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Alumnus driving Columbus to head of the pack

Robin Chenoweth
April 17, 2018

Experience Columbus CEO’s days fast-paced, competitive

First cars aren’t always the best indicator of who their owners will become. But EHE alumnus Brian Ross’ 1971 jade-green Buick Skylark conjures a few comparisons. While not a GTO or a Mustang — he’d get one of those later — his first wheels had muscle-car tires. The hood had air scoop vents and packed a V8 engine. “It was a beaut,” he said.

More than swagger, his Skylark could outpace other cars.

Ross, ’90 BS, worked three years to get that car, washing dishes at the Seville Inn in his hometown of Seville, Ohio. That, too, says something about Ross, who hates scrubbing pots. But he would employ that same tenacity and his hospitality management degree to scale the industry ladder. He worked for Hyatt Hotels until he was a director of sales, then a director of marketing, and then a divisional director managing 24 hotels. He joined Experience Columbus, the city’s convention and visitor bureau, in 2007 and became its CEO six years later.

As his team will tell you, and the Buick predicted, Ross doesn’t like being last at anything. He’s at the gym when the doors open at 5:30 a.m., and on a recent Wednesday, was there at five. (The guy has connections.)

Whether he’s doing high intensity interval training or lifting weights, his morning routine gets Ross into the zone. Working out becomes working-out-work-issues time. “It’s my time to think about not only now, but where I want to go, what things are happening, what we need to be doing,” he said.

On that Wednesday, Experience Columbus was to host its bimonthly board meeting at the Columbus Museum of Art. Some of the city’s heavy-hitters would be there — L-Brands and Pizutti Companies execs, university officials and city representatives. But characteristic of Columbus, an early spring ice storm dumped disorder on the roads that morning. Ross — who’s not a worrier — was a smidge nervous about having the quorum of members needed to pass resolutions and vote in new members. He ratcheted up the conditioning.

A new expansion of the Hilton Columbus Downtown hotel will allow the city to be more competitive in booking large conventions.

Two hours later, he was freshly dressed and pressing the flesh at the meeting. A handful of empty seats remained. For those present, he parsed new statistics showing that Columbus has gained in areas but lags among competitors in revenue per hotel room: The city ranks eighth among 11 comparable Midwest cities. Not good enough. “We want to be in the top three in our competitive set,” he said.

Dan Williams, the bureau’s vice president of convention sales, detailed how a pending downtown hotel expansion will help get them there. He echoed the Ross mantra: Columbus is now the second-largest city in the Midwest and is leaping forward in travel offerings and visitors. Visitors generate $6.4 billion each year for the area. But the city needs mega hotels to land the mega conventions and the big revenue those bring.

Halfway through the meeting, the last board member straggled in and a quorum was reached. The attendees applauded. A new advertising firm pitched its new campaign for the city, “pressure-testing” it against the board’s movers and shakers, who offered insights. Meeting adjourned, Ross shook more hands and hopped into his Mini Cooper to head back to his Arena District office.

Pushing Columbus forward

The Women’s NCAA Final Four was headed to town, so the bureau was in full-tilt prep mode. Securing the tournament was a coup for Columbus, years in the making, and if the city played its cards well, more would follow.

If the competition on the basketball courts was fierce that week, the drive among cities to land signature events has become dog-eat-dog. Ross’ team scour competitors’ stats for hotel occupancy, average daily rates, revenue per available room. (Their competitors do the same.) They know when a new hotel will be built in Pittsburgh, when a convention center has closed for renovation. And they create informed strategies to bring in events like the American Society of Association Executives annual meeting, which is booked for Columbus in 2019.

It’s not just events. Cleveland, Nashville, St. Louis, Charlotte and other cities are vying for casual tourists, too. “Pittsburgh is trying to get our visitors; Indianapolis is,” Ross said. “We’re all competing to get that family or that individual or friends getting together. We want them to come here, but they have a lot of choices.”

That competitive climate might set some people on edge. Ross — quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back on his high school football team — thrives in it.

“He’s really interested in being at the front of the pack,” said Joe Vargo, Experience Columbus’ director of interactive marketing. “He wants all of us to be industry leaders, meeting the challenge. He’s really inspirational and really good at understanding the community and figuring out the best solutions not just for our organization but for the whole city.”

Columbus' Arena District has become an entertainment hotspot that offers modern urban living options as well.

Metamorphosis of man and city

Over a chopped salad at Lindey’s, Ross recalled his first job out of college. Downtown was a far cry from today’s Columbus. The Hyatt Regency opened in 1980; he began working in the hotel’s sales department shortly after graduating in 1990.

In between bites of lunch, he told the story about the first large group he booked, which used an alias. His sales director summoned him to his office. “You know who that is? That’s Snoop Dogg,” the director said. Cool. Except the rap star had just been acquitted for murder and a media circus hounded his every move.

“They’re like, now we’ve got a problem,” Ross said. “We’re going to have to, out of our own pocket, pay for all this security. Columbus Police were calling asking who booked this.”

Ross offered to work the group overtime. “Luckily everything went well, and (the director) liked the fact that I said ‘I’m in. I’ll work the event. Something goes wrong, I’ll be there.’ It was a major learning lesson.”

Ross went to his first rap concert and remains a Snoop fan. He's still "all in" when it comes to promoting Columbus, but the town itself has changed. And he's had something to do with that.

In his post-college days, “coming downtown in Columbus wasn’t like coming downtown is now,” he explained. “There was no Short North. There was the Short North Posse. They still had the prison downtown.”

“My wife and I never thought about moving downtown. Never. In my office, I could see the right edge of High Street and Nationwide Boulevard; after 5 o’clock weekdays there were cars in line to get the hell out of town.”

He and the city have come full circle. He lives across the street from his sleek office, both buildings on the footprint of the old penitentiary. The gym is right next door and Huntington Park and the Nationwide Arena are in his backyard. Nearby restaurants and bars abound with patrons day and night.

His fancy hotrods are gone, and soon the Mini Cooper will be, too. He’s giving up the car in the interest of cross-the-street commutes. But he’s still driven.

“I’m always looking at how to get better,” he said. “There are always people out there working harder, who are smarter, who are advancing, so you have to keep pushing forward.”


A compendium of Brian Ross jobs

  • Dishwasher, Seville Inn
  • Bailing hay and dairy farming, Seville-area farms
  • Bartender, Varsity Club
  • Bartender, R&R at the Continent (he met his wife, Mary, there)
  • Sales manager, Hyatt Regency Columbus
  • Director of sales, Hyatt Regency Chicago
  • Director of marketing, Hyatt Regency Chicago
  • Divisional director of sales, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts
  • Vice president of sales, Experience Columbus
  • CEO, Experience Columbus

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