Nashville – which has been called Nowville by GQ Magazine – hosts its fair share of visitors, from top conventions and intercity visits to country music tours and bachelorette parties. The Nowville nickname seems to ring true, especially considering the Tennessee city has welcomed 15 delegations in the last four years alone.
But even this star city, which is in a position of envy for many communities, recognizes the value of learning from others. That’s why the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce plans its own intercity visit – branded as Leadership Study Mission – each year. Planning for the Nashville Area Chamber’s visit begins with a few community stakeholders: the mayor, the vice-chair of the chamber’s board of directors, the chamber’s chief policy officer and chief economic development officer. This group of four helps to identify destinations that are a good potential fit for a Leadership Study Mission. Target regions are excelling in areas that the Nashville region hopes to advance. Transit, workforce development and regional collaboration have been high on the list for Nashville’s intercity visit planners in recent years.
For nearly three decades, Nashville has annually visited other communities for inspiration. Some of Music City’s most exciting projects owe at least partial credit to these trips. Nashville Public Education Foundation, Schermerhorn Symphony Center and Nashville Public Library’s downtown branch can all trace their roots back to community visioning that was either sparked or enriched during a Leadership Study Mission trip.
With more than a few notable accomplishments to date, member enthusiasm for the annual intercity visit is high. About 130 delegates partake in the community-building journey, which is meant to be fun, but is hardly a vacation.
Selected for its regional focus and innovative workforce solutions, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis–St. Paul were the destination for the Leadership Study Mission visit in 2016. Planners were particularly intrigued by the City of Minneapolis’ STEP-UP program, which recruits, trains and places more than 1,600 youth in meaningful paid internships each year.
At the time of planning for the Twin Cities visit, development was underway on a similar program in Nashville. Launched by Mayor Megan Barry, Opportunity NOW provides young people in Davidson County access to employment.
“When we came back, business leaders who were on the trip had a much better understanding of how they could support Mayor Barry’s initiative,” says Whitney Weeks, senior vice president of policy at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. “They saw what [STEP-UP] looks like and they heard about its advantages from peers in another city.”
Weeks said that studying the STEP-UP program helped to “illustrate in very concrete terms what the successful implementation of an initiative like that could look like in Davidson County.”
Another Nashville success story can be attributed to the Leadership Study Mission trip to Salt Lake City in 2015. Following that visit, the Nashville Area Chamber, along with the office of the mayor and the regional transit authority, announced the launch of a transit initiative known as Moving Forward.
The purpose of Moving Forward is to ensure the creation of a regional transportation solution through a cohesive community effort. Intercity visit participants were impressed with Salt Lake’s regional collaboration and saw similarities to their own community.
In early May of this year, the Nashville Area Chamber will again bring together community leaders and changemakers on its annual community-building visit. The list of hot topics for this year’s sold-out Leadership Study Mission trip includes regional cooperation, economic development, quality of place, education, healthy communities and transit.
Residents of Middle Tennessee are interested in transit-based development and hope to learn more about the successes of their counterparts in Denver. “Denver has a great example of using buses on interstates to access outlying communities. Retail and housing have popped up along bus lines,” says Weeks.
Nashville has welcomed 15 visiting delegations in the last four years alone. Each intercity visit brings 25 to 200 leaders to explore what makes the Nashville region so hot.A FEW OF THE VISITING CITIES:
Colorado Springs, Colo.
El Paso, Texas
| Denver, Colo.
So what are the secret ingredients to a successful intercity visit?
Weeks describes the Leadership Study Mission trip as an immersive experience that supports cross-pollination of ideas among elected, nonprofit and business leaders in the community. By taking people out of their normal environment and plunging them together into the inner workings of another city, Nashville-region decision makers can incubate ideas in a unique setting.
“It’s really a powerful experience to have 100 decision makers seeing and experiencing the same things, both in the formal context of hearing from another city’s thought leaders and informally, like talking about it over dinner,” Weeks says.
Who, where and how seem to also matter when it comes to Leadership Study Mission visits. While the Nashville Area Chamber says the organization would have no problem attracting more than 200 people for the trip, it says there’s value in the intimacy of smaller groups. And Weeks stresses variety: “people are able to come together who may not ordinarily cross paths due to industry sector or size of business.”
From being a frequent visitor, the Nashville region has learned to be a good host. With many Leadership Study Mission visits under their belt, Nashville Area Chamber staff appreciates the time and energy it takes to organize intercity visits. Inspired by the kindness and generosity of other host cities, Weeks says her organization tries to “roll out the red carpet” for chamber peers during pre-trip visits to Nashville. In addition to planning calls, Weeks suggests starting with an in-office meeting to determine the goals of the visiting delegation.
“Recognizing that every city and every intercity visit is different, it’s important to not take a formulaic approach,” Weeks says. “We listen to the needs of the visiting communities and are able to make personal introductions so key stakeholders have influential and impactful conversations."
“Whether or not we stay in contact with delegates, we know that visitors leave Nashville having made meaningful connections with their peers in our community,” said Weeks. “It’s a point of pride for us.” With such a long history of hosting successful intercity visits, it certainly seems as if the Nashville Area Chamber has found the secret recipe.
Debby Dale Mason, chief of staff for Nashville Mayor Megan Berry, is a former Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce staffer who helped ACCE develop its 2008 publication, A Guide to Intercity Visits: Community Development through Leadership Exchange. “Debby was instrumental in building the Leadership Study Mission into what it is today,” says Whitney Weeks, the chamber’s senior vice president of policy.
For the 27 years that the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has conducted Leadership Study Mission visits, it has positioned itself as an essential community development leader and partner, pivotal to anticipating and addressing issues that shape Nashville as a city and Middle Tennessee as a region. The opportunity for individual leaders to focus, learn and act on these issues is what draws them to be part of this process. To watch Leadership Study Mission participants unselfishly give time, talent and money to make a difference is the true definition of leadership. It’s humbling for those involved and powerful for the communities they serve.
— Debby Dale Mason
ACCE’s InterCity Visit Organizers group connects chamber professionals who plan and manage city-to-city trips. Participants share best practices, tips for successful trips, resources and more. Learn more at www.ACCE.org/ICV or contact Hannah Nequist.
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