When families hit the road or the tarmac this summer, their final
destinations may not have been the parents' first choices.
According to Travel Industry Association of America (TIAA) projections,
families will tag along on 60% of the 230 million trips Americans are
expected to take this summer. In an annual survey conducted by
Orlando-based advertising and PR agency Yesawich, Pepperdine and Brown
(YP&B), 68% of parents said their children greatly influenced their
choice of destination, while only 37% of the kids interviewed felt they
held much sway over vacation plans.
Not surprisingly, children wield the most influence in theme-park
selection, with the wonderful world of Disney reigning supreme. Other
attractions, cities, and countries, however, effectively use PR and
other communications tools to challenge Mickey and Minnie.
But PR alone can't create family-friendly vacation destinations, the
experts agree. Word of mouth carries a lot of weight with trip planners,
and if a tropical getaway touted as a children's paradise doesn't live
up to its billing, families won't flock there for long.
This difference between presentation and reality is neatly illustrated
by the experience in Las Vegas in the '90s. Although PR people
representing attractions in the area deny that the city was ever
specifically marketed to families, there was an attempt to reposition
Vegas as an entertainment and vacation city rather than just a gambling
center. This necessitated a friendlier attitude toward families and
children; two theme parks opened (in Circus Curcus and the MGM Grand,
although the latter has since closed), and efforts were made to cater to
families, if not target them directly.
But what you see in Vegas may be the biggest turn-off to
vacation-planning parents, which no amount of PR can overcome:
full-color brochures for truly adult adventures commonly litter the
sidewalks. Some casinos are wrangling in court to stop the flesh
marketing, but rulings have so far been inconclusive.
Playing it safe
Las Vegas' weakness illustrates the top concern of family travelers:
safety, both physical and emotional. In the nation's gambling capital,
casinos partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited
Children on a guest education campaign about appropriate child
Publicizing crime reduction helped boost family tourism in New York
City, notes Nell Barrett, SVP of communications for NYC & Co., the
city's tourism marketing organization. The FBI's ranking of the Big
Apple as the safest large city in America makes prime PR fodder.
Government relations also played a role in cleaning up the city. The
Times Square Business Improvement District, for example, lobbied state
legislators for more restrictions on sex-related businesses, says
operations VP Bob Esposito.
PT&Co. is also playing the safety card in its PR work for South
The agency didn't initially plan to promote the country as a family
destination, but after visiting South Africa, senior counselor Maddy
Cohen decided to add family-focused pieces to the press kit.
Post-apartheid political stability makes South Africa a good choice for
safaris, she claims. "There are other countries that have absolutely
wonderful game viewing, but they are not countries I'd be comfortable
taking my kids to," Cohen says.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don't realize that apartheid ended eight
years ago, Cohen notes, so PR must focus on education. PT&Co. has also
established a crisis committee that meets monthly to plot strategy for
counteracting negative messages and potential problems.
Cost and space also should be considered in PR messages targeting family
travelers. Parents want as much room as they can afford, says YP&B
account supervisor Will Wellons.
"It's one thing for something to look great and feel wonderful, but if
they can't afford it, it won't make for a very good family vacation,"
Wellons says. With this in mind, YP&B crafted releases for ResortQuest
International that favorably compared the cost of staying at one of its
rental homes to that of checking into a hotel.
Marketers miss the boat when they assume parents want vacations from
their kids, says Rene Mack, a principal at BSMG Worldwide (soon to
become part of Weber Shandwick).
When both parents work and the kids run from soccer practice to violin
lessons, the family vacation provides a rare opportunity for "quality
time." PR efforts, therefore, should emphasize things parents and kids
can do together.
YP&B's research lists "visiting friends and relatives" as the most
common reason for family travel. Also, a quarter of summer travelers
attend family reunions, according to the TIAA.
The St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission (CVC) aggressively courts
family reunions, especially among African Americans, says marketing SVP
Carole Moody. In addition to advertising in Ebony, the organization
touts St. Louis' central location and free attractions at black expos in
Midwestern cities. The CVC then sends out reunion-planning checklists to
likely prospects. In 2000, 206 family reunions accounted for 15,000
hotel room nights in St. Louis, compared to 84 and 8,100 respectively in
1994. The commission will expand its efforts beyond the African American
demographic this year, Moody says.
