Whenever I travel and meet new people, the conversation inevitably turns to this:

New Person: So where are you from?

Me: Illinois

New Person: Oh, from Chicago?

Me: Uh, no. Champaign-Urbana

New Person: (looks at me with blank stare)

This is usually where I go on to explain that University of Illinois is there, it’s about two hours south of Chicago, etc. Whatever, I get it. C-U isn’t necessarily on everyone’s travel bucket list. But why shouldn't it be? While we may not have attractions, restaurants, and culture on the scale of a city like Chicago, Champaign County has a vibrant and diverse cultural landscape and a world class university. I’m certainly biased. I graduated from the U of I, have lived here ever since, and one of my jobs is editing a Culture section for a local online magazine. Bias aside, we certainly have a lot going for us here, and Visit Champaign County, our Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, is continuing their quest to develop Champaign County as a tourist destination.

They are preparing for their second annual Tourism Summit, Outside of Ordinary: Your Place Brand. “The goal of this summit is to bring together area businesses and advocates to not only learn how to better serve the community, but to network amongst each other,” explains Cody Dees, Community Relations Manager. “We must learn from each other and market the area collectively to grow as a destination.” There will be two panel discussions, on culture and arts respectively, featuring local business and community leaders. They’ve also invited Chicago-based public relations strategist Carrie Lannon to be the keynote speaker. Ms. Lannon has an impressive resume, having developed branding for a long list of nationally renowned companies, most recently Ulta Beauty. She will be lending her expertise to the summit attendees, speaking on business branding for impact. Ms. Lannon was kind enough to speak to Smile Politely about her background and what she hopes to bring to our community.

Smile Politely: Tell me a bit about your background, and how you found your way into marketing and PR.

Carrie Lannon: I have always been fascinated by what motivates people's decisions. I began my career in PR, where what you say to a reporter when pitching a story can either encourage or dissuade them from writing about your client. As my career expanded to work with well-regarded brands, my understanding of branding had to grow accordingly, because all communications and marketing had to support the brand, whether I was in-house or working as a consultant. One renowned client put it this way, “We are not hiring you to invent our brand, we are hiring you because you really understand our brand.”

I also believe that starting my career working with luxury brands like Tiffany & Co. and W Hotels, where image is critical to conveying value, made me vigilant throughout my career to leverage branding as a driver of business.

SP: You have an extensive list of companies that you've worked with. What would you categorize as your biggest professional accomplishment and why?

Lannon: My biggest accomplishment is always helping my clients meet their goals. Whether I have been in a corporate environment or running my own agency, I am absolutely driven to satisfy their needs. Throughout my career, I have obtained recommendation quotes from clients so that potential clients know how important results are to me. It is one thing to have impressive brands listed on a client roster, it is another to have evidence that they were pleased with your work.

SP: How can the national and international branding strategies you've developed be applied on a local scale, more specifically Champaign County?

Lannon: Branding is valuable on local, national and international levels. Everything starts with brand to me. When a company or organization is crystal clear about what their brand stands for, and they support that brand in their communications and company policies, there are benefits to the bottom line. A clear understanding of brand allows an organization to focus on what is important, and not waste time or money on efforts that are not. A clear brand also attracts interested customers because the target audience easily understands the products and services that the brand offers.

Place brands gain attention and attract visitors when the entire community supports the brand promise. Visit Champaign County has done an excellent job of establishing its place brand - Outside of Ordinary. The region will continue to gain momentum as the entire community works together to embody that place brand message.

SP: Who should come and listen to your keynote? How can community members and local business owners benefit from your expertise?

Lannon: The greater Champaign County area has defined itself as a vibrant, micro-urban oasis in the heart of Illinois. Ideally, the businesses within the region support the Outside of Ordinary brand.  Businesses can ask “How are we supporting the brand identity of the greater Champaign County area?”  When all aspects of the community support this attractive theme, they can fulfill the brand promise and attract the audiences that they and the region seek. In an age when consumer experiences are shared on social media, delivering experiences that reinforce the Outside of Ordinary brand can really make a difference.

Organizations are often so busy thinking about generating revenue, services and team building that they forget that branding can be a true asset in these areas. I will talk about why branding is important, how to check to see if your own branding is optimal and how to improve brand identity.

SP: Have you ever been to C-U before? If not, do you have plans to explore a bit while you're here? If you have, what are your impressions of our community?

I travel a lot both for work and because I personally seek out new experiences and cultures. Part of my explorations are road trips that are within driving distance of my home in Chicago. I have not visited Champaign County before, so I am excited to learn about a potential new road trip destination! The county’s thriving arts and culture scene and award-winning food are of particular interest to me. Who wouldn’t want to experience the Outside of Ordinary?

Community members, local businesses touched by tourism, media and more are encouraged to attend one of the two sessions. The cost to participate is $20 in advance or $25 at the door. Registration as well as program information can be found at www.visitchampaigncounty.org/tourismsummit or by calling 217-351-4133. You can find out more about Carrie Lannon and her work at www.carrielannon.com.