What happened when a tourism board held a mystery vacation contest

Ads for an unnamed destination recently appeared in the Washington, DC-area.

Company: West Virginia State Tourism Board
Campaign: Fall Destination Unknown
Agency partners: BVK (ideation, creative, media relations, partnerships, social media), Digital Relativity (on-site coordination, photos and videos) 
Duration: September 2019 

Visitors to Washington, DC, in September may have seen ads plastered on bus shelters and billboards encouraging passersby to enter a competition to win a fall destination getaway. The catch? The campaign didn’t disclose the destination in question.

Strategy
Over the past few years, West Virginia has seen significant increases in tourism. And yet, the state remains "a bit of a hidden gem," said Chelsea Ruby, West Virginia’s tourism commissioner.

This is particularly true when it comes to fall destinations. West Virginia is the third-most forested state.

In order to increase the state’s profile, the West Virginia board decided to take a creative risk: advertise the state as a fall destination with an unbranded campaign.  

The campaign, which included billboards, a social media campaign and digital ads, was targeted at the Washington, DC-area, which is West Virginia’s largest and fastest growing market, Ruby said. The public was encouraged to enter a contest for a weekend getaway to a "Destination Unknown."

Tactics
The campaign launched in early September. In addition to digital, social media and radio campaigns, physical posters featuring the unknown destination were plastered around the city. A Fall Destination Unknown microsite was also created.

"We wanted to make sure that for the three weeks before ‘Destination Unknown’ [was revealed], everyone in was DC talking about this," Ruby said. 

For earned media, the board enacted a two-part strategy. Phase one involved alerting the media to the campaign’s premise: An unbranded tourism ad for an unknown fall destination. Phase two was triggered after the reveal, and featured assets from the weekend destination trip, including a video. 

More than 500 people entered the competition. The winners were instructed to show up at Washington’s Union Station with layers and hiking books. The destination was finally revealed, and they were treated to a weekend of West Virginia highlights, including nature walks, live music and local cider. 

The tourism board partnered with a number of influencers who went on the trip and posted about it on social media. 

View this post on Instagram

HOW SPONTANEOUS OF A TRAVELER ARE YOU? ?? This weekend, I hopped on a bus with all of the @falldestinationunknown winners — none of us knew what the destination was that we were headed to, but we were up for the surprise! We ended up in the beautiful West Virginia with @wvtourism, and we got to see some incredible fall foliage, soak up incredible mountain views, and experienced the adventure of a lifetime. From horseback riding to rock climbing to catching the best folk music in town, all around, it was an incredible weekend! Fellow leaf peepers: West Virginia is one of the best spots to visit during the fall. It is one of the most forested states in the country, and you can experience nature uninterrupted! It’s truly a hidden gem. Full blog post recap coming soon, but swipe right to see more photos from the trip! ?? by @foodphotographer #almostheaven #falldestinationunknown #ad

A post shared by alicia | lifestyle & travel (@aliciatenise) on

Results
The Fall Destination Unknown microsite received more than 15,000 unique visitors; more than 3,000 people visited the Destination West Virginia landing page on WVTourism.com. 

From September through October, traffic to the West Virginia Tourism website was up 50% year-over-year for the DC-area. 

The campaign generated nearly 100 online and broadcast placements, including write-ups or segments in the AP, Media Post, The Washington Post and WPGC Radio

On social media, the campaign generated 260 Instagram stories, leading to 6,437 engagements. 

For Ruby, the real win was listening to the contest winners describe the trip.

"Nearly every single one of them mentioned the unspoiled beauty and scenic views they found in West Virginia," she said. 

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