The color guard, four graying men carrying flags or World War II-era carbine rifles, marches half-step in unison, making that graceful clock-like turn as they bring Old Glory to the center of the banquet hall at Fort Mitchell’s Drawbridge Inn. Those gathered, the men of the 21st Regimental Combat Team and their wives, are in Northern Kentucky, coming from all over the country to celebrate the traditions of the 21st Infantry. The unit’s history spans 140 years, back to the Civil War, where it served at Cedar Mountain in Virginia.
This reunion, though, marks the annual gathering of the unit’s Korean War sojourn: The former soldiers standing tall at the call to attention are members of that so-called “Greatest Generation” who served in World War II and the Korean conflict. And the planners for the 21st Infantry’s reunions – volunteers from the regiment’s Korean-era rank – have chosen Northern Kentucky as the site for their annual assembly because of the region’s prestige as one of the top 10 destinations for military reunions.
Capstone to the ceremony was the ritual presentation to the “commander” of the unit of a traditionally tri-folded American flag that had flown above the U.S. Capitol before it was presented to the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau for the Fighting 21st.
“We’ve been after the military market for about 15 years,” said Barb Dozier, vice president for sales and marketing for the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau’s military program, dubbed “Join Forces with Northern Kentucky,” has been designed “for the unique planners of military conventions. They are, for the most part, not professional organizations” but rather groups formed voluntarily from the ranks of the military units where they served, Dozier said.
About a decade ago, in the wake of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, interest in military reunions reached an all-time high in the country, and convention planners in Northern Kentucky saw an opportunity to capture a unique niche in the convention market that could – for a time, anyway – bring a new clientele of visitors to the Bluegrass State. About that time, there were an estimated 8 million World War II veterans still living; the number of veterans of the Korean War was estimated about about 6 million.
“What happened was that this market segment – the military reunion market – was looking for destinations interested in looking for them,” Dozier said. “Really, for a long time, they couldn’t get convention bureaus or hotels to meet with them because the perception was that this niche was too small to deal with.
“But as we examined who these people were, we saw a great opportunity for Northern Kentucky. So we went after them as a market segment. We decided we would provide them with plenty of services,” standing apart from other destinations for military conventions.
Dozier explained that as her office began to assemble the package that ultimately would become one of the country’s most popular reunion programs for those who have served in the nation’s military, it dawned on team members that one of the most effective tools at their disposal was the traditional travel-business familiarization or “fam” tour.
“When you are in destination sales, there is the potential for planners to see the sameness in every market,” Dozier said. “So we went back to square one” to Ensure there were destinations and services available that would stand out for these volunteer planners.
Key players at the Northern Kentucky bureau followed the advice of a former Marine named Bill Masciangelo, founder of Reunions Magazine, who had written a book on such military gatherings, honing the package of services to meet the needs of a clientele that was aging but still eager to gather every year.
“We focused on the customer,” she said. “There was a great emphasis on the needs of that individual. Hotels would put banners outside welcoming the groups into the region, which made a huge impact on them, seeing the greetings. Hotel restaurants offered specially designed menus for their specific dietary needs. The feeling was that everything we needed to do, we would do to get the business.”
The “fam” tours also accentuated the region, providing amenities that included guided tours to the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, one of the most popular parts of the reunion package still today. The groups also find a unique breakfast held for reunions at the Newport Aquarium before opening hours to be very popular, Dozier said. “It’s these really different parts of the package that is attractive to the groups, that keeps them coming to us.”
Dozier said that military groups also have come to appreciate the “extras” provided by the Northern Kentucky convention staff. “One of the complaints these planners had was that when they would talk to another site, they’d find they were nickeled and dimed to death. They’d be charged for name tags; there’d be charges for other incidental things that, when added together, made them think twice about that particular destination. In the end, the Northern Kentucky convention package remains one of the most comprehensive in the business, and includes a small donation back to the group, assistance in receiving a custom greeting to the unit from the White House, on-site registration assistance, a full array of travel and guest assistance and the aforementioned U.S. flag flown over the Capitol.
The decision in Northern Kentucky to pursue the military market has paid off handsomely.
Dozier said that current estimates for the economic impact from military reunions in the region should approach $4.2 million in 2007, based on the dozens of such assemblies that will come to Northern Kentucky this year. In 2006, Dozier said that the military business generated $3.7 into the local economy. “We’ve been averaging between 60 to 100 reunions a year in recent years,” providing services for groups that range in size from 25 to 1,000. Figures from the Northern Kentucky bureau show that since targeting the military reunion segment in 1993, more than 110,000 hotel rooms have been sold and an estimated $34 million has been pumped into the northern tip of the state.
A similar initiative is under way in the south central part of the state, where the Bowling Green CVB folks are eager to show off their city and region to the smaller military reunions, typically the groups that range in size from 30-150 persons.
“We’re going after these groups very aggressively, especially because we believe our product and their needs are a great fit,” said Duncan Hines, convention sales manager in Bowling Green and a cousin to his namesake, the renowned travel writer. With Kentucky located within a day or two drive from about 60 percent of the U.S. population, the Bluegrass destination is particularly popular for the aging military reunion crowd “that likes to drive into town and have services catered especially to them.”
Hines said he likes to highlight the fact that as a smaller city, Bowling Green is much more accessible and hotel rates are much more reasonable than other “typical” convention towns. “And we have our own attractions, such as the Corvette Museum, historic Shaker Town, our antique village called Smith’s Grove and a regional attraction at Lost River Cave.”
Hines noted that one of the most popular meeting sites for military visitors coming to Bowling Green is a reception held in Lost River Cave. “It’s completely unique; it’s a setting that people talk about and really enjoy.”
Like the packages offered in Northern Kentucky, Hines said that the Bowling Green region offers accessibility to the unique attributes of Fort Knox, located about an hour and a half north of the city, where military reunion-goers can visit the historic Patton Museum of Armor.
“We also are continuing to develop our Aviation Heritage Park,” anchored by a U.S. Air Force Phantom 550 once flown by a resident of Bowling Green.
Paul J. Spiewak, founder of Hollywood, Fla.-based The Reunion Network, noted that the Northern Kentucky convention team has set a standard in many ways for the military reunion “package,” one of the reasons it consistently ranks among the best in the nation for such gatherings.
Word of mouth among military convention planners has been at the heart of that growth, Spiewak said. And behind it is a blend of service and attractions that are unique.
And while there is acknowledgement that one day not so far away, the Greatest Generation will no longer be able to travel to such gatherings, Dozier noted that the Northern Kentucky staff already is marketing to the next generation of military reunions that focuses on the military unit or a particular air wing or ship.
“We recently had a reunion here for the U.S.S. Forestal,” the Navy’s first super-carrier, “and when walking out among the people gathered, you might see a 65-year-old talking with somebody in their 20s. So you get the picture that this is the kind of business we do want to get for years to come.”
Dozier said that one of the greatest compliments to the convention team is the return of a particular reunion, “because these are people who can go anywhere they want to in the states, but they choose us. That, obviously, is the kind of business we want to continue to develop.”