Women of Industry: Deb Archer’s devotion to destination

Tell Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, that she leads a tourism organization, and she’s quick to correct you. The tourism part is still correct but only partly so, because in 20 years at the helm she has transformed the GMCVB into a destination-marketing organization, and there is a real distinction.

The GMCVB’s mission is to create economic impact through tourism for the Greater Madison Area, but those tourists must be lured here. Hence, the focus on destination marketing and her decades’ long advocacy of continuing education and refinement for the destination marketing profession.

Archer’s leadership is this area is one of several reasons why she is part of In Business magazine’s first Women of Industry class. “It wasn’t so much about me but knowing the work that we’ve done continues to elevate the knowledge of what an important industry hospitality-tourism is in terms of our economy and the role we play in economic development,” Archer says. “This honor really reflects on all the work we’ve been doing for this industry and for this organization.”

Madison’s destiny

Archer’s presence and expertise in the tourism industry was immediately evident, as she helped shape the GMCVB into an organization focused on generating economic impact by attracting new “destination” events to the region, as well as contracting for and serving as the City of Madison’s and Dane County’s official agent to secure events for new convention facilities.

Nationally, Archer has been promoting destination marketing for quite some time. She served as chair of what is now Destination Marketing Association International. Early on, she was an advocate of investing in research to help convention and visitors bureaus make better decisions. When her career transitioned from small bureaus to a larger organization in Kansas City, she saw a disparity between the knowledge and professionalism and education being offered at smaller bureaus versus those with larger budgets.

In recent years, Archer has continued her quest to position tourism as a force within the economic development landscape of Dane County. Without Archer, there is no Madison Area Sports Commission (MASC), probably no second convention hotel under consideration near Monona Terrace, and no discussion about reimagining the Alliant Energy Center.

Archer has not only continued her quest to position tourism as an economic force in Dane County, she’s influenced the Destination Marketing Association International’s groundbreaking “DestinationNEXT” program, and lent her expertise to the U.S. Department of Labor in its efforts to build a competency model for the profession of destination marketing. One aspect of the former is to create diagnostic tools that destination-marketing organizations can use to benchmark themselves against their peers in areas like community engagement and on variables such as air service, facilities, accommodations, and branding.

Janet Sperstad, a program director for meeting and event management at Madison College, notes that Archer is known as “the voice and face of tourism” in Dane County. Before Archer’s arrival at the GMCVB, Sperstad notes the GMCVB and tourism were largely invisible and known only for their work in starting community festivals and events. “Her professionalism and leadership has been a beacon for many global leaders,” Sperstad says. “She is a revered and respected industry professional that many of us in Madison are proud to call her our own.”

The success of the MASC, launched in 2010, has enhanced the prospects of growing tourism through attracting and supporting destination sports events, including winter sporting events. Under Archer’s leadership, MASC has awarded more than $175,000 in funds through the Ironman Foundation to dozens of area clubs and youth entities for programs that focus on getting hard-to-reach youth engaged in sports and healthy activities.

By demonstrating a commitment to best practices and knowledge, Archer has built an organization that in Sperstad’s words “can fight above its weight class,” and she has elevated tourism’s stature to the point where Greater Madison now competes with destination and CVBs much larger in size and scope. The GMCVB’s success in luring events such as Ironman, Gold Wing Road Riders, Transplant Games of America, and World Stem Cell Summit have brought millions of dollars to the local economy, and its ability to securing the WIAA Boys Basketball Tournament through 2020 — after the WIAA Girls Basketball Tournament bolted for Green Bay — was greatly appreciated by business entities that benefit economically.

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For several years, she served as chair of the Wisconsin Governor’s Council on Tourism’s Meetings & Conventions Committee and on the Council, itself. These committees helped guide the Wisconsin Department of Tourism’s investments in marketing the state for leisure travelers and conventions. As a member of the Wisconsin Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus, Archer has supported state legislation that could pave the way for additional destination marketing funds through a successful model from the west coast — Tourism Marketing Districts.

Her annual visits to the state capital have helped educate lawmakers on the importance of a Sept. 1 school start, the proper use of room tax revenue, and other key issues.

Nationally, as a past board member and chair of DMAI, Archer has been called on for her expertise and knowledge of destination marketing. She served on a Task Force to review DMAI’s groundbreaking “DestinationNEXT” program and helped develop program offerings that are being adopted by global destination marketing organizations.

Archer and the GMCVB have been recognized nationally for the “Decision Making Filters” process it adopted to help guide advocacy. She has presented on the filters at industry conventions, and DMOs across the country are adapting the tool for their local advocacy programs.

For Archer, this process began during the Edgewater Hotel conversation. The GMCVB had occasionally advocated for things, but it had not done so on a regular basis. When former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz asked the organization to weigh in, Archer decided to develop a quantitative analysis to evaluate the risks and rewards of becoming more engaged in public policy and if so, how actively and in what forms should that advocacy take. “We didn’t want to get mission creep and start looking at things that didn’t get into our purview,” she explains. “We wanted to very carefully evaluate things in terms of where we would end up in the minds of our stakeholders in the community.”

After the process was adopted, the GMCVB presented it at regional and national conventions and to other DMOs, and applied it when Air BnB came to town. “Every time I’ve made the presentation, I’ve had other CVBs say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we wish we would have had this. We’re so glad to have this. We needed this,’” Archer says. “Our industry wasn’t really active in advocacy.”

Coliseum campaign

A new study from the Hammes Co. says Dane County should look to replace the aging Dane County Coliseum with a new arena. The plan could attract more visitors with new hotels, restaurants, and retail establishments.

Given the county’s $120 million share of the projected cost and the need to address issues such as lake cleanup, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi would prefer to make incremental improvements to the facility.

Archer supports an overhaul. “The proposed plans for the Coliseum are important for the viability of this event venue,” she notes. “Our organization has been heavily involved in many of the conversations about the future of the Alliant Energy Center campus, and we look forward to learning more about what next steps lay ahead for the campus.”

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