Many colleagues, clients and friends are aware of the unique relationship that Mikula-Harris has had with the Bath County Office of Tourism in recent years. Some have watched with interest to see what this partnership achieved for the county to see if there might be implications for similar collaboration in the future. There have been recent developments in the county. This is the perfect time for an update and a look at the past and future of tourism marketing in Bath County.
In the spring of 2019, Bath County tourism was in a slump. Frankly, that’s putting it mildly. The county had been without a tourism director for a while and lost significant momentum. Local businesses were feeling the sting because the previous tourism director was a dynamic and hard-working professional who created a fantastic program. The long vacancy in the department is what caused the slump. Thankfully, we had worked with the previous director years earlier who helped us understand the people and assets that make Bath County special. We built the website and designed their visitor guide. When the county hired us to handle pretty much every aspect of tourism marketing, we were prepared to hit the ground running.
What Bath County needed from Mikula-Harris was not like a typical client-agency relationship. It placed the entire burden of succeeding squarely on our shoulders. The truth is, we liked that. It allowed us to emulate every successful tactic we’d observed over our careers and, more importantly, to avoid every mistake that we had seen tourism offices make.
Here is some of what we did:
• We developed a balanced media plan that included print, digital, social media and a small amount of broadcast. Balance is critical. We chose media outlets based on their demographics and reach. Bath County isn’t exactly as well-known as Richmond or Virginia Beach, so building brand awareness was a key objective.
• We launched an e-newsletter so that we could re-market to hot prospects. We hoped this tool would convert prospects into actual visitors, as well as turn visitors into repeat customers. We designed the newsletter to be more than a list of upcoming events, which is a common format for destination newsletters. The newsletter actually helps to reinforce the core brand messages. It communicates the main reasons why Bath County is special and worth visiting. Of course, it promotes events, too.
• We were determined to make maximum use of social media. Even with a large following, social media isn’t free, but it is affordable. We budgeted accordingly to ensure that our messages were widely seen. That message, much like the newsletter, is more than blatant marketing. We strived to offer a variety of content that was interesting, informative and consistent with other brand messaging. Social media grew to become the third leading source of website clicks, usually behind organic search and paid search.
• Because content is so important to social media success, we added a few new things to the website and shared them generously. The new blog has been wildly successful. We added themed itineraries and a page to feature package deals offered by lodging properties. Among the top 50 most viewed pages on the website, 16 of them didn’t exist prior to our partnership.
• We identified the motorcycle touring and scenic drives market as an area for growth. We developed a brochure that features five loop rides. We put all five rides and some additional information on a robust scenic drives page on the website. Then, we promoted the niche with some advertising and social media exposure. The online version of the brochure gets tons of views and we have had to reprint the paper brochure. Perhaps the best indication of the success of this initiative is that the scenic drives page has been the second most viewed page of the website, second only to the homepage.
That is a pretty solid list of marketing achievements. How can we measure if they have brought about real results? That can be difficult, especially with an unprecedented global pandemic in the mix. Some things can be measured. Website traffic during the final six months of FY22 averaged 2.4x more than the six months prior to the start of our partnership with Bath County. There have been months where the traffic is more than triple where we started, but a six-month average seems like a fair, if not conservative, measure of how far the program has come.
Website traffic, along with inquiries and social media engagement, are good indicators of the caliber of the marketing. Does that put heads in beds, as tourism folks like to say? Eventually, it does. No one ever emerged from the marketing funnel as a customer without first going into the top of the funnel. The annual Economic Impact Report for 2021 was just released. The report measures direct visitor spending in each county and independent city in Virginia. The travel industry is rebounding from a terrible year in 2020. The average year over year increase across the Commonwealth was 44%. Direct visitor spending in Bath County exceeded that with a 60.3% increase. Only seven communities out of the 133 measured saw an increase of 60% or more.
While we’re proud of what we have done for Bath County over the past three years, change is inevitable. The growth of tourism in the county — and the desire to have greater local control over how occupancy tax dollars are spent — have lead community leaders to form a tourism board and hire a full-time president. It’s a logical step in the evolution of the program. The new team inherits a solid destination marketing program. As the recovery continues and more occupancy tax dollars become available for marketing, their objective is to take the program to new heights.
The future is bright for Bath County. The historic Jefferson Pools, which have been closed for several years, are being meticulously restored. They will be re-opening soon. The Omni Homestead Resort is in the midst of a major renovation that will make the grand resort one of the finest in the nation. There has been a renaissance in family farming, which pleases local chefs offering farm-to-table dining experiences. We predict continued success for Bath County tourism.