The city’s convention and visitors bureau, eXplore Lawrence, has hired a sales manager to help bring major athletic competitions to Lawrence.
The new position will be filled by B.J. Harris, who will promote and sell the city as a destination for sporting events. Leaders at eXplore Lawrence said they think the organization needs a “strong presence” in that realm.
“We see that this is one of our niche markets and with all the assets we have here in the community it makes sense to have somebody that has experience going out and bringing these kinds of events to the community,” said Michael Davidson, executive director of eXplore Lawrence.
Davidson said those assets include Rock Chalk Park, Sports Pavilion Lawrence, Clinton State Park, Rim Rock Farm and others. Though Davidson said the new position will work with smaller events such as disc golf tournaments or marathons, the focus will be submitting bids for Lawrence to host major athletic competitions.
The announcement comes on the heels of the Junior Olympic Track and Field National Championships, which brought about 25,000 athletes and spectators to Lawrence and generated $17.7 million in direct spending in the region, according to a report from eXplore Lawrence.
The City of Lawrence provides annual funding to eXplore Lawrence, and about $1 million is allocated toward the visitors bureau for 2018. About half those funds come from the city’s transient guest tax, a 6 percent tax charged on hotel rooms and Airbnb short-term rentals.
Davidson estimates eXplore Lawrence will spend up to $150,000 the first year to cover the new position, which will include salary, benefits and dollars toward trade show attendance, marketing material and incentives for sporting event operators.
Harris said in a news release that he is thrilled to be joining eXplore Lawrence.
"Lawrence is one of the great sports-minded communities in the Midwest and is poised to make a significant impact on the sports tourism market,” Harris said. “When you combine Lawrence’s state-of-the-art facilities with the unique community experiences, you have a sports destination unlike any other.”
The visitors bureau is not the only organization with an eye toward bringing sporting events to Lawrence. The community also has the nonprofit Lawrence Sports Corporation. For years it operated under the umbrella of the local CVB, but that changed last year. In October 2016, eXplore Lawrence announced the transfer of its sports development activities to the Lawrence Sports Corporation. The change effectively meant the Lawrence Sports Corporation split away from the CVB.
The timing was such, though, that the community was in the middle of preparing for the massive Junior Olympics event. At that time, an agreement between the two nonprofit organizations stated that eXplore Lawrence would pay LSC $5,300 per month for 15 months to support the Junior Olympics “and to further promote LSC's mission to attract and support sporting events for the behalf of our community."
That agreement expires Dec. 13, and Davidson said eXplore Lawrence will no longer provide funding to LSC. However, Davidson said he sees an opportunity for eXplore Lawrence to partner with LSC in the future. He said that eXplore Lawrence will focus exclusively on bringing events to town and working with event operators as opposed to managing and running events.
“We see (the relationship) complementing each other,” Davidson said. “I think we’re going to put the efforts behind the selling of Lawrence as a sports destination, and if there are opportunities for Sports Corporation to come in and help run those events I think that’s where we would work together.”
Bob Sanner is executive director of LSC — which helped bid and organize the Junior Olympics —and was a longtime employee of the visitors bureau. In addition to the funding it currently gets from eXplore Lawrence, Sanner said LSC receives money from sponsorships associated with the events it manages.
Sanner said the LSC’s goal is to attract and manage sporting events, but that different events require varying levels of involvement. Sanner said he wasn’t aware of the new eXplore Lawrence position, and that there might be some overlap of duties and responsibilities.
Davidson said Harris brings good experience to eXplore Lawrence. Harris worked the past six years as the executive director of the Crawford County Convention & Visitors Bureau in Pittsburg. He currently serves as the vice president of the Travel Industry Association of Kansas, a position he will continue when he joins eXplore Lawrence.
While working for Crawford County, Harris helped develop a strong sports tourism market in Pittsburg and helped increase overall tourism revenue by more than 20 percent, according to the release. Events he helped bring to the city include several NCAA Division II and NJCAA Indoor Track Championships; the 2018-2020 NJCAA Football National Championship; and the 2018 NAIA Indoor Track & Field Championships.
Harris will begin his position as eXplore Lawrence sales manager for sports on Sept. 2.