Branding and marketing are going to be vitally important if Mobile wants to cash in on tourism in the near future, a panel of experts said Friday morning during the Tourism Town Hall meeting at the Mobile Convention Center, sponsored by the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Michael Gehrisch, president and CEO of Destination Marketing Association International told a packed ballroom that the civic, business and academic factions of the city need to come together to develop a single branding plan for the city.

“As a destination, if you don’t have a solid brand in place, that’s really key,” he said.

Gehrisch was joined by five other tourism experts for the meeting, including John Graham, president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives; Thomas Foley, senior director of Member Services and Business Development for the Professional Convention Management Association; Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association; Paul Van Deventer, president and CEO of Meeting Professionals International. The panel was moderated by David Dubois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events.

Branding and marketing starts with the community, especially when it comes to drawing conventions to the area.

“The meeting business is about the community,” he said. “It’s a community effort and the community has to come together. The community has to promote the brand and market the brand.”

Along with marketing of the brand, comes money, Graham said.

“It’s important to spend money on marketing,” he said. “You have to provide the money to allow the bureau to go around the country and tell your story.”

Conventions can mean a lot of revenue for a host city, Dubois said. He showed the crowd economic statistics, as part of an overview of the convention industry.

Dubois said that 1.8 million meetings in 2012 led to $280 billion in direct spending and 1.7 million jobs. The industry realized $115 billion in gross domestic product and another $28 billion in local, state and federal taxes.

While conventions bring in a lot of money for communities that host them, they only make up about 25 percent of the total tourism industry, Gehrisch said.

A part of leisure travel, group bus tours, is “alive and well,” Pantuso said, despite having a perception problem.

“Those perceptions are unfounded,” he said. “The truth is it’s growing.”

Group tours can mean economic development for destinations, Pantuso said. For instance, 70 percent of 650 million motorcoach travelers are tour group members. Those groups have a $55 billion impact on tourism and help create 800,000 jobs.

In an overview of the industry, Pantuso broke the numbers down even further. In Alabama’s First Congressional District, which includes Mobile and Baldwin counties, 2,300 jobs were created due to group travel. Groups that came into the district for a trip spent $153 million.

In the presentation, Pantuso gave tips to help Mobile “bridge the gap” when it comes to attracting group bus tours.

He said it was important to build relationships with operators and to understand what it means to be group-friendly. He said members of a group tour, for instance, don’t want to have to wait in a long line to check in to a hotel. In addition, he said, a group doesn’t want a long wait at a restaurant.

He added that partnerships, incentives and tiered pricing were also important.

The panelists stressed the importance of cooperation with other cities to bolster tourism, or attract a cycle of conventions, so that each city can have a turn hosting.

The cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, in Florida, are good examples of collaborative marketing, Gehrisch said. The cities spent years competing for tourists, but now have started working together.

While all of the panelists praised Mobile’s amenities, like access to water, the convention center, museums and its history, there were some shortcomings mentioned.

One particular problem was accessibility. Sixty percent of convention organizers told Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau that the city’s accessibility was just OK.

Graham said three things are important for a city when it comes to accessibility. A city must have a center, he said, which Mobile does. A city must also have hotel rooms nearby, which the city does, but in the area of airlift, Mobile is lagging, Graham said.

He called Mobile a “two-stop” destination, meaning a traveler must first fly into Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, or Charlotte, before coming into Mobile.

“You’ll have to work on that,” Graham said.

For example, he said New Orleans has been known to work with air carriers to bring more flights into the airport when a convention is in town. He suggested that maybe Mobile could do something similar.

If the airport is the problem, it won’t be fixed overnight, Van Deventer said. He suggested starting by marketing to group from nearby cities that are within driving distance.

“Market to regional segments first,” he said. “You can fix airlift problems down the road. Know who you are, be comfortable with that and push that.”

Another issue facing Mobile is that among convention organizers, it’s a secret.

A survey answered by 316 corporate meeting planners revealed that places like New Orleans, Nashville and Charleston top the list of Southeastern cities in which to hold conferences. Mobile and Birmingham were much lower on the list. Seventy-six percent of respondents said they haven’t ever visited Mobile.

Of those surveyed that had visited Mobile for a convention, or meeting, 85 percent said they liked the hotels, 78 percent said they had a positive experience and 50 percent had positive comments about the city’s convention facilities.

In addition, 92 percent of respondents said that financial incentives were important when choosing a convention location.