Rolling Out the Red Carpet. Denver is no novice when it comes to hosting thousands of individuals who travel here for work or play. Yet making sure visitors to the Mile High city are embraced and treated as if this were their second home is no small feat. With the international spotlight shining on the city in advance of the Democratic National Convention, the stakes are raised, and the challenge is on to welcome delegates and travelers. Three women have made it their priority to ensure visitors have the opportunity to witness Denver in all its majesty.
Chief government and community affairs officer at Denver Health and president/chair of the Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee
Elbra Wedgeworth understands that to turn a dream into a reality one must be willing to go to great lengths and to work tirelessly to watch the dream take root and grow. If not for her vision, fortitude and unwavering belief, her dream of having Denver host the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC) would likely have remained but a wish. Wedgeworth is clearly a woman who has erased the word “no” from her vocabulary. Indeed, her persistence to hear a resounding yes began in 2005, shortly after Howard Dean was elected chairman of the Democratic Party. Dean was in Denver for a reception; she was on hand to make a suggestion that would one day rally Democrats and Republicans alike in a way that Denver had not witnessed since 1908, when the city last hosted a Democratic convention. “I was listening to the governor speak, and at the same time I was thinking, this city has played host to World Youth Day, All Star Games and other events that drew huge crowds. I thought to myself, ‘Why couldn’t we host the convention?’” Wedgeworth recalls.
Her wondering became a persistent theme, and she began making the rounds, bringing up the idea to friends, associates and the powers-that-be at places such as the Visitors and Convention Bureau and in meetings with government officials. “Denver had twice applied to host the convention, in 2000 and 2004, and neither bid was successful,” she says. “When the city hosted the convention in 1908, the presidential nominee was William Jennings Bryan, and Denver wanted to get the convention to encourage economic development and to promote the city — which are all the same reasons we wanted it now.” Within a few weeks, Wedgeworth and company assembled a group of individuals for an early morning breakfast. More than 100 people showed up to support the idea, and Wedgeworth asked Mayor John Hickenlooper to submit a letter of intent to start the process. Initially, 34 cities were competing to host the convention, then 11, then three. And in the end, Denver stood alone as the city that would host what will surely go down in history as a convention that is remarkable in so many ways. It’s not just the fact that she had the vision to bring such a monumental event to the city. It’s also the way it came about that has Wedgeworth so excited about her city and all the people who willingly and enthusiastically came together to help her realize her dream: “We raised $400,000 as we went through the bidding process, and no taxpayer money was used. The Democratic National Committee was so impressed and excited by our enthusiasm that they truly realized this was something we could pull off. They looked at what we had to offer, and they liked what they saw.”
Wedgeworth, who serves as president and chair of the Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee, credits more than 26,000 volunteers and a rock-solid infrastructure with the successful bid. “We have several hotels, great cultural amenities, the Pepsi Center, the Convention Center and everything in place to make this a perfect venue,” she says. “This is an event that will showcase Denver, attracting 15,000 media people from around the world. Everyone will see Denver for what we are, and that outreach cannot be bought.” How did one woman, whose beginnings are undeniably humble, have the fortitude and foresight to start the ball rolling on such a grandiose scale? A look at her past reveals how and why she is so passionate about her city. A Denver native, Wedgeworth was raised in a housing project in Curtis Park, the youngest of six children. Her political activism began in the 1980s, when she helped a friend who was involved in a legislative race. In 1989 she worked as an analyst with Denver City Council, and in 1990 she was appointed by Denver City Auditor Wellington Webb to serve as the legislative liaison to the City Council and the Mayor’s office.
When Webb was elected to the Mayor’s office in 1991, she went to work with him. In 1995, she was appointed Denver City and County Clerk and Recorder and served as a member of the Denver Election Commission and the Board of County Commissioners. In 1999, Wedgeworth was elected to the Denver City Council and later served as its president. Today, she remains the only individual to have served in all three branches of Denver’s city government. Last year, Wedgeworth stepped out even further when she became the chief government and community affairs officer at Denver Health. Tasked with overseeing all governmental legislative matters on the local, state and federal levels, Wedgeworth seems to shrug off the massive responsibility as just another facet to her life. “Denver Health has been great, and (Denver Health CEO) Dr. Patricia Gabow has been very supportive. As women, we have to keep that balance, and to realize there is never a good time to do a difficult thing. I love challenges, and I’ve been able to accomplish things I’ve set out to do and do them well,” she says.
