Discovering America

The US travel industry has faced a challenging adversary in the volatile economy, but tourism organizations from myriad states are highlighting "staycations" as a viable, even desirable, option.

The US travel industry has faced a challenging adversary in the volatile economy, but tourism organizations from myriad states are highlighting "staycations" as a viable, even desirable, option.

Though the US economy remains shaky, people still want to take vacations. As such, travel and tourism organizations are appealing to consumers' wallets and wishes by marketing the idea of “staycations.”
 
The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau has a program called “Be a Tourist in Your Home Town,” which is focused on getting locals to enjoy New Orleans as tourists by visiting museums, festivals, and restaurants.
 
“It's about helping them understand that when they do this, they're going to have a great time, but it's also driving a very important part of our local economy,” says Kelly Schulz, VP of communications for the organization.
 
She says tourism is a $5 billion industry for the city that employs 70,000-plus citizens, but since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, some large conventions and conferences are “a bit wary” about going to the Gulf region during the peak hurricane season of August and September.
 
With fewer outside tourists traveling to the city at the end of the summer, the bureau is creating more promotions and programs to attract local residents, Schulz says. One of those, “Coolinary,” offers consumers three-course dinners for less than $34 at select restaurants throughout the city. Another program called “Christmas New Orleans Style,” a month-long celebration with a variety of activities, is promoted regionally to consumers in the drive-in market, which includes parts of Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and the Florida Panhandle.
 
Festivals, such as Mardi Gras, which Schulz says draws more than a million tourists each year, are very important to New Orleans' culture and economy.
 
“What most people call their annual festival calendar, we call April because it's hard to find a week without one,” she explains. “If you can eat it, catch it, or cook it, there's a festival for it. We're not short on events to promote.”
 
One new ways in which the bureau is promoting events and engaging local consumers is through social media, says Schulz. The bureau is using Facebook and Twitter to host daily and weekly contests, such as New Orleans trivia quizzes, and winners receive prizes that can include anything from a free hotel stay to a spa gift certificate.
 
While “The Big Easy” is still recovering from the BP oil spill two years ago, Schulz says tourism is on the upswing for New Orleans, with 2010 being the best year in terms of visitor numbers since Hurricane Katrina. By the end of 2010, the city had 8.3 million domestic and international visitors who spent $5.3 billion, which Schulz says is the highest visitor spending in the city's history.
 
“It shows momentum and bodes well overall for travel,” she says.
 
Michigan tourism speeds ahead
New Orleans wasn't alone in terms of encouraging tourism figures. Michigan also saw positive numbers in 2010 from both in-state and out-of-state travelers.
 
“Most of our leisure business is drive business,” explains George Zimmermann, VP for Travel Michigan at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “But the interesting thing is that in 2010, travel by Michigan residents was up about 6% and the big jump was out-of-state visitors coming to Michigan, which was up 21%.”
 
He says attracting US travelers to Michigan is important for revenue and job creation for the state. Between 2009 and 2010, visitor spending increased $2.1 billion, from $15.1 billion to $17.2 billion. Michigan's tourism business generated 152,600 jobs in 2010, up 10,000 from the previous year.
 
Every year, Michigan invests $25 million for tourism promotion. Right now the focus is on integrating the marketing practices for the state's “Pure Michigan” campaign, which was created in 2006 by ad agency McCann Erickson to highlight the wonders of the state, says Zimmermann. In September 2011, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. hired Weber Shandwick, McCann's sister agency, to handle PR and social media for the campaign.
 
Weber Shandwick promotes the Pure Michigan Facebook page and all Pure Michigan social properties numerous ways, including prominent “like” buttons on the michigan.org homepage, in all travel-related e-newsletters the agency sends out on behalf of its client, and in the Pure Michigan Connect blog Weber manages.
 
Zimmermann says the social media platforms have facilitated much more dialogue with consumers than ever before.
 
“There are all these ripples with how social media has changed the landscape,” he says. “It's changed how we connect with consumers dramatically.”
 
