Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Making the Most of Inter-City Visits

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President

The inter-city visit is a ubiquitous program for most economic development organizations (EDOs) of size in the U.S. They typically involve an EDO enlisting volunteers and partners to travel to a community achieving some type of success – either in its economy as a whole or some aspect of economic, community, or workforce development – to observe, learn, and potentially glean best practices for application back home. Usually the only cost to participate is to cover air travel expenses and lodging. Many well-heeled EDOs offer inter-city visits as perks to top investors.

In a world as cutthroat as economic development, the inter-city visit has always struck me as possibly the most welcoming example of inter-community collegiality and goodwill. After all, most of the places visiting you are existing or potential competitors for jobs and talent. In reality, the keys to the kingdom are not necessarily in identifying best-practice programs (which are mostly well known), but in seeing how communities implement them and the role of public and private partners and volunteers in these efforts. From my experience, leadership capacity is the number one determinant of economic success.

I wholeheartedly believe that inter-city visits are an excellent use of resources and provide invaluable benefit for EDOs and the communities they represent. Many effective policies and programs being considered for strategic implementation can be hard to conceptualize in practice; witnessing them being advanced and experiencing their benefits can be revelatory for practitioner and volunteer alike. Even brick-and-mortar projects with detailed renderings are typically more compelling to in person.

My principal pet peeve with inter-city visits is the practice of travelling to a city or region with no real application to your community’s priority challenges and opportunities. As famously successful as Austin, Texas (a hugely popular inter-city destination) has been, the presence of a state capital, major research university with 50,000 smart kids, a decades-long live music scene, and beautiful rolling hills and rivers is not something most places can emulate.

So my advice to EDOs implementing inter-city visit programs is to pick aspirational places you have something in common with, be it geography, economic structure, climate, institutional presence, demographic composition – whatever. Just find destinations where learnings can translate into actionable initiatives back home with good likelihoods for success. While it is certainly most cost-effective to plan travel around agendas packed full of cool things to see and people to meet, EDOs shouldn’t be opposed to scheduling single-issue trips centered on a major competitive challenge or opportunity. For example, if you want to launch a comprehensive cradle-to-career talent development initiative, visit a community that’s knocked one out of the park like Cincinnati or Nashville and cram the trip full of every last opportunity to learn from their experiences.

From my long-ago (and mostly suppressed) experiences as a screenwriter, there is one piece of advice on story development that sticks in my head: If you want a scene to have optimal impact, you should “show it not say it.” In other words, don’t use voiceover to talk about how beautiful Mrs. Weathersby was, show a faded portrait of her. While a stretch, I’m going to use this example for EDO inter-city visits; rather than saying how great a place or program is, let your partners and volunteers see it. And, as with the best movies, keep the examples you show them in the realm of plausible believability.