The togetherness strategy doesn't work for all vacations, however. "I
think adults, to a great degree, perceive a cruise as their vacation,"
observes Tim Gallagher, VP of PR for Carnival Corp. in Miami. That's why
cruise lines provide and promote lots of supervised activities for
Reaching parents and kids
The most common media relations ploy for drumming up tourism coverage is
the press trip. Destinations wanting to lure families encourage or
require travel writers to bring their own children, or simply borrow
some for the junkets.
Some get the kids directly involved. Alison Ross, a VP at Peter Martin
Associates in Boston, had reporters' children write stories while
touring Jamaica. The kid-written pieces ran in Jamaican papers, as well
as in the children's hometowns, Ross said.
In addition to targeting media relations efforts to the typical magazine
and Sunday travel editors, BSMG's Mack recently chartered what he called
a "tween" media tour. Tweens, or younger teenagers, are old enough to
effectively lobby for their favorite destinations, so Mack invited
editors of magazines like Cosmo Girl and Tiger Beat to the Bahamas.
PR practitioners must be careful when targeting youngsters directly,
however. Parents don't want their kids exposed to too much commercial
hype, and kids can spot a phony a mile away, Mack says. "You have to be
very real and very truthful," he says.
Kids want the gift, not the wrapping paper. Materials geared toward them
should focus on native culture or tourist activities as seen through the
eyes of other children. Handouts for kids should be educational, like
BSMG's free Bahamian kids maps, or just plain cool and devoid of hotel
phone numbers or amusement park coupons. Media placements should be
noncommercial, like Peter Martin Associates' successful pitch to Sesame
Street for a feature on a Rastafarian girl.
Partnering with kid-focused brands also can be an effective marketing
strategy. The Bahamas negotiated a two-year exclusive destination
alliance with Nickelodeon because of the cable channel's legitimacy and
credibility with children and their parents. The Bahamas campaign hit on
two topics important to kids: music and environmental stewardship. The
islands were associated with the Teen Nick Festival concert tour and the
Big Help social service program.
When repositioning themselves for kid appeal, destinations should be
careful not to alienate their core audience of adult vacationers.
Successful programs create a "live and let live atmosphere," Mack says.
Las Vegas' reticence to fully embrace families stems partly from the
traditional gambler's aversion to children in the city, notes Alan
Feldman, SVP of public affairs at the city's MGM Mirage.
Ultimately, whether the kids want to believe it or not, parents do make
the final decisions on where to spend those two hard-earned weeks of
"The kids are never the primary focus of the PR campaign," Ross
Carnival's Gallagher agrees, "If you give the children the option of
where to go, they're not going to pick a cruise."
A TALE OF TWO ISLAND NATIONS
Traditionally seen as romantic getaways or scuba playgrounds, the
Caribbean islands realized in the last decade that more adults were
bringing their children along for romps through paradise. The Bahamas
and the Jamaica Tourist Board in particular capitalized on the trend
with successful PR campaigns.
Destination: Islands of the Bahamas
Agency: BSMG Worldwide
Goal: Increase the number and duration of family trips to the
Strategy: Publicize the Bahamas as the leading overseas travel
destination for American families
Tactics: Through a two-year, exclusive destination alliance with
Nickelodeon, the Islands of the Bahamas:
- Sponsored Teen Nick Festival concerts. Handed out free holographic
cards at the shows with pictures of a dolphin kissing a trainer.
- Sponsored a traveling Big Help exhibit on ocean and reef ecology that
encouraged kids to volunteer at local aquariums and for cleanup
- Episodes of Slime Time Live and Nick Games and Sports were filmed in
- Targeted press releases to Sunday travel editors at major papers like
The New York Times and the Boston Globe and hosted a media tour for
"tween" magazines editors.
Results: The percentage of vacationers in the Bahamas visiting with
families jumped from 22% to 37%.
Agency: Peter Martin Associates
Goal: Reposition Jamaica as an ideal family destination - not just a
Strategy: Partnering with popular children's brands and with recognized
Tactics: - Formed promotional alliances with McDonald's, Gymboree, and
the Dreamworks film Mouse Hunt
- Hosted a family press trip to which journalists were invited to bring
along children. The kids also wrote articles placed in newspapers in
Jamaica and in their home towns.
- Chose a Rastafarian girl and successfully pitched a profile on her to
- Conducted a satellite media tour from the island with spokesman Bill
McCoy and his daughter. McCoy is a former editor with prestigious
parenting and travel magazines.
Results: Jamaican hotels reported increased family bookings, and have
begun expanding facilities for kids.