Lately, there is not much on the evening news that puts me in a good mood. This brief mention of tourism in Bath County, however, made our entire team happy. This is what we work for.

Bath County video from WDBJ7

This segment on WDBJ in Roanoke is just a brief update, but if it were a more in-depth examination of the post-pandemic tourism recovery in Bath County, what else might be included in the report?

It’s true there is pent up demand for travel and a lot of destinations are seeing visitors return. It’s also true that Bath County has amazing lodging properties that all have loyal repeat visitors who are likely itching to return to what they have missed for more than a year. If it seems like Bath County is slightly ahead of some (but not all) destinations, I for one will not be surprised. I don’t believe in coincidences.

  • During the pandemic when some destinations paused marketing, the county Office of Tourism proceeded with most of its planned advertising. The message was carefully crafted, but the objective was to remain top-of-mind when travel resumed.
  • The targeted advertising included 1.8 million impressions in print outlets; 3.1 million impressions on online outlets including websites and e-newsletters; 404,000 video impressions, including online pre-roll and streaming TV services.
  • Over the past 12 months, traffic to DiscoverBath.com was up 50% over the same period a year earlier. That followed a 57% between last year and the year before. Page views have more than doubled within two years.

Bath County tourism marketing was on the rise before the pandemic struck and brought travel to a complete stand still. We were confident at the time that the solid metrics of website traffic, visitor guide requests, newsletter opt-ins and social media followers combined with the decision to continue marketing through the downturn would all lead to a swift and robust recovery. We will not know economic impact numbers for quite a while, but early indicators suggest that we were correct.

The Mikula-Harris team is just getting started on a branding project for the Town of Appomattox, VA. It’s a cool small town located east of Lynchburg. The drive between our office in Vinton and Appomattox is especially wonderful because most of the miles are in Bedford County. Returning from a meeting recently, I was driving west on Route 460. Once past the congestion of Lynchburg, you begin to see the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. As the sun slowly sank on the horizon, I was reminded where the inspiration for the ad campaign “Where Ordinary Ends, Bedford Begins” came from as well as the line of ad copy “To the east and west are bustling cities, but in between is pure bliss.”

The message perfectly hits the nail right on the head for Bedford. We knew instinctively that the branding and creative work we did for Destination Bedford was gold. Now that some time has passed, we’re able to see that it’s helping move the needle. All of the newly branded campaign materials hit the street in early 2020. The website launched in March and traffic grew steadily all through the year. There were three times as many users and page views in April 2021 than during the same period in 2020.

What are the reasons for this success? As with most tourism marketing success stories, it’s not a single magic thing. It’s a combination of things:

• The new website follows all best practices for SEO. Result: Organic Search as a source of traffic is up 490%.

• Social media as a source of traffic is way up because the team at Destination Bedford is working hard at consistently posting quality content.

• The management and marketing team at Destination Bedford is investing its advertising budget in the right places — building brand awareness and generating website traffic.

The future looks bright for tourism growth in Bedford County. In the meantime, the present is pure bliss.

One day last week while sitting at my desk in Virginia, I enjoyed a virtual tour of some tourist hot spots in New Hampshire. The production value was barely adequate — looked like much of it was filmed on a phone. The tour guide’s authenticity and love for the state was abundantly clear. The guide happened to be the Governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu. The entire, action-packed day was chronicled on Twitter under the hashtag #Super603day. If you’re wondering, 603 is the area code that covers the entire state.

Full disclosure, I was raised in New Hampshire and have spent time in many of the places featured during #Super603day. I actually grew up in the same town as the governor. I’ve never met him, but I did vote for his father who was the governor more than 30 years earlier.

Obviously, I love to see all governors support tourism. During my career in tourism marketing in Virginia, our governors have all supported tourism, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Sununu, though, takes it to new heights — almost 6,000 feet above sea level to be exact. One of the coolest parts of his trip was hiking into and then skiing Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. I have hiked the trail several times, but never skied it. The journey continued south to Lake Winnipesaukee for boating and fishing. The Roanoke region of Virginia shares a special connection to Lake Winnipesaukee. The movie “What About Bob” with Bill Murray is set on the NH lake, but was filmed at Smith Mountain Lake. I can say from personal experience, that they are quite different but both very beautiful lakes. The governor’s day ended with a swim in the frigid ocean water at Hampton Beach. Many people don’t even realize that New Hampshire has beaches. The NH seacoast is only 18 miles, but it’s beautiful from Seabrook to Portsmouth.

