The 20 rooms with pianos at The Hilton Fort Worth will see plenty of use during the next few weeks as the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition begins June 2. 

“We will have beautiful music emanating from every floor,” said Bruce Mangual, regional director of catering for Remington Hotels, the owner of the Hilton. “We will be hosting a very international crowd for the next few weeks.” 

Many of those involved in the competition will be practicing at the hotel. 

This international crowd will bring economic and marketing benefits to the city, as it has for the past 60 years since it was organized by Fort Worth music supporters and civic leaders to honor the Texas pianist and his vision of using music to break down boundaries. Cliburn, who grew up in Texas and lived most of his life in Fort Worth, died in 2013. 

The pianist became an international superstar when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 in Moscow at the height of Cold War tensions. 

The competition — delayed for a year because of COVID-19 — returns to its roots at TCU, which will show off its shiny new $53 million Van Cliburn Concert Hall for the preliminary competition before returning to Bass Hall for the finals. 

The city needed a 700- to 800-seat performance space, said Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of the organization. 

“The hall artistically is great because you can hear a pin drop, which is perfect. For the performers, this is another way to evaluate the young pianists to see how they will play in a smaller hall with great acoustics,” he said.  

The new performance space is just one of the most concrete examples of the economic benefits of the competition. 

According to the Cliburn organization, the 15th competition in 2017 brought in attendance of 40,000, many of those staying in area hotels and spending dollars in area restaurants and retail establishments. About 43% of those attendees were from outside the Dallas-Fort Worth area. 

The organization expects similar attendance this year with many of those coming from overseas. That is a key benefit to the city. International tourists spend more than visitors from nearby states, said Mitch Whitten, executive vice president at Visit Fort Worth.  

“When they spend their dollars on our goods and services, international visitors – before the pandemic – were 5% of our visitor base, but 15% of visitor spending because they stay longer and they spend more money,” he said. 

For Visit Fort Worth, the Cliburn also gives the city a prime  opportunity to reach an international audience. That becomes more important as international travel returns following the pandemic, Whitten said. 

“We are an international city, home to American Airlines, the world’s largest airline and DFW Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world,” he said. “This is a chance for us to welcome international visitors back and to remind Fort Worth that people from London, Sydney, Seoul, love our city and they love visiting here.” 

The in-person attendance stays fairly static, according to the Cliburn organization, but even to maintain those numbers is difficult, given the large number of other options for audiences.  

“We have to increase marketing efforts because the challenges of selling tickets, it’s real,” Marquis said. “You have to increase awareness  and therefore you have to increase marketing.”

The organization increased its marketing budget in 2017, and it has done so again this year, he said. 

The Cliburn this year has expanded its marketing efforts by adding messages on billboards, buses and flyers in an effort to keep ticket sales strong. 

“It’s tough, but everyone is facing the same challenges,” he said. 

The Cliburn also works to increase media coverage. The 2017 competition saw over 1,200 articles reaching over 940 million readers. 

“We hope to increase that this year,” he said. 

What has changed for the competition has been the reach via social media and webcasts. 

The 15th competition saw over 110 hours of free concerts online. Total video views hit nearly 5 million, but the organization expects to double that this year. The Sundance Square simulcast of the final concert  – a first in 2017 – registered attendance of 4,500. 

The Cliburn was a pioneer in the early days of webcasting dating back to 2001, and it continues to innovate, Marquis said. 

This year the competition will have a premium webcast package with 4K surround sound on HFYI. Streaming subscription packages will be available at $125 for one year. 

“That’s opening a revenue stream we really haven’t had before,” he said. 

Part of that webcast reach helps market the competition and the city, said Whitten. 

“That’s a great marketing value for Fort Worth,” he said.  

Marketing, branding and co-branding are key aspects to the Cliburn’s economic impact, according to the organization and Visit Fort Worth.  

A unique marketing event kicked off this year’s Cliburn season, Marquis said. A collaboration between 2017 Cliburn Bronze Medalist  Daniel Hsu, local artist Lou CharLe$ and Averi Burk, a rock guitarist, debuted live at a Visit Fort Worth meeting in February. The trio later performed together in a concert at the Fort Worth Stockyards. 

Local hip-hop artist Lou CharLe$, Cliburn medalist Daniel Hsu, and singer and guitarist Averi Burk play at the Visit Fort Worth Annual Meeting on Feb. 17 at the Fort Worth Convention Center. (Marcheta Fornoff | Fort Worth Report)

“The music scene in Fort Worth is strong, and it’s not only the Cliburn and the opera and the symphony and the ballet,” said Marquis.

“There’s a lot of other areas that are very strong. The idea came up as to how can we join this together? And, fortunately, we found an artist who can do that with them because he’s a young man and he likes that kind of music.” 

That co-branding with other music styles is key to staying relevant in today’s market, Marquis said. 

“We cannot sit at Bass Hall and think people will come to us,” he said. “We have to reach out to people. We have to reach out in different venues. We have to reach out geographically. As a classical organization we have to push the boundaries and go where the people are and establish partnership with others to do that.” 

It is that kind of innovative thinking that keeps the event relevant after 60 years, said Whitten. 

“It was something really unusual for them, and I think the Cliburn has shown that it celebrates an ancient instrument, but they’re as exciting as ever for contemporary audiences, and the 60th gives it a real special punch,” he said.  

While the main events require tickets, there are plenty of free concerts during the competition, including piano lunches, simulcasts, symposia, a family festival day, and a film screening of “The Conductor” documentary, about Jury Chairman Marin Alsop. And the  grand finale simulcast is in Sundance Square Plaza on June 17 and 18. 

“That’s a big ‘thank you’ to the city of Fort Worth and the people and volunteers who help support the festival,” said Marquis. 

The first year the Cliburn did the simulcast Marquis was surprised that Sundance Square was full. 

“Families and people in silence listening to what’s happening there on stage,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh, now we’re talking about something different, but this is what it’s all about.’ This was Van’s dream, sharing music with the large audience. Now with technology, we can do that.”

Those benefits to the city from the Cliburn Competition generally occur once every four years, but the next event will be in three years because of the delay of the event in 2021. 

“We’ll be back, sooner and contributing more to the city in another three years,” Marquis said. “It will be here before we know it.” 

Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Bob FrancisBusiness Editor

Robert Francis is a Fort Worth native and journalist who has extensive experience covering business and technology locally, nationally and internationally. He is also a former president of the local Society...