Above: The Core Group of planners meets to discuss logistics of the Red Carpet Tour. Photo by Scott Robertson
By Scott Robertson
The economic development game is all about connections. Communities hire economic development professionals to connect with site selection consultants who connect with the companies that can bring jobs back to the communities. The broader a community’s circle of connections grows, the greater the likelihood that one of those connections will bring that community the jobs and capital investment it seeks.
With those principles in mind, NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership has been working to grow its Red Carpet Tour event for the last few years, bringing site selection consultants into the county to see its assets firsthand. The event has brought in consultants from around the country, including two who have already been instrumental in bringing a new employer (Agero) and almost 600 jobs to the county.
But it’s not just the connections between the economic developers and the site selectors that can make a difference in a community’s future, says Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS Sullivan County. It’s also the connections between economic developers themselves. Just so, it’s not only one county that can convince an employer to select a particular site, it’s a region.
So when NETWORKS hosts site selectors for this year’s Red Carpet Tour August 18-21, the Tennessee Economic Partnership (TEP) will get top billing. Save the date cards that have been sent to site selectors already refer to this year’s event as the TEP Red Carpet Tour. “We are members of the TEP and we commit $10,000 a year,” Walker said. “You have to be at that level of participation – in fact, I think it’s gone up to $10,500 – to be eligible to host a red carpet tour. And we receive a grant from the TEP.
“The TEP is part of Team Tennessee that you hear Commissioner Boyd talk about,” Walker said. “TEP is the marketing arm of the state. That gives us credibility as this is a Team Tennessee event. That resonates with our consultants. This isn’t just one community trying to get consultants into town. This raises your profile.”
“Other partners we recruit because they work leads on projects include the NETVRIDA,” Walker said. “They give us money. They help us plan. They attend the event. TVA gives us money and they are present as well.”
Along those lines, the Knoxville Chamber, which has taken part in the NETWORKS Red Carpet Tour before, has ratcheted its partnership up. “They are going to put some money into it,” Walker said. “They are going to have a representative from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to speak to the consultants about ORNL as an asset to all of East Tennessee. It really has more of a regional flavor. That’s great, because we are seen as a regional leader – not only through site location consultants, but through the Tennessee Department of Economic Development, TVA, AEP and other economic development organizations throughout the state.”
“Having the Knoxville Chamber take part is a big deal,” Walker said. “That organization is a high-profile economic development entity. That will raise our profile and how we’re seen with site selection consultants in general.”
That cooperative feel isn’t just something that’s being marketed to interested parties outside the region. Michael Parker, executive project manager for the event, said the core team that gets the lion’s share of the advance groundwork done is an eight-member group with two members representing Kingsport and two members representing Bristol.
“Tom Anderson is the economic development director for Bristol,” Parker said. “April Eads is a senior account manager for Bristol Tennessee Essential Services. Lynn Tully is development services director for Kingsport and Corey Shepherd is a business development specialist for the city of Kingsport as well.” Those four individuals meet regularly with Walker, Parker, Brian Ritz and Dana Glenn from NETWORKS as the main “boots on the ground” team.
As June drew to a close, Parker was chasing down consultants to get attendance confirmations. Invitations to the top two tiers of consultants had already been sent out, and a couple of selectors had already confirmed their plans to attend. “Our target list of consultants has about 30 on it,” Parker said. “From that we usually start with about 10. Then we take 10 more and 10 more until we get our final number between eight and 12. Consultants are allowed to bring a plus-one. We take care of all their travel and accommodations. We do all their airfare. We purchase all their stuff.”
Each invitation arrives at the office of the site selector in a box that also contains a small plastic race helmet, emblematic of the Bristol Motor Speedway, which will be hosting the August night race the weekend of the tour.
“You have to do little things like that because the top consultants could spend their time every week going to somebody’s red carpet event,” Walker said. “You have to stand out and bring some value.”
“When we send these invitations out,” Walker continued, “we send them to 25 or 30 consultants that we target knowing we won’t get half of them. But almost all of them, whether they can make it or they can’t make it or they don’t want to make it, will call us. Now our per unit cost on those invitations is about $37. I’d write checks for $37 all day long to have five-minute conversations with consultants. So even for those that don’t come, the fact that we’re having this event – and I know that’s hard to touch and feel and quantify – there’s benefit. You have to have faith in the process.
“One thing too that I think is very important for people to know,” Walker said, “is the business part of the agenda – Friday is a business day when they learn about our product. The top site location consultant will not come to your event just to have a party. They ask to see the agenda before they commit to coming. When they see that they will learn about the region and the state, that’s what brings their attention in. Having a fun event obviously is a key part of it, but they’re not going to come just for the event. They’re working. They want to take away knowledge, and that’s why we want them to be here.”