As a tourism marketer, I enjoyed following the governor’s journey. No social media “influencer” could have brought as much sincerity. As a transplanted Yankee, it was a walk down memory lane. 

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We have written two previous blogs encouraging communities to find ways to make travel and tourism part of the economic recovery in 2021. Our rationale in those earlier blogs was not to offer loans or grants to tourism businesses, although they have certainly been hit hard and deserve some relief. We want to see more travel. We want shops, museums, inns, restaurants, outfitters and hotels to thrive from serving more visitors than ever before. Make the economy work for them better and stronger than ever before.

In those earlier blog posts, we called upon communities to invest in their tourism economy by getting behind their local Destination Marketing Organization and increasing funding not decreasing it. In most cases tourism marketing budgets are dependent on lodging taxes, which have been weak during the pandemic. We continue to believe that the cities, towns and counties who zig when everyone else zags, and find a creative though temporary way to boost tourism marketing will reap the benefits.

Recently we read about another way that one destination is supporting its tourism economy — by paying people to travel. It’s a stimulus plan worth considering. The Falkland Islands is encouraging domestic travel by offering vouchers up to 500 pounds (more than $650 US) per adult and 250 pounds for children.

Could this idea work in the United States? Every time the government offers a stimulus plan, they hope citizens will spend it on retail or travel. Often recipients use it to pay down debt. Why not offer an incentive to travel? Whether it’s a direct payment like a voucher or a tax deduction. It would make a powerful impact on the economy, but the benefits of travel go far beyond economics, which makes the case for an incentive even more compelling.

• Travel brings people closer together — friends, couples, families, even multiple generations of family — through shared experiences and memories.

• It’s always a learning experience. Even if the itinerary doesn’t seem educational like visiting museums, people still learn just by being on the road. They learn about geography by getting a firsthand look at different landscapes or grasping the distances between places; and history by understanding how a place was influenced by it settlers, location and events.

• It fosters understanding between people of different cultures and backgrounds.

Anything that encourages travel sounds like a decent idea to us. What do you think? Would you travel within the U.S. if offered a voucher or a tax deduction?

A few weeks ago in this space, we published a post titled “Make Tourism Part of the Comeback.” I think a lot of people interpreted it as a gentle reminder, “Hey, don’t forget about travel and tourism.” Readers not in the tourism industry probably thought of the blog as a suggestion to use their wallets to help businesses by returning to travel as soon as they were comfortable with it. That’s a great thing to do, but I think it’s time for bolder action.

I want to be clear on exactly what we meant in the original post. Now is not the time to cut spending on destination marketing. Unfortunately, in many cases, DMO budgets are directly tied to lodging tax collection, which has obviously come to a screeching halt. So, that’s the end of the story? Wrong. We’re calling on community leaders to be bold, forward thinking and creative. Find a way to invest in tourism marketing now in order to hasten your community’s recovery. There are endless stories around the country of politicians trying — and too often succeeding — in diverting lodging taxes that should be used for tourism promotion to some other pet project when times are good and money is flowing in. Isn’t now the right time to turn the tables and let funds flow to tourism instead of away from it?

Tourism marketing is not like most other line items on a budget. It’s an expense that is also an investment. Tourism is a revenue generator. Travelers not only fork over money to businesses and attractions that desperately need it (who then put it to good use providing jobs), they also deposit money directly into local tax coffers including lodging, sales, meals, gas and, in some cases, ticket taxes. When things are going well and the economy is humming along, local elected officials are in love with tourism and very happy to have that tax money.

We are in the midst of a major economic crisis right now. The road back to prosperity is not going to be easy or quick. The communities that are wise enough to invest in marketing at a time when others are slashing the marketing budgets will come out ahead in the long run.

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