One of the greatest challenges in her career occurred in 2003, when the Denver city government experienced its largest-ever turnover, with 10 of 13 new council members, a new mayor, new city auditor and two new election commissioners. “My role was to get all these people working together, to trust one another and to communicate. We were $75 million in debt, and I worked under the realization that when you’re in the foxhole, you can’t fight with each other, you fight together to get out and succeed,” she comments. Clearly, Wedgeworth’s love of public service is a strong testament to her understanding that in order to effect change, one person must be willing and able to initiate it and see it through. “I’ve always known what a great place Denver is, with its cultural diversity and all it has to offer. Now we can showcase this to the world. Whether we’re thinking about hosting a future Olympics or reaching out to a corporation looking at putting its headquarters here, we’re on the world stage. But even more importantly, we’re hosting the next potential president of the United States,” Wedgeworth says. “Every mayor and governor will be coming here, many for the first time. It’s true democracy in action, and inspiring to so many youth who will see they truly can make a difference in the process by simply getting out and voting.” She sits back with a satisfied smile, adding, “Gov. Dean has told us we’re one of the best organized committees he’s seen. We’re all working well together — the executive committee, the host committee and the staff. The upcoming convention of 2008 will be one of the most memorable in history. And as a black woman from East Denver participating in this process, it’s an unbelievable experience.”
Vice president of tourism, Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau
Jayne Buck could easily be mistaken for a one-woman welcoming committee for the city of Denver. In her role with the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, she oversees all marketing initiatives relating to leisure visitors. For Buck, a huge event such as the Democratic National Convention is but part of her job, albeit an exciting project that will propel her beloved city into the international realm. Buck’s work focuses on the consumer traveler — the leisure visitor that includes families and individuals, international travelers who could include Denver in their travel itinerary, and niche travelers such as people coming for weddings or reunions. “We are one of the most isolated cities in the United States, and, as such, Denver is very dependent on the airport and air travel to get folks to visit us,” she says. “We’re 500 to 600 miles from the closest urban centers, so we put strong emphasis on advertising to weekend travelers when the hotels are not already filled up with business and meeting travelers.”
The bureau’s work is largely collaborative and reaches well past downtown Denver to represent seven counties in the area. As a not-for-profit organization, the 99-year-old entity is contracted by the city to carry out its role. Funding for these efforts comes from tax and membership revenue. Membership consists largely of companies and individuals in the hospitality industry. Buck’s emphasis combines a one-two-three marketing punch that incorporates print, online communications and public relations to build awareness of the city. The goal, she explains, is to tell the story of why people should come to Denver, a tale that extends well beyond marketing to a family that may be considering a vacation in the mountains. “Some of the decision makers in the boardrooms will make travel decisions based on destination appeal. That said, what image of the city exists in the minds of these individuals?” she asks.
On the consumer marketing side, Buck relies on national research data that shows people are looking for “authentic, memorable experiences rather than things,” she says. Accordingly, the bureau two years ago introduced its “What the Locals Know” campaign featuring actual Denver residents, such as a cabdriver who encourages visitors to head down to LoDo. Buck derives strong satisfaction from the fact that her job is made easier because she’s marketing a city she so clearly adores. “As we point out to visitors, we have 300 days of sunshine, great neighborhoods, and we’re located very near the Rocky Mountains but not in them. You can take a day trip there and later return to a thriving urban center. The last two years have seen a cultural renaissance in this city that has turned it into a very walkable place, but one that retains the feel of a larger sophisticated city,” she adds. Her team at the bureau has worked hard to create a consistent message of Denver’s image as a city that has made it to the big leagues and has a great deal to offer in the way of dining, cultural attractions, high-end retail and tourist-friendly ambience and infrastructure.
Yet like all savvy marketers, she understands that just saying the words, whether in print or electronic media, will not necessarily convince visitors that Denver is the place they’ll want to visit. She knows that if people come to a city and have anything less than a first-rate experience, they’re not likely to make a repeat visit. This was the impetus for the bureau’s “Go the Extra Mile” hospitality program, endorsed by the mayor. A citywide initiative, the program is intended to make exceptional hospitality a way of life. Buck explains, “We’ve targeted employees on the front line, the ones whom visitors see and interact with, such as cabdrivers and hotel staff. We have a highly educated work force here, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily welcoming. It’s not just about holding a customer-service curriculum to turn this around; it’s about teaching people to be excited about their city and to go that extra mile for visitors. “We’re showing them how they can tell visitors about the hidden gems that exist here and to make them feel like locals. One impression can make or break an experience, and if they meet people who are personable and engaging, it makes a huge difference for the visitor.” The goal is to train 5,000 people, all individuals who are in jobs that require first-line contact with visitors, such as at airports and in guest services and public transportation.
Buck cannot help expressing excitement over the upcoming Democratic National Convention, which she says carries immeasurable long-term public relations benefits.
“We’ve had more exposure in travel magazines and other media in the last six months than ever before. The PR is saying that Denver is a grown-up city with all the great things to see and do, and that is priceless,” she says. “The fact that we can host a convention of this size is phenomenal, and it puts us in the big leagues because of the high-profile nature of the event, rather than its size. “It also attracts an immense concentration of international and domestic press, and so far when people have come here, they’ve been absolutely wowed. There are not many American cities where you can walk to countless museums, a baseball game, an amusement park, great shopping and kayaking. People really can’t believe it when they see it!” Buck says that though the buzz is on the August convention, her group, which is apolitical, looks at the impressive event as part of a much larger effort to sell the city. “We’re trying to attract business 10 years out, and we’re always developing and refining best practices. We’re never going to be a Las Vegas, New York or Chicago in terms of size, but I like where we are and where we’re headed,” she says. “In life, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time,” Buck says. A Minnesota farmer’s daughter, she came to Denver nine years ago, divorced, with no family or friends in the area.
