Today's tenuous travel environment has state tourism marketers and corporate partners huddled together like sunburned beach-goers under a single umbrella, slathering each other with marketing balm to try to alleviate the burn of reluctant long-distance travelers, and absorb tourism dollars from their own backyards.
Last year's careening economy, followed by September 11, delivered a one-two punch to the US travel industry that left it wondering from which direction tourists might come and what it was going to take to flush them out.
New objectives, new tactics
"Our strategy (after September 11) was to promote in-state tourism," says Tom Flanigan, spokesperson for Visit Florida, the private organization that implements Florida's tourism efforts. "Our thinking was, 'They're already here, why not tap that market?'"
The blows to tourism precipitated a shift in PR objectives. "Before September 11, 'brand awareness' and 'building brands' were the buzzwords in the travel business, says Karen Weiner Escalera, president and CEO of KWE Associates, who has specialized in travel PR for more than 20 years. "After September 11, the travel business was under siege, and the question became, 'How are we going to get heads in beds, butts on seats, and turnstiles moving?' Clients wanted PR to be more sales-driven."
State tourism PR programs that had previously focused on polishing images had to be retooled to more actively capture in-state travelers. "Before, PR was asked to 'make us look good.' Now its mandate is 'close the deal,' says Lori Simms, special markets manager at the Missouri Division of Tourism. "You need the ads to soften people up so they're open to your message. People are bombarded with so much information that you have to hammer at them with advertising, but then you have to get in there with PR to close the sale."
Lisa Bachman, VP of PR at Praco, a 30-year-old integrated PR and ad firm that handles Colorado's tourism account, says tourism naturally lends itself to collaboration between advertising and PR because it is competitive, yet driven by hospitality.
"You want to build relationships in tourism, she says. "PR is all about facilitating long-term relationships. But first you need to get tourists' attention. Advertising gets their attention, but it doesn't make sure they have fun on vacation."
Praco conducted three research projects for Colorado. "The economy has made added value critical, says Bachman. "If you can package a program with a lot of value, they're going to pay more attention. Convenience is tied in because packaging a vacation makes it easier for the traveler."
To deliver on package deals, states are seeking partnerships with private businesses. These partnerships are beneficial for everyone: Consumers get more for their money, and combined budgets mean bigger promotions.
"This idea of packaging means destinations need to do the kind of thing hotels did years ago with all-inclusive resorts, Escalera says. "The appeal is that everything is done - you just show up. Partners benefit from the brand awareness of another product, which is a certain endorsement of quality."
Arkansas partners Coca-Cola in a "Coke, Arkansas and you campaign to promote in-state travel via events, TV and radio spots, websites, coupons, and prizes - such as canoes and tents - that encourage residents to take advantage of the state's natural beauty.
"See Arkansas first also aims to raise local awareness of in-state activities.
A major element is a "travel-and-win game. This campaign has been favored by op-ed columnists, and involves collateral support, including lapel stickers for hospitality workers.
Toyota has a manufacturing plant in West Virginia, so the state hooked up with the automaker to give away a car and a driving tour vacation package.
"Future plans are in the works to partner with camera and canoe manufacturers and ATV companies, says Tricia Clendenen, SAE on the state's account with PR/advertising agency Charles Ryan Associates.
Continuing the car theme, Nevada is focusing on adventure drive travel, and discovered the perfect partner in Winnebago; Texas is playing on the idea that "travel is a basic freedom in its "Rediscover Texas" campaign, and has sought local hospitality business partnerships rather than large corporate affiliations. California also partners primarily with local businesses in its "California, find yourself here" promotion.
Missouri gained access to Ford by collaborating with the state Lotto in its "Explore Missouri scratcher game. The carmaker and the Lotto have primary roles, while tourism gets its slice through a secondary drawing.
Florida tourism plays a bigger role in its Lotto arrangement because Visit Florida members - such as Carnival Cruise Lines and Miami Seaquarium - contribute prizes. Additionally, all non-winning tickets can be presented for discounts or add-ons at more than 250 hotels and attractions.
Governor Bush helped out by securing an additional $20 million in "emergency post-September 11 funding, and Visit Florida pulled in a further $25 million from its private-sector partners. The $45 million bought a lot of PSAs and ads, encouraging Florida residents with "hot vacation deals in the state.
Piggybacking on partner media buys is another benefit of state alliances.
