John Cohen 

On conventions, Blue Man Group, SMERFs and MICE

When John Cohen was a boy growing up in the Bronx, he wanted to be either an astronaut or a travel agent. In either case, he was hoping to go places.

"We were also going on trips," he said, remembering that both of his parents worked in the travel industry.

Following a brief stint as an actor in Chicago ("I got it out of my system after five years"), Cohen took flight--quite literally--in the travel and tourism industry, leading him to his recent hiring as the executive director of the Boise Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

When you were an actor, did you perform in both musicals and plays?

No, I was a single-threat. My wife [Traci Lyn Thomas] is a real triple-threat. She has an incredible voice and is also an amazing actress.

Has she performed across the country?

Around the world. She was in the touring company of Les Miserables, which traveled across the United States and to Singapore. She has performed Off Broadway, with repertory companies across America and the Las Vegas production of Mama Mia. She even has a gig this summer, beginning in July at a summer theater where she has the female lead in Barnum.

Tell me about working for Blue Man Group.

It was an incredible show. I was director of sales for the Las Vegas production, which grosses about $50 million a year. Ninety-five percent of the people who attend that show are tourists. In a large way, it's much the same people we're going after in the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Your industry has some interesting acronyms, like SMERF and MICE.

SMERF are types of groups: social, military, education, religious and fraternal. MICE are on the corporate side: meetings, incentives, conventions and events.

When did the opening for the Boise job first come on your radar?

It was only this past January. I was working as executive director of the Durango [Colo.] Tourism Office, and my group sales manager came back from an event in Boise and she wouldn't stop raving about Boise. I had never heard her talk that way about any other place before.

Were you ready for a move?

Oh, yes. Durango is a wonderful tourism destination but it has a population of 15,000. My family wanted a larger city, but we didn't want to live in someplace like New York.

When will your family make the official move to Boise?

We're waiting until my daughter finishes 1st grade. Then we'll all move up June 1st.

At what point did the BCVB board tell you about the last couple of years? It's been a bit bumpy, to say the least.

Immediately. I learned quite a bit of the history and, yes, it's been bumpy.

It's a bit confusing to some citizens that there are different marketing teams for BCVB and the Boise Centre.

I looked at an old BCVB organization chart, which showed 14 people. There are three people here now. From my perspective, it's an organization that has issues, but at the same time, I wasn't here for that. For me, it's about looking to the future. We're underfunded and I'm looking to identify new revenue streams.

Who are your bosses?

The board once had about 30 people, but it is down to eight now. They're redoing the bylaws and looking at our strategic direction.

Can a visitors bureau for a city the size of Boise operate with three people?

Absolutely. We're generating more business than larger entities with much bigger budgets.

But doesn't that raise the question that a larger, fully funded staff could attract more business to Boise?

Right now, it's a matter of us developing relationships and increasing our revenue.

I see your schedule says that between now and November, you have a dozen important shows that you'll be attending to attract conventions and meetings.

Most of those are appointment-based shows.

Is that something like speed dating?

[Laughter] Yes, seven or eight minutes. But they're effective.

How do you keep your energy and focus?

It's a challenge. After a day of appointments--or speed dates, as you say--your brain can turn to mush, but you keep up your energy to make sure each is an individual conversation.

Do you see sweet spots in your marketplace that BCVB hasn't sought previously?

I do. I think we have a great website, a lot of imagination, but I think it's underperforming.

Can someone in your office help you with that effort?

We're geared for sales here. We're going to be outsourcing some of that social media effort.

Why was it a good idea for BCVB to relocate and share office space with the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce?

Tourism is a gateway drug for economic development, and vice versa. The service relationship with the chamber is an incredible value for $3,000 a month. I probably walk over to [Chamber CEO] Bill Connors twice a day. I was shocked to learn that a chamber director, such as Bill, had so much tourism experience and knowledge. It's a real plus for us.

How much of a grace period do you get before your board has great expectations?

I sit in my messy office and turn that mess into something less chaotic and more ordered. And as I do that, my brain better understands our financial challenges.

Is BCVB in a critical financial situation?

We're tight, but it's not critical.

What did you board specifically tell you what they wanted you to do when you came on board?

Build relationships with the business community, tourism community and help strengthen the state tourism effort. That's all crucial to this position.

Your new fiscal year begins in August. How do bookings look for FY 2014?

The economy is fragile and tender, but tourism has bounced back quicker than I thought it would. I think bookings are strong. BCVB was instrumental in securing the Davis Cup, and I don't think many people know that. We need to do a better job in getting our message out.

The Greater Boise Auditorium District is wrestling with whether we should build a new facility or remodel the Boise Centre. What's your initial preference?

It's in my nature to want more space. I don't know the complete ins and outs of all of that but my instincts will always be more: more meeting space, more hotel rooms. I'm pretty certain we could support a larger facility.

You're going to be asked your opinion on this sooner rather than later and be part of that conversation.

I sure hope so--maybe more so, if you print what I just said.

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