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EVANSVILLE, Ind. — After hiring a series of CEOs from outside the community, the board of Evansville’s tourism bureau stayed close to home this time.

Alexis Berggren is a Denver native who’s worked across the country, but she’s become a familiar face the last five years as general manager of Old National Events Plaza. Chosen in a 7-0 vote just before Christmas, Berggren takes over this month for Jim Wood, who is leaving after two years.

Wood led the Convention & Visitors Bureau (also known as Visit Evansville) through the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent the tourism industry -- both locally and nationally -- into an unprecedented tailspin.

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A full recovery could take years. Evansville officials point to success in restoring sports-related tourism, and the recently completed Deaconess Aquatic Center will provide another boost in that area.

COVID remains a challenge, however, especially in attracting larger meetings and conventions. Recapturing that business might require a shift in strategy, Berggren said. 

Evansville isn't widely thought of as a tourist destination, but according to the bureau, about 4,800 local jobs are tied to attractions, hotels, restaurants and shops. Taxes collected on hotel rooms support the bureau’s mission and activities.

The Courier & Press spoke to Berggren as she becomes the bureau’s new leader.

C&P: You came to Evansville five years ago after working in cities such as New Orleans and Los Angeles, and it seems you'll be staying awhile. What made this new opportunity attractive?

Berggren: I felt like there was such a strong support system here. There are a lot of opportunities out there right now, but this is the one that checked all the right boxes for me, professionally and personally.

C&P: Deaconess Sports Park and other facilities are helping Evansville draw youth sports tournaments, which bring good tourism business. How can the community keep that momentum going?

Berggren: We are a very strong market for amateur sports. That’s really our strong suit, ... where our best revenues are. We’ve got great facilities for that, from Deaconess Sports Park to Goebel Sports Complex to the Ford Center, and Angel Mounds for NCAA cross country. That’s where we’re going to focus a lot of our efforts. (During COVID times), amateur sports still seem to be a relatively safe area to continue to invest, sell, recruit. That is our largest opportunity area.

Even as we speak, there are upgrades happening with the turf at Deaconess Sports Park. We are already taking some of those steps to make sure that property is as viable as it can be for hosting a longer season, longer hours during the day and seeing that it recovers more quickly during storms. We’ll be able to see some increase in profitability from that standpoint here in the next 12-24 months. There are also some improvements at Goebel Sports Complex we’ve looked at with the city (such as) lights on the fields so we can operate longer hours and upgrades to the turf. We’ll continue to look at that.

Funding is always going to be an issue, and part of that is tied to how quickly we can get more folks into our hotels. It’s all going to grow gradually, and we’ll continue to look for outside sources of funding as well. We know there’s a lot of grants out there from American Recovery Plan Act, READI funds, some of which are already earmarked. But we’re going to continue to chase those things… there are streams of money coming from different organizations, from the federal level. You just have to go out and find them.

C&P: Evansville has long coveted more meetings and conventions, and a few have come here, but COVID has presented another roadblock. What's the outlook for this segment of our tourism?

Berggren: Conventions are always going to be a priority. We need to re-energize the convention market here. I think that’s been a long time coming and slower to rebound than we hoped, and COVID is a big part of that. If I’m being perfectly honest, I think we’re still three to five years away from real solid returns on convention business.

Part of that is because of COVID and the meeting planners. They have to be very specific in the destinations they choose because their success hinges on the number of people they can attract to their meetings. You are going to see the major markets and the destination markets come back, your Bransons and Gatlinburgs … we don’t have some of those attractions.

The sales team that’s been in place for a couple of years at CVB has been making great in-roads with our more traditional state association markets, building relationships, putting out proposals. But there’s another group of people who I think we can use to be our best champions, our cheerleaders. We want to talk to groups like judges, dentists, architects, health professionals, and put together a training and education program about what the CVB does, what tools we have to help them sell our destination to their peers and colleagues.

Given where we are with the industry right now, we have to start a little more local, try some new things, be a little more creative and innovative. I think that’s where we start, by engaging those folks … trying to get them educated in helping us tell our story.

C&P: What's the outlook for non-sports leisure travel?

I think we have some opportunity to grow. We have a great zoo, we have great attractions. There’s a lot of interest from our community leaders and partners in making more quality of place investment. That’s something we saw in our 10-year tourism plan as well — opportunities at Burdette Park, in NoCo, on the riverfront. So I think that’s also got to be a priority.

C&P: Occasionally there has been conflict between leaders of Visit Evansville and local government officials. What are your thoughts on how to address that?

Berggren: That was definitely part of the discussion (when I interviewed for the job): How do you feel interacting with elected officials? In the role I’ve been in almost five years, I’ve been very active with the county officials, and the pandemic allowed me to build some relationships on the city side, so that’s been great.

I plan to be very communicative, very collaborative. I think you’ll find me to be a fixture at all the city and county council meetings for a short time ... If you’re not there to hear discussion, let people know what you’re working on, answer any questions they might have, you’re missing an opportunity to let them be informed and get engaged in the process. 

Partly due to COVID, because we all haven’t been able to sit in the same room together, that’s been missing. One of the things I talked about in my job interview was values alignment — making sure we’re all understanding what the goal is, and aligned in the direction we’re going.

Source : https://www.courierpress.com/story/news/local/2022/01/11/alexis-berggren-evansville-tourism-ceo-2022-indiana-business-questions/9154719002/

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