Blog: Jerry Kathman

Spend a minute or two over the next few days with Jerry Kathman, President and CEO of Cincinnati based LPK. As a leading authority on the role of design in brand building, he's got a few things to say about Cincinnati's unique brand as seen through the eyes of business travelers as well as what we've got over Singapore and Vancouver.

Post 2 - Just Visiting: Imagining a business trip to Cincinnati

In my previous post, I talked about perspective and the fact that there seems to be an absence of objectivity amongst the locals when describing our city.  I want to take another pass at perspective.  This time, I want to develop an imaginary tale of a business visitor to our fair city and what his/her experience might be.  How would that experience measure up to other destinations?

My business travels have taken me lots of places.  In my consulting work, I’ve been to many of the glamorous, over-crowded capital cities of the world.  I have also traveled down muggy dirt roads in the Mississippi heat, and felt the sting of the winter wind as I parked my car in the middle of nowhere in Western Michigan. The dull toil of commerce brings you to quite a range of places.  Like many a business traveler, I feel like I’ve seen it all.  I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the places I’ve visited.  In other cases, I walked back onto the plane scratching my head saying, “I don’t get it.  Why does this place have such a great reputation?”  Preconceived notions lead to disappointment or delight, depending on your perspective.  I suspect my experience is typical.
Now imagine a business traveler coming to Cincinnati.  I am in fact serving as co-chair for a conference that will be held in Cincinnati in June.  The Design Management Institute is holding their annual International Branding Conference in Cincinnati.  The attendees are mid-career types.  Most of them have large departments reporting to them.  They run the design functions in places like BMW or IBM.  Alternatively, they may be a manager in one of the large brand design consultancies located in the United States, Europe or Asia.  This conference has taken them to places like Vancouver, Chicago and Montreal in recent years. These are well-traveled folks.  I’ll write more in my next piece about branding and the unique concentration of brand design expertise in Cincinnati.  In this post, however, I want to focus on that imaginary visit to Cincinnati.

First of all, the pilot announces that you’ve just landed - in Kentucky. There’s a momentary panic where you think you walked onto the wrong plane back in your embarkation city. You then get into a cab. The cab ride is a bit creepy, but then that’s pretty much the norm everywhere, unless you are coming from Britain or Japan where the standards are quite good.  In other words, your expectations are pretty low for the cab experience.  If you are lucky, you don’t have to indulge in some sort of tedious conversation with the driver on a topic that has no interest whatsoever to you.

You arrive at the Netherland Hilton in Downtown Cincinnati (that’s where the DMI Conference will be held).  You are pleasantly surprised by the elegance of the art deco architecture.  You walk into the lobby, take a peek into the restaurant, and by now are feeling quite good.   This is a world-class hotel and you’re soaking in the beauty of the place.  It’s an afternoon in late spring.  The weather is temperate and there are flowers everywhere.  In the lobby, you bump into a fellow member of the Design Management Institute and you agree to spend the afternoon and evening together.  The conference sessions will actually begin the following morning.

You turn to the concierge and ask for some tips on food and things to do.  You’re delighted by the variety of restaurant choices – everything from a French bistro to a brewery pub.  Because you are a designer, you ask about museums and galleries.  You are astonished to learn that you can walk to six or eight museums and galleries from your hotel.

As a seasoned traveler, you can’t remember the last time you had so many choices available to you without the complexities of jumping on a train or getting into another one of those creepy cabs.

You particularly enjoy house museums and so you elect to head to the Taft Museum of Art (the concierge begs you to also see the Contemporary Arts Center and the fabulous Zaha Hadid design while you are in town).  The Taft is a delight – a lovely important American building housing a great collection of art.  Your colleague is a bit of a baseball nut and convinces you to stop at the Reds Museum on your way back from the Taft.  You find out that Cincinnati had the first professional baseball team – who knew?   The museum is a celebration of America’s great summer sport.  You see the Pete Rose exhibit and are reminded that Pete hit a lot of balls (and had a lot of balls).  By now you are a bit tired and the thought at stopping at the Freedom Center causes you some hesitation.  Your friend has more energy than you, and you decide to go for it.  You walk inside, not sure what to expect. 
Once again, you are dazzled by your environment.  You are forced to confront America’s original sin – the African slave trade in a setting of great beauty and gravitas.  You learn some things about what life was like for the victims of this barbaric institution.  You are surprised to learn the economic scale of American slavery in the 19th century.  You then learn a bit about human trafficking today.  Most painfully, you realize that this issue is bigger today than at any other time in history.  You are moved and, in an odd way, rejuvenated by this jolt to your sensibilities.

You head back toward the hotel.  You stop at the French Bistro the concierge recommended.  You find it authentic and welcoming and have a delightful meal.  (You remind yourself that you’ve got to get back to Paris again.)  The sights and the sounds of the fountain beckon you.  You notice the Graeter’s Ice Cream store.  Your talkative concierge told you that Oprah Winfrey claims this is her favorite ice cream.  You are required to give it a try.  You sit near the fountain watching the ambiance of city life.  It is a thoroughly cosmopolitan experience.  You weren’t expecting to be delighted.  You came to this city not sure what to expect.  Your friend confesses that he thought he was going to Cleveland.  He hadn’t read his itinerary carefully.

You head back to the hotel.  You are tired but look forward to the conference sessions and the networking that will begin in the morning.  You agree to meet your colleague for a run along the river in the morning before the sessions begin.  You are given a running map that will send you along a scenic path to a great urban park on the river.

It happens here every day.

Stories like this occur every day in Cincinnati.  Some of the most famous cities on Earth are not necessarily great business trip destinations.  I recall going to a conference in Vancouver.  I was elated at the thought of spending time in what everyone says is one of the great cities of North America.  When I landed, the physical beauty of the city was not to be denied; the water and the mountains are breathtaking.  The downtown, however, is a bit dull.  There aren’t a lot of good restaurant choices.  There are no museums or galleries that come close to the quality that is available in Cincinnati.

Business travelers bring a different set of expectations with them.  They are not tourists.  They have been lots of places and are generally open-minded about any city they visit.  Cities delight or disappoint these travelers every day. 

Cincinnati is fully capable of delighting a business visitor.  If a visitor has the ambition and time to explore further, the Museum Center and the Cincinnati Art Museum are world-class destinations.  The encyclopedic collection housed at the Cincinnati Art Museum is a rare find anywhere in the world.  Of course, Mount Adams, Northern Kentucky, and a list of other places, are also great discoveries for a visitor. 

Cities talk a lot about quality of life, and they should.  But it is interesting to ponder for a moment what the quality of a visit entails.  We look pretty good in Cincinnati. 

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