States Vie for Fewer Domestic-Tourism Dollars

Recession Expected to Dent $668 Billion U.S. Travel Market 7.5% This Year

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With Memorial Day just over a month away -- kicking off the season for that all-American pastime, the family summer vacation -- many state tourism offices are clamoring for the attention of would-be travelers in the face of a still-dark economic outlook.

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Forecasts from the U.S. Travel Association show that in 2009, Americans will spend less on travel and take fewer trips than they did last year. After taking 1.5 billion domestic leisure trips of 50 miles or more and spending more than $668 billion on travel in the U.S. in 2008, Americans are expected to cut down on leisure-trip taking 3.5% and travel expenditures 7.5% in 2009. And those who are traveling seem not to be venturing far from home: Year-over-year Google trends in March 2009 show growth in searches for rental cars, bus and rail exceeding growth in searches for flights.

Last year, some 27 states increased their budgets and 21 decreased them (West Virginia and Alaska spent too little to measure). This year, however, most are trying to do more with less.

Regardless of budget, the recession has forced all state tourism organizations to re-examine their marketing efforts and innovate by turning to new targets, new media, new partnerships or a combination of all three.

"Clearly the economy is having an impact on the travel industry," said Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer of Visit Florida. Last year more than 82.5 million visitors came to the state, but business was down 2%, largely because of a dismal fourth quarter. As a direct result of the recession, Mr. Seccombe has seen delayed bookings, often only three to five days in advance of travel, and depressed average daily rates at properties. "Consumers are shopping for value," he said. "It's hard times. I think everyone is going to have to work harder, be smarter, target better to reach the travelers that are still traveling."

California steps up
California and Michigan are positioned well this year. The Golden State will continue to invest as much in domestic and international marketing as it did last year -- in total, nearly $50 million, thanks to 3-year-old state legislation that guarantees that figure, said Susan Wilcox, VP-communications at the California Travel & Tourism Commission. In partnership with the state's division of tourism, it has rolled out a "deals" page on its website and hired its first interactive agency, Sapient. "We're trying to get more strategic about getting a more layered approach to reach our target audiences," Ms. Wilcox said.

For the first time, Michigan launched a national campaign, a $10 million network cable buy to run in April, May, and June to reach new markets. Going out to the national market is necessary because Michigan's in-state market is "soft" due to the collapsed auto industry, said George Zimmermann, VP for Travel Michigan at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. He added that in the past five years, for every $1 the state has spent on tourism advertising, it has received $2.86 back in taxes from out-of-state visitors.

In addition to the national spring/summer campaign, Travel Michigan also invested in a regional campaign for nine nearby cities including Chicago, Columbus and Cleveland.

"Many states are cutting budgets, which means there's less competition out there. For us to be out there is a big thing," said Mr. Zimmermann, who said this year he is working with a budget of $30 million.

Reaching out to nearby neighbors is a tactic that can work even for those with fewer resources. Texas spent $28.7 million in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence estimates, mostly on national magazines and cable TV, more than double what the state spent in 2007. In 2009, however, Tim Fennell, advertising manager at the Texas division of economic development and tourism, said the media outlay will be less. "Traditionally in downturns we do see a little more close-state and in-state travel, so we are tailoring our media strategy."

'Howdy Neighbor'
This year, though Texas will continue its national buys, it has upped its "Howdy Neighbor" campaign, originally launched in 2001, to draw in residents of neighboring states Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana. The regional push will feature ads on gas pumps and billboards and use geotargeting on the internet. Mr. Fennell said the outreach is designed to remind neighbors that "Texas is just one tank away."

Pennsylvania will target in-state residents, namely with a large buy in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and those in Washington, D.C., and Virginia to promote opportunities for educational travel in Pennsylvania. Last week the state launched a new website, thesavvygrouse.com (after the state's bird), with a blog where 35 contributors share the "unedited inside scoop" about Pennsylvania. And later this spring the state will roll out webisodes on a new site geared for New Yorkers, with 10 different sweepstake promotions for vacations around the state.

"We are making a traditional media buy but a shorter media buy, a multimedia buy sharply focused in New York," said Mickey Rowley, deputy secretary for tourism. He said he hopes buzz around the website will carry on to social-media sites such as Twitter. The state and its bloggers are already on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. "We need to be in that space because the consumer is demanding it today. It's not just a value message; it's a deep engagement and at the same time an enticement with a really good value."

Florida, too, engages in social media with 10 experts who share their takes on the Sunshine State. Visit Florida's Mr. Seccombe said his organization will soon launch a new integrated campaign using geotargeting. Another push this year will be a significant in-state campaign, which has been unprecedented.

Mr. Seccombe stressed that a large component of Visit Florida's promotion is through its cooperative-marketing program, which brings together hotels, major attractions and other industry partners to leverage the state and its many tourist opportunities. Visit Florida can negotiate media-buy discounts as high as 25% for its partners under the cooperative plan. Mr. Seccombe said the state has also met success by partnering with Southwest Airlines. For example, a Visit Florida ad might end with a 10-second "call to action" for Southwest.com/florida. That in turn facilitates measurable ROI: bookings for Florida trips on Southwest.

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