Craig Davis arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994 after stops in Toronto (he’s a native of Canada) and Chicago, and started working with VisitPITTSBURGH, the city’s convention and tourism bureau, in 2000. Twelve years later, he was named president and CEO. He recently sat down with Blue Sky to talk about how far the city has come since he arrived, the importance of community partnerships and the one place every visitor has to see.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What first attracted you to the hospitality/tourism industry?
When I was 12 and living in Fort Erie, Ontario, I worked at a golf course cleaning the members’ golf clubs. I got to know the members very well and I learned how to interact with people and I learned the hard work you had to do to get tips. I later worked as an RA for the University of Western Ontario and I had the opportunity to work over the summertime when they turned the whole campus into a hotel and convention space. Then I started to work for Hilton Hotels and Resorts in Canada.
You joined VisitPITTSBURGH in 2000 and have been the CEO since 2012. What’s changed about Pittsburgh as a destination in the last 19 years?
If I can go back to even before that, I transferred to Pittsburgh in 1994 and started work at what was the Vista Hotel, now the Westin; I was the director of sales and marketing. At that time, the city had really hit bottom and had started to come back up. After the convention center and the new stadiums opened up, that changed our fortunes dramatically. That brought along an onset of brand new hotel builds and new attractions. The convention center was sort of the anchor of the whole thing.
What were some of the first things you looked to do once you became CEO?
I got lucky because all of the things that happened here were a result of the really great partnership between the elected officials and the business community to really make things better. Our city is a really wonderful product to sell. When I first started at VisitPITTSBURGH, we would tell our customers that Pittsburgh isn’t as bad as you think it is. Now that has come full circle – we are not apologizing for the city anymore and, in fact, people are coming to us and telling us they are interested. That comes from all the lists we have been on; that third-party endorsement has been incredible for us.
Can you share a couple of short-term goals for VisitPITTSBURGH?
The short-term goals are of course to support any new routes that the airport can provide for us. Just as we did with London and Frankfurt, we will throw our resources into those markets to really help to extend the impact of those flights and the brand new channel of business that has been opened for us. The second goal would be to really engage our community a lot more in the power of tourism. Our product is our people – our product is, of course, our bricks and mortar – but the people make this special. Nobody is going to invest their own money in Pittsburgh unless they visit first. That first visit is so important, and while we don’t control it, we promote that visit. We bring people, and people bring investment.
What do visitors say they want to see and do here? Are there differences in those answers between domestic and international visitors?
I think for the most part, our experiences do touch the hearts and minds of both travelers. People come in, of course, for events. A lot of people come in for Steelers, Pirates and Penguins games, and thank goodness we have them in the region, but we also have great experiences, such as cultural events. The other thing that speaks to people is that unique American experience: friendliness and wide open spaces. We are very representative of Americana. You will recall that last summer we brought in visitors from China, where wide open spaces are at a premium.
What role does the airport play in making Pittsburgh an attractive place for tourism? What are your thoughts on the Terminal Modernization Program?
The entrance of Christina (Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority) and her focus on air service development and expansion is an incredible opportunity for VisitPITTSBURGH to latch on to new feeder markets. Having that kind of culture at the airport is very much in keeping with ours. Right now, we have a pretty impressive airport, but the renderings I have seen of the design of the TMP really do speak to the message we relay to all of our travelers. It is a message of green, robotics, and next-gen A.I. That is really echoing the message we are talking about to our customers. The visitor experience is something that we cannot control but it begins at the airport.
What are some of the ways your team is out there marketing Pittsburgh that the average person might not be aware of?
We are not marketing to Pittsburghers, we really want people to come into the city and stay overnight. Our tag is, “Pull Up a Chair. You are Welcomed Here.” Success is bringing dollars and investment from the outside in, through filling up hotel rooms, putting butts in seats, heads in beds. Our target is 100 miles and out.
We, along with our partners through the coalition of the airport, Washington County, Butler County, Laurel Highlands, Monroeville, and the Allegheny Conference all work together to promote the region. What people might not realize is that we bring in a lot of travel journalists. While we can’t tell them what to write, invariably I have never seen a bad review of Pittsburgh. That is a very believable way of telling our story because it is an informed third party that is not being paid.
If you had one afternoon to tour a visitor around a spot in Pittsburgh, what is the one place you would take them?
The Strip District, because it’s real, it’s authentic. Great food with a vibe and a buzz that hasn’t changed. It is just real Pittsburgh.