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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I have always liked out-of-home advertising because it offers such a great opportunity for creativity. Some out-of-home options like billboards, busses or metro stations can accommodate larger-than-life, eye-popping ads.

A campaign for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, got my attention the other day in an industry e-newsletter. It makes very clever use of the space. It’s more than just a big poster ad. They turned this into a mini experience that is sure to be a conversation starter and maybe even a selfie opportunity. Sitting on that bench/chairlift with that awesome image of the Tetons in the background — most likely while you’re in the midst of your daily commute — surely makes a skier or snowboarder think, “I gotta get out of Chicago and go there.” Heck, I’m thinking that just from reading the article in my office in Virginia.

Even though out-of-home advertising results are difficult to track, this campaign reinforces something we have preached for many years. Great advertising — which means creative messaging, strong imagery, and clever use of whatever medium you happen to be working within — moves consumers through the sales funnel at lighting speed. Whereas, lame creative work doesn’t inspire anyone to take action. Weak advertising moves people through the sales funnel at a glacially slow pace, like waiting in a long lift line at a crowded ski resort.

A lot of people have been curious about the partnership established between Bath County and Mikula-Harris. It’s an interesting story that will one day become an extensive case study or white paper. In the meantime, we want to share what we’re doing and the results that are being achieved. This is the first of what will surely be several blog posts on the subject.

It’s definitely a unique relationship. The county basically outsourced most of the functions of the Office of Tourism, including providing strategic and creative direction to the marketing, working closely with the administration on budgeting, and communicating with local tourism partners to build relationships and foster teamwork.

It’s not a typical client/agency relationship, but the stars aligned for this partnership to become possible. As conversations progressed and the agreement began to take shape, I knew in my heart that it was going to be successful — a genuine win-win situation the way we hope every relationship will be. Today, let’s talk about what makes this relationship unique and why it was so perfectly poised for success.

A. Mikula-Harris has experience in Bath County. We knew the brand and some of the key players. We were not starting from scratch. Sure, we had the challenge of re-gaining some lost momentum, but at least there was a solid foundation in place.

B. We often consult with clients on media and advertising plans. In many cases, clients accept some of our counsel and mix in some of their own preferences. In the case of Bath County, the responsibility for developing the plan was entirely on us. Results would rise or fall because of our strategy. We’ll take that any day of the week. We crafted a plan that took advantage of every discount, buy down, cost share, and value-added bonus we could find. We’re delivering maximum bang for the county’s bucks.

C. The creative work is handled much like the media plan. We answer to the county administrator who hired us because we’re experts at what we do. We share ideas accompanied by research and rationale. We’re held to a high standard but in the end we are not being micro-managed. Once again, we’ll take that scenario any day of the week because we’re confident that we’ll get results. So, we have developed new creative work that we believe will be effective AND it’s paired with our media strategy.

D. In addition to tending to details like the media plan, we had the opportunity to step back and view the big picture of where the tourism program is headed. We considered new markets to pursue, new ways to reach people beyond traditional advertising and new ways to form partnerships. We identified a few key areas for growth and launched a couple of new initiatives, including a Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure and a consumer e-newsletter.

So, how is it all working out? What kind of results are we seeing? You have probably heard the term “Taking names and kicking butt.” We’re literally taking names and metaphorically kicking butt. The next blog post will analyze some results to date.

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