City was an image campaign, the new one, It's GO Time, is a retail campaign.

"There was this outdated perception of the city and we had to work to change that," says Renee Monforton, director for the Visitors Bureau's Marketing & Communications department. "Now that we're beyond that, we're getting into retail messaging."

Monforton, who has been in her role since 1996, says that selling the city as a destination has gotten easier over the past five years — and a lot easier than it was 20 years ago. In just three years, from 2014 to 2017, tourism numbers for the metro Detroit region jumped from 14 million visitors to 19 million per year

She says the bureau, which counts hosting out-of-town journalists among its tasks, would have been happy with hosting 30 journalists per year just two decades ago. The Visitors Bureau has hosted more than 200 journalists this year alone, 130 of which were international visitors.

"The local economy is good, there's so much private investment and interest in the city. We don't foresee that changing any time soon."

When it comes to tourism in Detroit, so much comes down to narrative. Of course, that's what tourism is — telling a story.

Jeanette Pierce has been telling stories about Detroit for more than a decade and, as a lifelong Detroiter, presumably much longer than that. Pierce is the founder of the non-profit organization Detroit Experience Factory (DXF). She and her team have taken more than 115,000 people on experiential tours of the city since the group's founding in 2006.

For years DXF was located downtown, and Pierce has seen the many changes that have swept through the city center. She tells her guests to expect even more changes in the future.
Jeanette Pierce (photo courtesy of Detroit Experience Factory)
"If Detroit was in the middle of a baseball game of comeback, we'd be in the third inning," Pierce says. "As many changes there have been in the past ten years, the next ten will see even more."

The reasons people visit Detroit have changed over the years, too. The number of conventions at the revamped Cobo Center continues to grow, drawing in an increasing amount of business travelers the world over. A new bar or restaurant seemingly opens every week. The RiverWalk, having already cemented itself as a magnet for visitors from throughout the region, continues to expand. New sports and entertainment venues like Little Caesars Arena draw in tens of thousands of visitors a week.

More visitors mean a need for more hotel rooms. Monforton says that the new boutique hotels are especially popular, a list that includes the Foundation, the Siren, and the soon-to-open Shinola Hotel.

The economic impact of all this is huge. Visitors are helping to drive the local economy, with $6 billion per year in direct spending on things like hotels, restaurants, and cab drivers throughout the region, says Monforton.

And then there are the city's evergreen tourist attractions: cars and music. Each continues to draw robust numbers, perhaps best evidenced by the Motown Museum's recently announced plans for a $50 million expansion.

For a long time, Detroit was a destination for reasons more undesired. Throughout the first decade of this century, countless books and art gallery exhibits highlighted the city's numerous abandoned buildings. And while a then-derelict Michigan Central Station was grand in scale, gawking tourists left a bad taste in the mouths of the people that actually live here.

"We would never do ruin porn tours," Pierce says. "Instead, we try and educated people on how locals feel about these things. It's more important to provide context as to why things are the way things are.

"That narrative is an old narrative."

Telling the story of everyday Detroiters, and not necessarily those on the front page of the newspaper, has always been Pierce's goal. She started DXF after moving downtown in the early aughts, wanting to give more exposure to the small businesses she frequented but didn't see represented in the media. 

DXF gives private and public tours, guiding people throughout downtown but also in the neighborhoods. Its tour guides are residents of the city, an important distinction for Pierce, and provide insights into both the good and bad. Pierce's goal is to offer tours that aren't a typical drive-by but a more immersive experience.

As a result of her work with DXF, Pierce found herself invited to other cities to teach the lessons she's learned about telling the story of place. She's starting a new organization, City Institute, to do that on a more permanent basis, offering insights to cities that include Akron, Las Vegas, and Chicago. Rather than give two hour tours, she'll be giving two day forums. She'll remain with DXF in an advisory role.

Though Detroit has changed a lot these past ten years, and interest in the city continues to grow, the mission remains the same. Pierce and DXF will continue to provide context. After all, she says, sure Detroit was named one of the top places to visit by The New York Times for 2017. But it made the same list in 2008, too.

"As much as things have changed, there's a general outside negative perception of Detroit from the last 30 years that can't be suddenly overturned — even though we try. It has to be a more incremental shift," Pierce says. "And then there are the people on the tours that think Detroit is perfect and we have to make sure they understand the challenges we still face.

"We're always challenging the prevailing narratives."
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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.