– By Julie Kemble Borths
Outside her window, it was a perfect Cincinnati summer afternoon. The Reds were winning; Fountain Square was filled with office workers and families taking advantage of a humidity-free day; and down the street, the valet line was full outside two hotels as visitors arrived for the weekend.
Inside Julie Calvert’s office at the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau, the day was shaping up to be even better: The New York Times had just published an homage to the city, particularly celebrating the arts and the charms of a Midwest escape.
“We are No. 8 on their 52 places ranked,” Calvert said. “The only city in the Midwest to make its list. There’s a lot of pride and gratification in that.”
Calvert knows a lot of heavy lifting occurred long before that story was published. She knows because she and her colleagues worked to promote the region long before she was named CVB’s president and CEO in May.
“This is not just a job for me,” Calvert said. “It’s a passion. Every decision I’ve ever made has prepared me for this one – bringing people to Cincinnati.”
Her passion for the community and what she describes as a “deep-seated belief in the people of this region” stretches back to her childhood.
Calvert grew up in the area, studied journalism at Miami University, then moved to Boston to work for a paper there. In a phone call, her mother reminded her that Oktoberfest was going on in downtown Cincinnati. “And I got so sad,” she said. “I missed it so much, just going to a festival like that.”
She moved back to Cincinnati as a reporter and editor, worked at a communications firm and then served as CVB’s vice president of communications and strategic development. Before returning to CVB, she created Source Cincinnati as a way to make sure positive stories revolving around Cincinnati achieved a larger audience.
Source, which she considers her greatest achievement, had been built upon her years of storytelling, whether it was in the wake of Cincinnati’s riots or amid the energy of the 2012 World Choir Games.
“When I first got into this, it was widely accepted that Cincinnati’s reputation wasn’t good or bad – it was neutral. It’s just that no one was thinking of us.” – Julie Calvert
“When I first got into this, it was widely accepted that Cincinnati’s reputation wasn’t good or bad – it was neutral. It’s just that no one was thinking of us,” Calvert said. “That’s opportunity.”
Comparing it with a blank wall, Calvert said that through Source (powered by the CVB), the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, and REDI, they could paint that wall and tell stories that would create interest, draw businesses and increase the number of visitors. And when that happens, she said, “that’s like depositing money in a city’s bank account. It builds the tax base. It keeps the streets clean and repaired. It helps our social service programs. We just have to be intentional in telling our story.”
Jill Meyer, president and CEO of the Chamber, said when Calvert was at Source, she gained a “unique insight … into a new way of partnering. That lifts the entire region.”
Calvert said Source’s work was essential because “someone needed to wake up every morning and that’s their sole mission … to tell the region’s story.” So she did, telling stories about everything from real estate development to beer brewing, police-community relations to street art. With Cincinnati tagged in articles published across a range of outlets, Source reported more than $7 million in value to the region through stories it helped generate in just three years.
Leadership and collaboration
By returning to CVB, Calvert wants to take that even further, continuing CVB’s collaboration with groups like the Chamber, REDI Cincinnati and 3CDC, while enticing more convention leaders to the city.
Johnna Reeder, president and CEO of REDI Cincinnati, said Calvert has “street cred” when it comes to selling the city. “This work is complicated, messy, competitive and political. Julie’s had years of experience with these dynamics that serve her well.”
While Reeder’s focus is on long-term business recruitment, she said the collaboration among the different groups is game-changing. Calvert “knows it is easier to succeed by building alliances and involving others in the process,” Reeder said.
Delores Hargrove-Young, now vice chair of d.e. Foxx & Associates, has served on the CVB board and witnessed Calvert’s enthusiasm and commitment to the region. “The CVB punches above its weight class. However, under Julie’s leadership, we will have a TKO,” Hargrove-Young said. “She wants everyone to recognize that we are a city on the move.”
By involving REDI, the Chamber and other entities, Calvert says she strengthens the region’s hand in what is essentially a sales job with a twist – the payoff is usually three to four years off. Right now, she is working to get conventions to the city in 2027. The product is “the perfect piece of land” in Greater Cincinnati for organizations to gather. And the best pitch, Calvert said, is the story of the place – its walkability, its people, its food, its history and its future.
“When we do that, we see people come back,” Calvert said. “Our weekend occupancy is up because visitors return after they see what Cincinnati has to offer. And when we have that energy, people who live here develop such pride. They like to come here to show off their hometown, and they plan staycations. There’s a passion for this city.”
Meyer said Calvert has a knack for knowing the importance of uncovering the “secret sauce” for what makes the region stand out. “When she was leading us through the regional DNA work with LPK, she wasn’t satisfied that we were finished with the work when others thought we were. … Though we had the sentence, we didn’t have the exclamation at the end yet. She pushed until we got there. That exclamation point is the premise that at the core of our region’s DNA is connection, which permeates everything else.”
Though we had the sentence, we didn’t have the exclamation at the end yet. [Julie] pushed until we got there. – Jill Meyer
Connections that residents feel, that visitors enjoy and that businesses thrive on – that is what makes Cincinnati sellable, Calvert found.
A better place for everyone
Calvert discovered this in a profound way at a Cincinnati nonprofit event. “I was at St. Vincent de Paul, and we were talking about poverty. The executive director shared a thank you letter they had received that day. In it, the woman thanked the staff and the donors, and then she said she hopes that Cincinnati can continue to prosper. And I thought, yes, that is why we are here.”
Making life better for that woman means the region is a better place for everyone, Calvert said. “And that’s why we have to press on the gas with what we are doing … and it’s why being here is not just a job for me.”
Julie Calvert: on a more personal note…
Family: She and her husband, Christopher, are raising two sons, 13 and 9, in their Anderson Township home. They divide their time with the kids’ interests – baseball, golf, theater – and sneak in time for adult-only bike trips or golf outings.
What she’s listening to: On her commute, usually some kind of news like NPR or the “Today Show” on the radio
Last movie: She has a 9-year-old, so it was “Peter Rabbit.”
Books on the nightstand: “Sisters First” and “My Year of Yes”
Quotes that guide her: “Do your best until you know better. And when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou
“You’re not that good to get that upset.” – Bob Harrison, her father, a golf pro at Clovernook Country Club, as they played golf together
Travel dreams (from a woman who specializes in getting other people to travel here): Florence, Venice, an African safari and Tahiti
Recent memorable vacation: A spring break with her family in downtown Cincinnati, with time for four museums, a trip to the top of Carew Tower and lots
of great restaurants