Keith Arnold is president and CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

He is the former president and general manager of the New Mexico Slam, Albuquerque’s International Basketball League Team. He also served as the president and CEO of the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau, where he developed the organization’s first tourism packaging program, implementing their first cultural tourism guide; and led their marketing efforts culminating in more than 1,000 members and 448 conventions booked.

Prior to his position with the Albuquerque CVB, Arnold was the CEO for the Corpus Christi Business Alliance and Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, directing the consolidated agencies of the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Corporation, Convention and Visitors Bureau and Small Business Development Corporation. During his tenure in Corpus Christi, the area advanced from the No. 5 to the No. 2 leisure-travel destination in Texas.

Arnold served on the board of directors for the International Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus for three years, and as chairman of IACVB’s education committee for two years. He has also held community and industry leadership roles including the Board of Governor’s of the Art Museum of South Texas, a seat on the board of directors of the Better Business Bureau and the Red Cross in Albuquerque, president of the Virginia Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus and the board of directors of the Metropolitan Economic Development Commission in Richmond, Va.

Arnold’s wife, Linda, is the development officer at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois. They have two sons, Will, 27, and Rider, 21.

Tell us about your background, schools attended, family, etc.

I was born in Niagara Falls, NY, attended Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, and received a BA in English in 1972. I graduated and received a certificate in association management from the Institute for Organization Management at the University of Delaware in 1988.

I went back to school and started my MBA program at Texas A&M, Corpus Christi, in 1994. I’ve been in the business of destination marketing for 23 years and have served in leadership and educational roles with the International Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus for more than 10 years.

Convention and Visitors Bureaus are "cheerleaders" for the area. How important are CVBs to their communities?

Convention and Visitors Bureaus are very important pieces in a diversified economic development portfolio for any community.

CVBs are sales and marketing agencies that have convention planners, sports and athletic event planners, motorcoach tour operators, and individual and family leisure travelers as their core customers. The business measurement of CVB effectiveness is centered in the expenditures of visitors within the community the CVB represents.

In our area, visitors spend more than $130 a day on hotels, restaurants, entertainment, shopping, etc., and PACVB generated more than $18 million last year from business it directly sold and/or serviced.

Tell us about the "Illinois River Country" tagline. What feedback have you received? 

The Illinois River Country tagline represents 28 partners from the public and private sector who are investing close to $300,000 to promote our area to Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis.

The tagline was developed to find a description that could be "bought into" by cities and towns, attractions, hotels, etc., from throughout our multi-county region. The primary vehicles used to market Illinois River Country will be 1 million Spring/Summer and 1 million Fall/Winter eight-page inserts distributed through the top newspapers in the three-city target markets to families of four with incomes of $50,000 or better.

The tagline was well received among the cooperative advertising partners as best evidenced by the level of investment in the campaign.

Having worked in other communities, what strengths do you believe Peoria has and should promote? 

The Peoria Area’s strengths are clearly in the areas of cultural and arts offerings, golf, antique shopping, outdoor recreation, and festivals and special events.

Current tourism trends indicate we are a strong weekend or extended weekend destination because Peoria is accessible to 15 million people within a three-hour drive, is a good value, is safe and comfortable, has a lot to do for three to four days, and is easy to move around in once you arrive here.

Clearly the Illinois River and its beautiful, natural shoreline is a primary asset and a unifying factor for our region.

Explain how the PACVB is supported and how that has changed through the years.

PACVB is funded by a percentage of the hotel tax paid by visitors to the City of Peoria and by grants from the state also funded by a statewide hotel tax. Almost 10 percent of the PACVB budget comes from members who support our efforts with private sector investments in dollars and services.

No money is taken from local citizens’ tax dollars, and PACVB returns more than $25 to the community for each dollar invested from the city’s hotel tax collections.

The Illinois Bureau of Tourism’s budget was recently cut 28 percent. How will Peoria and other communities try to recoup those dollars?

When the state cut our LTCB grant by 28 percent, we cut back on some programs and dipped into a small reserve fund so the PACVB would not have to drastically impact its overall marketing program.

As previously stated, these grants are funded by a statewide hotel tax, and our principal concern has been that cutting back marketing would further reduce the visitor base that pays for the program. We have further encouraged our legislators to fully fund the program so that we can be more aggressive in bringing back the dollars from visitors that are so vital to the economy of the State of Illinois.

