The Chicago Southland CVB likes the odds. Even when it means sports market manager Joel Koester chooses to learn log rolling, grow a beard, and lose 30 pounds in 300 days.
With a unique territory to promote, Koester has turned what he doesn’t have into a welcome mat for non-traditional sporting events.
The latest get is a contest, though not a sport—the 2019 National Beard and Moustache Championships in November. Koester, who had grown a beard to help Southland win the 2016 Stihl TimberSports Professional and Collegiate Championships, grew another to promote the beard and moustache event, then trimmed it to a moustache. It was just Koester's most recent deep dive into attracting and promoting rights holders.
"Everyone's always worried about heads in beds and room nights and economic impact," Koester says. " That stuff doesn’t matter to me and through that process we have seen a significant uptick on room nights and economic impact. When you don’t care about that, you really care about the groups, you care about the people involved in the sporting events. The results will be there if you’re in it for the right reasons.” "My philosophy is simple: if you invest in us we're going to invest in you."
He learned to log roll to help trumpet the 2016 United States Log Rolling Open, and as part of his bid to draw a Spartan Race Stadium Series event to his region, Koester trained for 300 days to not only finish the race but to be competitive in it. T
hat effort, which he turned into a social media campaign tracking his workouts, has led to him to exercise five days a week.
"[Spartan Race officials] were blown away that I would put in that much time into the process to fit into their lifestyle and compete," says Koester, who was a Connect Sports 2017 Game Changer for just such tactics.
Koester and his team have also won paintball and drone racing events, among many others, and one of the American Cornhole Organization's biggest annual events, the 2018 Midwest Major. Southland covers 63 communities and 400 square miles, with no signature venue aside from SeatGeek Stadium, the home of Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire.
Koester, who has helped attract more sports to the region since he started there in 2012 than it had in the rest of the CVB's 30-plus year history, says his methods are a way to distinguish the area.
"It's hard in this marketplace to set yourself apart," he says. "Everybody has sports fields and indoor fields and attractions and similar type hotels but what sets you apart? We don't have a mega sports complex so we have to get creative, showing we’re not another no name destination. We literally utilize everything we can to set us apart."
Koester says part of his inspiration, other than resourcefulness, is his upbringing. His parents raised him to be happy in whatever he chose to do, and to treat others the way he'd like to be treated.
He says his time working in Las Vegas in and around the golf industry taught him some ways he did not want to do business.
Once he traveled to the Chicago suburbs for work, there was one last lesson to shape his current approach.
At a martial arts event that Southland had bid for, a snowstorm created chaos in the parking lot, adding to a typically crazy event day for a rights holder. Though it was not his responsibility, Koester parked cars, shoveled snow from parking space lines, even made sure toilet paper was full in the restrooms.
"Things were going sideways, so I did it just to help with a problem [the rights holder] shouldn't be worried about," he says. "I try to go to all the events we host. When they leave, we want them to say, 'Wow, this is one of the best experiences we’ve had.'"
Southland director of marketing Kim Kislowski has been with Southland for 29 years, and says Koester is as unique as the area they boast about. In addition to his sports marketing job, Koester spearheads Southland's work with Turn Two for Youth, a charitable organization formed to collect baseball and softball equipment to distribute to children in impoverished areas un the U.S. and abroad.
"Joel a lot of times will be with the group the day they get in, the day after and attend their social activities," she says. "I've never see anyone put the care into his events as he does. Joel's the one who says, 'This group needs a social media posting, can we do that? Sure,' and we come up with a campaign. 'Hey, can we help this group out with media?' and now we get good television coverage with paintball or TimberSports, and we have a method for that now.”
"We do things very differently than we did in the past and sports is integrated into everything we do. We've gotten recognition for our community engagement. I've seen nothing like it."