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Pennsylvania Tourism Groups Turn to Punxsutawney Phil and Texting
After a 65% Budget Cut - Result - "It Worked Well"

By Jeremy Boren, The Pittsburgh Tribune-ReviewMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 11, 2010--When tourism officials wanted a low-cost way to promote Pennsylvania tourism after a 65 percent budget cut, they turned to Punxsutawney Phil and cell phone text messages.

"We spent a little bit of money, about $6,000, and we got 28,000 people to sign up for texts of Phil's prognostication and invitations to visit Pennsylvania's ski slopes," said Mickey Rowley, deputy secretary of state tourism, film and marketing. "It worked well."

About 4,000 text-savvy cell phone users from Pennsylvania and elsewhere signed up for a newsletter from VisitPA.com that touts entertainment, shopping and festivals throughout the Keystone State.

That's the kind of low-cost advertising campaign Rowley urged regional tourism promoters such as VisitPittsburgh to embrace after Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature slashed state funding from $32 million in 2009 to $11.25 million in 2010.

Many state-fed agencies, from libraries to environmental protection, faced similar cuts this year as the state grappled with a $2 billion deficit.

Joe McGrath, CEO of VisitPittsburgh, said the tourism agency invested heavily in building a social networking presence, but it relies on state dollars to promote Pittsburgh in other cities.

Budget cuts reduced state money for VisitPittsburgh to about $600,000, down from $1.1 million 2009 and $2.3 million in 2008, McGrath said.

"We'll probably be pulling our horns in and advertising primarily in Cleveland now," McGrath said. "We won't be advertising in Johnstown, Youngstown, Erie and Buffalo."

VisitPittsburgh likely won't offer as many subsidy incentives -- some as small as $5,000 -- to trade and convention groups weighing whether to hold events in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. It uses money from the hotel tax, which makes up about 50 percent of its $9 million budget, to pay for such subsidies.

John Oliver, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus -- which represents 49 regional tourism agencies statewide -- said some groups did not receive money state officials promised. He released a statement saying Pennsylvania tourism "creates more than $10.7 billion in wages and benefits."

"We're one of the few programs in the state that actually generates revenues back to the state," said Oliver, president of VisitErie, which promotes tourism in the Great Lakes region of Pennsylvania.

He said the agency would cut newspaper and magazine ads in Cleveland and southern Ontario, Canada. Canadians like to shop at Erie-area stories because there's no sales tax on clothing in Pennsylvania, as there is in Canada.

"When times are tough everybody tells you, you need to do more marketing not only to protect what you have, but then to grow it," Oliver said. "The state cuts are unprecedented."

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To see more of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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