The Pure Michigan Facebook page has nearly 335,000 fans, which is “more than any other state tourism page,” Zimmermann says, and consumers have uploaded more than 10,000 photos of Michigan to the organization's Flickr page. Although Travel Michigan isn't currently working on any promotions with Foursquare, Zimmermann says his team is looking at new social media platforms every day.
 
Email newsletters go out to more than 300,000 consumers every two weeks, describing deals, events, and attractions going on throughout the state. These emails are especially successful when they promote holiday promotions, such as Valentine's Day hotel packages, Zimmermann explains.
 
“It's a perfect opportunity for PR work,” he says, “and our industry provides a lot of Valentine's Day packages, which we then can promote via social media and PR.”
 
During 2012, Zimmermann says Travel Michigan may work with Weber on a blogging event to reach more consumers and spread the word about what the state has to offer as a travel destination.
 
Red Roof Inn is using social media to target niche audiences, says Alicia Rainbolt, senior account supervisor at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. The hotel company has multiple Facebook pages to connect with certain consumer bases, such as RedRoofLuvsPets and Red Roof Loves Gay and Lesbian Travel. Every year on April 18, which is National Pet Owner's Day, Red Roof Inn offers 15% off for travelers with pets, while pets stay for free.
 
The business is also connecting with consumers through the staycation concept, says Rainbolt.
 
“Red Roof Inn found it was having a lot of people doing what it calls ‘one-tank trips,' so it decided to capitalize on the staycation trend and called it a ‘state-cation,'” she explains.
 
The nationwide one-tank-trip deal, which launched in August 2011, offered guests 15% off their visit if they stayed at a single Red Roof Inn location for three consecutive nights or more. Red Roof Inn's website also provided guests with lists of attractions, activities, and restaurants within driving distance of the property. Rainbolt says the company is going to run the same state-cation promotion for travelers this August.
 

Stay home, stay green

Saving money isn't the sole reason to pick a staycation. Remaining closer to home is good for the environment and produces a smaller carbon footprint.

The National Clean Air Green Tour, an annual mobile event, promotes going green in 40 states and 3,000 communities throughout the US. At each stop the bio-diesel-fueled buses make, sponsoring brands and participants teach consumers about eco-friendly products and provide tips on how to protect natural resources.

“It's traditional experiential marketing with a twist,” explains Jim Paar, founder of the tour. “All our displays are powered by solar, biodiesel, and wind power, so whether we're running TVs or kiosks for a particular brand, every-thing is run off of alternative energy.”

The tour members and retailers also run green events in select communities, such as building urban gardens or planting trees. When the tour bus makes a stop in a town, the organization will often appear on morning programs or radio shows to attract volunteers to help throughout the day. The tour also issues press releases, Yahoo Event announcements, Facebook updates, and connects with local newspapers to get the word out. Paar Media, founded by Paar, handles the advertising and sponsorship development for the tour and Full Motion Marketing helps execute events.

Paar says many families come out to help during the eco-friendly events, which is great for the community and for kids to learn about the environment.

Along with local residents attending the events, Paar notes that many travelers and vacationers have been getting involved with the tour in the last few years.

“In tourism, going green seems to be the niche right now,” he explains. “Getting people to realize the positive impact of the community going green really helps to attract that new tourism group.”

New Mexico tackles money issues
New Mexico's Tourism Department is actively marketing to its own residents, particularly focusing on how finances shouldn't interfere with fun.
 
“We have a strong belief that money should not be a limiting factor in creating life-long memories for you and your family,” says Monique Jacobson, cabinet secretary for the organization.
 
One of the group's biggest promotions for in-state tourists and the drive-in market was “Catch the Kid,” a statewide scavenger hunt last summer where families or individuals would travel around New Mexico to find clues to capture outlaw Billy the Kid for a $10,000 prize.
 
The promotion, which was executed in part by PR firm DCI, had a microsite and a free mobile app for consumers to get information about the hunt. Since the campaign was so successful, the tourism department launched a similar statewide promotion in January for New Mexico's 100th anniversary. The centennial campaign, Jacobson says, is like Catch the Kid in that it's “focused on getting people to explore the state,” but it also centers on fun re-creations of historic photos and events.
 
