When Matt Lewis is out of town promoting all that Richmond has to offer, he meets people with two widely different perspectives: Those who have been to Richmond, and those who have not.
While those who have visited the city rave about its historic waterfront, parks, food options, affordability and central location between Napa’s wine country and San Francisco, those who have not often decry its reputation for crime.
It’s a vexing issue for Lewis, the first-year executive director of the Richmond Convention & Visitors Bureau who is tasked with attracting travelers and business functions to the city. For many outsiders, simply seeing what Richmond has to offer is believing.
“To give you an example, at a Bay Area travel show at the Santa Clara Convention Center – the first month I started – many people came up to my booth and were extremely complimentary, pointing out the Rosie the Riveter [Visitors Center], the national park, the history,” Lewis said. “It seemed to be people who had never been to Richmond who had the perception issue. That has been the challenge.”
Lewis has the additional challenge of proving to outsiders that Richmond is more than just safe, but overall a superior experience to world renowned cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. This is not new territory for Lewis. Getting people excited about a diamond among many other diamonds isn’t foreign to the former global sales director for the Nikko Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Lewis has also worked with San Francisco Travel, Kimpton Hotels and the San Mateo County Convention Bureau.
Unlike past roles, Lewis has a special passion for his current job. As a San Pablo resident since 2009, he’s discovered the reason Richmond’s motto touts “pride and purpose.”
“I have served on the San Pablo Community Foundation, and across the street from my house is Helms Middle School,” Lewis said. “Some of the funds we approved helped build that school’s football stadium. It was a fantastic feeling, seeing everyone pull together. That’s what happens here in this community, all the time. It’s very noticeable how people here are committed to Richmond.”
So how does Lewis sell Richmond to outsiders with negative perceptions? One strategy: Location, location, location. Richmond’s rates for hotels and spaces are not only more competitive than San Francisco’s, the city is centrally located between two of Northern California’s largest tourism draws: SF and Napa. The local city has fewer big-city issues regarding parking, along with access to buses, BART, Amtrak and soon the Richmond ferry.
“Affordability and rates for our hotels is definitely a driving factor, as is location,” Lewis said.
Adding to his sales pitch are Richmond’s colorful traditions, including events such as the Rosie Rally, the newly launched Taste of Richmond (pictured below) that brings all of the city’s delicious foods in one spot at one time, and annual festivals such as Juneteenth and Cinco de Mayo.
Despite these pluses, Lewis faces an uphill climb in changing Richmond’s outside perception. His largest obstacle turns out not to be the crime rate — which has greatly reduced since 2009 — but rather funding. Lewis has a staff of just one – a part time office manager. Although she’s “exceptional,” Lewis said, the staff size is frustratingly limiting. If he had one more full-time staff member, the bureau could launch a more advanced print, digital and social networking campaign, he said.
Still, Lewis touts having a “wonderful board of directors” and is pushing forward with a marketing plan that includes an upcoming new website. The website will feature an active calendar of events, and also an app allowing clients to easily request convention information and rates, Lewis said.
It’s a start, and Lewis says he simply won’t let up in his mission to shape a positive perception for the city. After all, as a community member, he knows a thing or two about having pride and purpose.