Like many destinations, especially those that rely on their overall charm rather than a host of new attractions, the California city of Carmel-by-the-Sea had been impacted by the national travel slump of recent years.
Known primarily as an artist enclave, the Monterey Peninsula city hadn't attracted major media interest since Clint Eastwood was its mayor more than two decades ago.
"For the longest time, Carmel used to really live on our reputation as being a little quirky," says city administrator Rich Guillen. "But we figured out it wasn't like it was 20 years ago, where we just had to be ourselves and people would show up. We needed to become more competitive."
With the local government dependent on tourism for 70% to 80% of its budget, Carmel officials turned to San Francisco-based Graham & Associates to come up with a cost-effective campaign to raise the city's profile in the travel and destination press. The agency sent a team to Carmel and soon came up with an idea focusing on the city's appeal not just to tourists, but also to their pets.
With a relatively small budget that precluded bringing travel writers in for "fam trips," Graham & Associates president Lydia Graham needed an idea that not only would stand on its own, but also would highlight the warmth and friendliness of Carmel's residents.
"Carmel has always been perceived as a serious destination that appealed to an older crowd," she says. "We wanted to lighten things up."
After noting that dogs could not only roam unleashed on the city's beach, but were also welcome at several area hotels and restaurants, Graham dubbed Carmel "Dog Heaven." City officials quickly adopted the theme, even going so far as to rename the fountain in Carmel's shopping district "The Fountain of Woof" and including a dog-costume pageant as part of the city's October founding celebration.
The agency worked with Guillen on a press kit that incorporated both pictures and b-roll of dogs in the city. It then began pitching, focusing on a few national outlets, but mostly on regional press. "We really targeted the markets within driving distance," Graham explains. "The underlying message was that if you wanted to take your dog, it's a great destination."
While they received no formal media training, many city officials willingly stepped in for interviews and to serve as guides for reporters. "The mayor has a dog, and she'd show [reporters] around to restaurants where on the patio you would see a dog at every table," Graham says.
The campaign's clever theme resulted in almost immediate coverage from radio stations in San Francisco and nearby Santa Cruz. The story also proved ideal for USA Today's Travel Section, which sent a reporter, along with his family and pet, to Carmel, resulting in a Life section front-page story. That in turn triggered additional interest from a variety of publications, ranging from the National Examiner to the Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Travel Weekly, and Delta Airlines' in-flight magazine. But most important, the media attention triggered a surge in callers to the Carmel Visitors Bureau looking for pet-friendly accommodations, restaurants, and boutiques.
"Dog Heaven" continues to generate media interest, with coverage expanding beyond the travel papers, and into lifestyle and pet-oriented outlets. "We've actually been very surprised at how long the campaign has run yet it is still effective," says Guillen.
Carmel has retained Graham & Associates for another year with a boost in the budget. The plan is to continue with the pet-friendly theme.
"It may not have the impact it had when we launched it, but "Dog Heaven" will always be happening for Carmel," says Graham. "The whole town had gotten behind it and made it an evergreen story."
PR team: Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, and Graham & Associates (San Francisco)
Campaign: "Dog Heaven on Earth"
Time frame: June 2003 to June 2004