"We partner Texas amusement parks and hotels, and we leverage our PR on their advertising, says Patrick Shaughnessy, communications director at Texas Economic Development.
The economy has affected media in such a way that some outlets are more receptive to partnering. "Now there are more integrated marketing opportunities with ad agencies, because in this very competitive media environment, magazines are giving value-added options, Escalera says. "If you advertise at a certain level, they'll do events for you. Conde Nast is an example."
Clendenen says West Virginia benefited from such an arrangement when Conde Nast Traveler magazine helped the state pull off its driving tour promotion with Toyota "through cooperative advertising and PR activities. The goal was 5,000 entries, but the promotion garnered 30,000.
Corporations don't have to have a direct interest in tourism to benefit from partnering with state programs. Coke is a good example. "Our ad plans connect with consumers on a national level, and we customize locally via PR, says Pam Thompson, mid-South division promotion manager of Coca-Cola.
"As a marketer, the best way to connect with the Arkansas consumer is to work with groups that best understand that consumer. Our partnership has allowed us to build relationships with other Arkansas corporations and businesses, and better understand the demographics of the consumer."
All budgets are tight this year, but state tourism budgets are often at the mercy of appropriation committees.
Colorado, for example, completely cut off tourism funding for a number of years in the 1990s. "It wasn't a priority, Bachman says. "We got it back three years ago, and the current annual budget is $6 million. That's a pretty meager sum - most states receive between $15 and $20 million, except Florida, which can thank privatization for its $89.5 million state tourism budget.
One of the difficulties in channeling marketing dollars is gauging what proportion of tourists are indigenous to the state. California puts it at 85%, while Missouri (29%), New Mexico (25%), and West Virginia (15%) report much lower estimates. Many other states are not sure. "When someone walks into a hotel, no one asks them where they're from, says Visit Florida's Flanigan. "Our research folks are working to come up with a more reliable methodology than the one we inherited from the state."
Some smaller states, such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island, must also try to take advantage of neighboring states' drive markets. New Mexico reports that 30% of its visitors are Texans, and is actively trying to siphon people out of the Texas, Colorado, and Arizona markets.
"Only 12% of our annual visitor trips are attributed to residents, says Margaret Joyce, communications director for New Hampshire's division of travel and tourism. "Most of the state is accessible in less than two hours, so luring out-of-state visitors - who tend to stay longer and spend more - helps us best accomplish our mission of increasing room and meal spending."
Tom Waits, president and CEO of the Florida Hotel & Motel Association, points out that even the slightest recovery in tourism will contribute to the health of Florida's economy. "Our industry contributes 20%, (nearly $50 billion a year), of the general revenue funding that comes in for Florida, so when tourism sneezes, Florida gets a little bit sick."
FLORIDA REAPS THE BENEFITS OF PRIVATIZATION
In 1996, Florida became the only state to privatize its division of tourism. The organization Visit Florida was born with the objective of increasing promotion and marketing resources without taxation.
The arguments for privatization were fivefold: Tourism represents 20% of Florida's economy (about $50 billion a year); the state cannot provide sufficient funds to market tourism competitively; state funding is inconsistent, and dependent on legislative favor; marketing statements are inconsistent; and privatization would even the field for smaller businesses and lesser-known destinations.
"Government always has a problem with marketing programs, says Tom Waits, president and CEO of the Florida Hotel & Motel Association. "It's into lawmaking and policy, not marketing, and we've proven that marketing can do a lot better when it is industry-driven. Visit Florida started out with 400 private-sector partners, which has since risen to 2,900, providing a massive boost to the marketing coffers.
"If we were confined to state revenue, our budget would have been only a little over $21.6 million, says spokesperson Tom Flanigan. "But industry involvement gave us $89.5 million. Clearly, there's an enormous financial benefit."
Independent revenue sources include dues (half of 1% of gross annual revenue); licensing and merchandising deals - such as bottled water and T-shirts; promotions; and trade shows. The $21.6 million in state funding is derived from a 15.75% share in daily rental car surcharge.
Visit Florida comprises a Commission on Tourism (which is made up of three government commissioners and 28 from the private sector), a 43-strong board of directors (including the 31 commissioners), and 130 employees to handle day-to-day operations.
And the benefits to its partners are sizeable. "A family-owned B&B can get in for $125 a year, and in exchange we make $4,000 worth of marketing materials available to them, says Flanigan. "Can you imagine this B&B having the resources to have a presence at World Travel Market in London? Under our auspicious, it can."