Jacobson believes consumers can have rich experiences on a staycation if they treat it like a “true vacation” and put the same kind of time and energy into planning it as if they were going further away.
 
Another regional campaign the organization launched in January is about having people pay for a short trip or weekend getaway for a loved one for $100 or less. On the website GiftNM.com, consumers can find inexpensive travel packages throughout New Mexico that they can buy for a friend or family member.
 
“The idea is that there's no better gift than the gift of travel because it makes memories that last a lifetime,” suggests Jacobson. “We want to focus on celebrating the amazing things that are out there.”
 
The tourism department is active on Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, but throughout 2012 the organization will be looking to bolster its social media efforts to target consumers and promote the state, particularly through blogger outreach, Jacobson explains.
 
In-state savings
Allyn Magrino, president and COO of the Susan Magrino Agency, has seen many clients offering “resident rates” to consumers to boost in-state travel. Two of her Florida clients, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Hilton Bonnet Creek, are both offering deals for state residents.
 
“The drive market is very big in Florida because the people who live down there know they have some of the most amazing resorts within a short drive,” Magrino explains. “For people who live in Naples, FL, going to Miami is a whole new world.”
 
With the help of the agency, Hilton Bonnet Creek launched a promotion last summer with the video game Just Dance 3, which wasn't released in stores until several months later. The “Just Dance 3 Preview Weekends” promotion began on July 30, 2010, which is National Dance Day, and professional dancers helped both children and adults play the game. Magrino says the “family friendly” promotion had more than 300 guests at each session, many of whom were local residents.
 
In October 2010, Susan Magrino's client the Hyatt Regency New Orleans reopened. In order to increase travel to the hotel, the business has been offering “Gulf Coast resident's rates” to people who live in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Magrino says New Orleans is a travel destination for consumers from all over the country, but it can also be one “particularly for people living in the region.”
 
The Bedford Post Inn in Bedford, NY, owned by actor Richard Gere, is another client of Magrino's that is offering special deals to local visitors. Magrino says the inn is a “huge destination on weekends,” but it also wants to be a resource for the community, which is why the Post has been offering mid-week special rates. From Monday to Thursday, the establishment gives consumers about $100 savings a night per room, which is meant to increase the number of residents in the area who stay at the eight-room inn.
 
In addition to deals and promotions, Magrino says social media is becoming bigger for her hotel clients, especially Foursquare check-ins.
 
“People are on social media even when they are on vacation,” she explains. “We want to engage our clients when they're there.”
 
Magrino believes the travel and tourism situation in the country is improving and that staycations have been beneficial for the economy. “People are going away and that's a change from two years ago when they didn't go anywhere, but it's not necessarily a trip to Europe, it's more close to home,” she says. “It's been great for tourism because people realize we have a lot of wonderful places here in the US and it doesn't have to be a plane ride away.”

Getting somewhere with consumers

While staycations may be growing in popularity, marketing the concept to consumers is no easy task.
 
Kelly Schulz, VP of communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, says a big challenge is getting the value and range of the city's experiences across to consumers.
 
“We know times are tough,” she explains. “We always promote the value of New Orleans and that you can come here and do the really high-end meals, or you can spend $5 and get a bowl of gumbo and it's some of the best food you've ever had.”
 
Hill+Knowlton Strategies senior account supervisor Alicia Rainbolt says the hard part is making the firm's travel and tourism clients stand out.
 
“The challenge is cutting through the clutter in the market to differentiate our clients from all the other brands, especially with so many new hotel chains and brands opening up,” she says. “It's about making sure your brand is front and center while creating customer loyalty. We leverage specific offers to reach niche audiences and play into what is being talked about in the media, such as military returning to the US from Iraq and the rising popularity of traveling with pets.”
 
New Mexico has two major difficulties when it comes to marketing tourism in the state – low awareness and misperception, says Monique Jacobson, cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Tourism Department.

“We did focus groups around the US and found many people have no idea what we have; in fact, there are many people that don't know New Mexico is part of the US,” she notes. “We have so much to do – whitewater rafting, hiking, and some of the best golf and skiing in the country – but people don't know it and are shocked to learn.”

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