She recalls, “I hadn’t had a job for several years since I’d been a fulltime mom. When I decided to get back in the work force following my divorce, I worked in the convention industry in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I heard about this job in Denver, and I accepted it. I was crying on my way to the airport, and I remember the taxi driver saying, ‘It’s OK. It’s gonna be OK. It’s a nice place to live.’” From the moment she arrived, Buck remembers being struck by how nice a city Denver was. “I knew no one in Denver except one former client, and it was an experience to pick up and move at my age. I’ve always been struck by what a welcoming, accepting attitude the people here have. I’ve never had so many close women friends, and all these women are so strong, intelligent, fun, creative and interesting,” she says.
She continues, “Everyone here is open to new ideas, and there’s still this Western entrepreneurial can-do spirit that is just remarkable. Cultural institutions are thriving despite the hard economic times, and I get to market it. Denver is consistently rated as the best place to be single. I think I would add — for the rest of your life!”
Senior advisor, policy and initiatives, mayor’s office
For an individual who juggles multiple responsibilities and efforts, Katherine Archuleta is remarkably poised and calm. She exudes an air of confidence and possesses the “no job is too big, no challenge too great” attitude that commands immediate respect. As a member of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s senior staff, Archuleta advises the mayor and chief of staff on issues and policies that affect human services. Her scope of work runs the gamut from recreation to health services and education, particularly the delivery of those services. She also oversees federal legislation strategies and agendas to assess how well the city is working with federal partners in Washington and to determine how to secure more federal monies. Add to that her task of overseeing the Greenprint office and its staff, and you begin to get a sense of just how busy Archuleta’s days must be. But wait. There’s more. For the last 18 months Archuleta has been the key individual to assume the lead as the city’s liaison to the Democratic National Convention. She was involved in the initial bid process on behalf of the city, and since day one has helped create and set the vision by working closely with DNC officials and the host committees. “When this first started, I was devoting a couple of hours every day to the convention,” she says. “Now it engulfs my entire day, but then again, nobody around here works a typical workday.”
Even if she were not working so closely on the DNC, Archuleta’s enthusiasm for the city she grew up in makes her a vocal cheerleader for Denver. “I love Denver, I love the environment here,” she says. “I love the big sky, the big city feel, the small community feel. I value the city’s diversity tremendously, and I believe it opens up wonderful experiences for residents.” Archuleta’s work in the public sector has encompassed her adult life and includes stints working with former Mayor Federico Pena (in Denver and in Washington, D.C., when he was Secretary of Transportation) and in the Department of Energy under President Clinton. Working with Mayor Hickenlooper, she seems to have come full circle to a place that presents new challenges for her to tackle. “This is challenging and exhilarating because the process of what we’re doing is so complicated,” she says. “We have to take each component that goes into the planning of a major event and overlay that with national special security considerations. The city has assumed a huge role in the planning of this event.” Archuleta obviously thrives on the opportunity to work with the hundreds of people involved in this historic event. “There is incredible excitement surrounding this opportunity to showcase Denver and introduce it to the global community,” she says.
Assimilating all the pieces of such a multifaceted event would tax even the most highly efficient individual. “This requires incredible commitment and an unwavering desire to make it happen,” Archuleta explains. Indeed, it’s a matter of working closely with transportation officials and Denver International Airport to ensure visitors are properly welcomed and transported to their destination. It means working with cultural events officials to make sure the city’s culturerich environment is properly presented. “This convention is historic, and even though we are a convention city, there has never before been something of this size that draws this type of attention. We have to follow through on a variety of expectations that were developed in January 2007 as a way to make this a wow event,” she says. “Each of the committees is focused on the same set of values, with the goal of hosting a unique week of events that delegates and residents will be involved in and will be positive about.” Archuleta says the scope of the weeklong convention is much greater than what has been done in the past. For example, it was announced that The American Presidential Experience would be showcased as part of the event. The largest traveling exhibit of presidential memorabilia, representing three Republican and three Democratic administrations, it will be displayed in a 150,000-square-foot setting. Archuleta points out, “The exhibit will be displayed in Minneapolis/St. Paul at the Republican National Convention, as the single big event for the public. In Denver, this is but one of several huge events we have planned.”
All the buzz surrounding the upcoming convention has created unprecedented media coverage. “I think the fact that the race for the nomination has been on everyone’s mind for so long, and now that we have the presumptive nominee who is making news, this is a very historic event,” says Archuleta. “I feel so lucky to be a part of the process. But I feel even luckier to be working and supporting a mayor who has such tremendous vision and enthusiasm. He is committed to really reaching out to people from every part of the city and from every walk of life. It’s a huge strength, and it’s inspiring.”
By ELLEN GRAY
Photography KIT WILLIAMS