The Leaders of DCI Explain How to Make Your City a Magnet for Workers, Conventions, and Visitors

Karyl Leigh Barnes, Andy Levine, and Julie Curtin.

Development Counsellors International (DCI) helps local businesses, government, community associations, and the travel industry work together to increase destination tourism, become preferred locations for conferences, stimulate business investment, and be an attractive place for highly-valued employees to relocate.

Development Counsellors International Is a Leader in Innovative Economic Development

Whether you lead a struggling startup, a thriving small-to-medium business, or a corporate department that has strong local ties, if you are in most cities beyond the major hubs, you know that your company and the community would benefit from attracting some deserved attention.

Development Counsellors International (DCI) is a small business with a huge impact when it comes to”place branding.” That can include guiding cities, states, and countries on how to attract more visitors, investors, and talent. 

Tourism is big business, and knowing how to turn an overlooked area into a hot destination for both domestic and foreign visitors is something DCI has mastered. It also knows that business tourism, specifically conferences and events, brings potential business investors and skilled labor into communities that they may have never before considered.

And for any company, making its location of greater interest for visitors would have the effect of also making it an attractive place to live for its workforce and to attract highly valued prospects. That pool has become larger with the option to work fully or partially remotely, with many seeking somewhere to live that is less expensive and crowded than the major hubs, more beautiful, with a vibrant arts scene, restaurants, wineries, and better schools.

DCI can provide an integrated program to make all this happen, which is one of the things that makes its work unique.

You can see the list of its more than 500 clients, past and present, on its site, including Chile, Armenia, Namibia, Belize, Japan, and the Netherlands.  It drew the attention of North American travelers to post-apartheid South Africa, brought “The Today Show” on a two-week road trip to Australia, and launched the world’s first fully remote work visa during COVID-19 with Barbados.

The Evolution of Integrated Economic Development

DCI was founded by Ted Levine, father of the current chairman, Andy Levine, in 1960 in New York City.

“It was a pretty simple operation in the beginning, with my father and his assistant, Millie Brown, in the storage room at Uncle Benny’s office in midtown, with two desks surrounded by boxes of fluorescent light bulbs, and a mimeograph machine that leaked ink all over the place,” Andy Levine told Startup Savant. “It had grown to just 8 employees when I joined in 1991.”

He was surprised to discover that the client renewal rate was less than 40% a year and set about improving that with new services so that it is now 85%-90%.

“We learned that there are always new ways to do things,” Levine said. “We have added services like branding, digital marketing, providing in-depth research reports, engaging with the travel trade, helping clients attract business events, website design, and lead generation to identify executives who want to relocate, expand, or start a new business. In recent years, we have also focused on client profitability, not just growing our revenue. We now have around 90 employees, with some in our offices in Denver, Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.”

The positive experience in Canada led to recently setting up a joint venture in the Netherlands, C-Studios, which will help DCI grow in Europe, where it has had clients for decades. 

“On the economic development side of our business, we have worked with more than 45 of the 50 U.S. states and 8 of the 10 Canadian provinces, helping them attract investment and talent, promoting them as hubs for job opportunities and amazing places to live,” said Julie Curtin, DCI’s president of its Economic Development Practice. “We publish an annual ‘Talent Wars’ report that identifies what makes talent tick, what works and doesn’t to draw and retain highly-valued employees who have many other options.

Tourism Is a Major Economic Booster

In 2023, the global tourism sector is expected to reach $2.29 trillion, according to Statistica, surpassing the record of $2.2 trillion set in 2019. 

DCI coached its travel industry clients through the pandemic, when worldwide revenue fell to $1.3 billion in 2020, gradually rising to $2 trillion in 2022. With international borders closed, the company’s pandemic-era strategy zeroed in on encouraging Americans to travel close to home, helping second-tier cities and rural destinations boost their profile among meeting and conference planners, as well as leisure travelers. This strategy also helped to retain as many tourism industry jobs as possible.

“We know how North American travelers–leisure, corporate, and association–select tourism destinations,” said Karyl Leigh Barnes, president of DCI’s Tourism Practice. “Our team includes experts from the tourism and aviation sectors who contribute marketing strategies that create demand for regions that want to attract different types of travelers.”

As a travel writer, I have experienced the fruits of their strategy in places such as San Antonio (Texas), Cartagena (Columbia), Toronto, Jamestown/Yorktown (Virginia), San Luis Obispo (California), and Chickasaw Country (south of Oklahoma City). 

The company’s work to secure meetings and conventions for locations around the world is of particular value to clients. There is an Economic Index Calculator that is used by more than 300 destination organizations worldwide to measure net new money coming to a community because of meetings and events. As an example, DCI was able to achieve an impact for Thailand of $13.6 million for helping to bring the World Congress on Pain there, as well as $8.1 million from the World Allergy Organization. That financial investment by visitors is felt community-wide, it notes.

Domestically, community and state organizations have counted on DCI to raise their profiles among travelers, including state tourism offices from California and North Carolina, as well as the tourism offices for cities like Seattle (Washington), St. Louis (Missouri), Jackson (Mississippi) and Chattanooga (Tennessee).

Internationally, clients have included the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau, Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism, Visit Brussels, Visit Scotland, the Israel Ministry of Tourism, the Korean Tourism Organization, Ecuador Ministry of Tourism, and Tahiti Tourisme.

“One of the mistakes that many communities make in trying to attract tourism or investment dollars is the Follow the Herd Mentality, attempting to copy other successful places,” Levine explained. “A better path to success is to develop a deep understanding of your community’s unique selling proposition and then marketing it effectively to the right target market. For economic development, it’s better to focus on match, rather than reach, contacting a small number of qualified prospective investors, rather than trying to ‘carpet market’ all over the place. The most important place to start is to tell your story at home, before telling it externally. Residents and local businesses are the most effective representatives of your community and if they can engage this audience on your behalf, you’ll have much greater success.”

Enlightened Management of a Small Business

DCI has an unusual “open book management policy,” implemented in 1995. Known as The Game, it provides the company’s billings, operating expenses, non-reimbursable expenses, and a profit/loss summary to all staff each month. When the profit margin hits a specific percentage, a portion of the profit is distributed across the entire company. The objective is to educate every staff member on how DCI creates both stability and growth.

In 2020, DCI launched an initiative to “close the opportunity divide and remove roadblocks for the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community to enter and grow in our company,” noted Barnes.  It has also partnered with the Black Travel Alliance to bring creators to work with clients, prioritizing telling stories of diverse business owners and leaders through public relations and aligning the imagery used in marketing materials.

In June 2022, DCI was awarded the Best Internal DEI Initiative in the Boutique Agency Category by the Diversity Action Alliance, a coalition of public relations and communication leaders to “accelerate progress in the achievement of meaningful and tangible results in diversity, equity, and inclusion across our profession.”

“Our uniqueness is our strong suit,” said Barnes. “By offering a comprehensive list of services from traditional public relations and influencer marketing to digital campaigns and creative branding, our one-stop approach gives us an edge over the competition when it comes to attracting destination clients in the tourism and economic development space. We’ve proven our value over the decades, but we’ve never rested on our laurels, and I believe the clients who work with us know and appreciate that.”

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Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

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