What are the top priorities for the PACVB and how do you plan to approach them?

The top priority of PACVB is to expand our marketing to reach beyond the traditional base of business we enjoy.

In convention sales we are looking to book more Midwestern regional and national groups, in addition to those we currently host regularly from Illinois. In sports marketing, we are working closely with Eastside Center to find more national tournaments and events. 

In the tourism marketing side, we are building more tour packages/itineraries to try to book more motorcoach tour business throughout the entire year. The Illinois River Country initiative is aimed at expanding individual and family travel to our region.

The Peoria Civic Center is an important element in the PACVB’s success in attracting conventions and visitors. Is expansion needed?

The Peoria Civic Center is a key element in our group and family marketing plan, and, in my estimation, it definitely needs expansion in the exhibit space areas.

If we are going to be competitive in bringing regional and national conventions to our area, we need space that is comparable, at least, to Grand Rapids, Des Moines and Omaha. Additionally, the Civic Center has capital improvement and aesthetic needs that have to be factored in the budget planning for any expansion. Our hope is to have an request for quotes out to companies that do feasibility plans shortly.

There have been numerous hotels built in our area in the last five years. What is our hotel occupancy rate? What is ideal?

Our hotel occupancy rate percentage hovers in the low 60s, while an ideal rate would be close to 70 percent on an annual rate.

Each year PACVB books more room nights, but the market expands with more rooms that absorb the marketing gains in the expanded hotel inventory. There are more than 1 million rooms available on an annual basis in the tri-County area now.

How will O’Brien Field and riverfront development help to attract conventions and visitors?

O’Brien Field and riverfront development both offer significant opportunities for increased marketshare in both group and individual traveler segments.

O’Brien Field gives us a venue around which to build weekend packages for key series, a chance to tap into the St. Louis Cardinals fan base, a new seating size and configuration to try and attract offseason athletic events, and a site for conventions that would use outdoor facilities.

The riverfront is already a growing draw for visitors, but with expanded retail and attractions, it offers a unique site to package festivals and special events with O’Brien Field and Civic Center activities.

How important is the PACVB’s Web site in marketing Peoria? Explain the recent changes to your Web site.

The business of tourism marketing is becoming more and more dependent on the Internet as a source of information and a point-of-purchase vehicle. PACVB’s Web site has been an award-winning information site, and is moving into the interactive side of e-commerce.

Earlier last year we made package purchase information available on the site, and customers could learn about special value packages on the site before calling our 800 line to make a credit card purchase. This month, prospective visitors will be able to view and purchase packages directly from the Web site without any outside help.

Also, the inserts from the Illinois River Country will have their own pages on our site, and cooperative partners will be able to access visitor inquiry lists for the program on a password access page connected to the site.

The number of conventions this year is the same as last, but hotel occupancy is up. What do meeting planners look for when considering a city for a conference/convention?

Convention planners look for unique cities that aren’t like every other city they used in the past. They look for quality accommodations and suitable meeting sites.

They require a good price value for their delegates. They look for a variety of off-hours activities for their attendees, good highway and air access and a destination with a reputation for providing community support and hospitality along with overall top quality service.

Safety, cleanliness, and ease of moving the attendees to and from meetings onsite also fit into the ideal convention site equation.

Do most conventioneers drive to Peoria from the area, or do a significant number use our airport?

The majority of the conventioneers today drive to Peoria. However, exhibitors for the tradeshows that accompany large conventions fly here more often.

What improvements to our city would be at the top of your list?

The proposed cultural center would be an excellent asset to improve our attractiveness to conventions and visitors.

More interactive attractions in downtown would help make the Civic Center area and riverfront more appealing to our markets.

Expansion of the exhibit halls and upgrades to the overall facility of the Civic Center would enhance its marketability. The I-74 project may cause some interim inconvenience, but it will contribute to the long-range attractiveness and ease of travel we need to bring visitors to this area.

It may be a result of living in a lot of other places, but I feel strongly that this entire region needs to be more proud of what it has to offer.

Individually and collectively, we can bring a lot more tourism business to our region if we are more aware of our unique assets and amenities, and we work together to promote and grow those strengths. IBI