News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Valerie Hubbard, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 19, 2004 - Lisa Sims remembers when luring visitors to a Southern city meant placing an ad in Southern Living magazine.
"Now it's a complicated blend of online ads and promotions. We are doing things like spending money at [Internet search engine] Google to make sure our Web site comes up on top when people do searches for travel information," said Sims, vice president of marketing for the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Not only have the ways to market tourist destinations grown more complicated, the number of voices competing for the attention of consumers has grown exponentially, too. The daily bombardment of an endless stream of information invades every nook and cranny of consumers' consciousness.
The job of sorting and prioritizing that information can be overwhelming. The job of making any one piece of information stand out from the rest is even more challenging.
The message to potential visitors has to be clear and repeated, Sims said, if it is going to work in the complicated blend of Internet, newspaper, magazine and television advertising. It's even better if that message is pretty catchy.
It's been about three years since Sims and colleagues who make a living encouraging others to visit, live, work and play in the Richmond area started calling their home "Easy to Love."
The slogan to lure visitors has weathered a difficult economic climate and its share of jabs as the city continues to work toward rebuilding some of its more high-profile and long-neglected spots such as Grace and Broad streets downtown.
In fact, actual visitation to area attractions is down. Last year, the total number of visitors to museums, historical sites and other local attractions fell by 7.7 percent, from about 2.5 million in 2002 to about 2.3 million in 2003. Only the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the Aviation Museum of Virginia and Agecroft Hall saw increases in overall attendance last year.
"Travel has been down across the country," Sims said. "A lot of destinations are looking at double-digit drops in the numbers of visitors."
She said that consumer confidence levels were to blame, as well as the continuing and vague terror threats in the U.S.
And not all visitors to the Richmond area visit attractions, she noted. "The business traveler isn't necessarily going to have time to take in local museums, and family visits don't always include trips to see the city's attractions."
The Convention and Visitors Bureau points to other numbers that officials believe indicate the "Historic Richmond Region: Easy to Love" campaign is paying off:
--Convention business is up with a 4.8 percent increase in hotel room nights booked from 102,000 in 2002 to 107,850 in 2003. The forecast for 2004 is even better with a projected 5 percent increase in bookings. Five large conventions -- Trinity Motivation, Republican Party of Virginia, Presbyterian Church USA, Watchtower and a Harley Davidson East Coast Rally -- are already heading to Richmond this year bringing with them an estimated $37.5 million boost for the local economy.
--The year before "Easy to Love" was launched, inquiries from consumers interested in Richmond as a travel destination totaled 15,889. The next year the Convention and Visitors Bureau logged 37,545 inquiries and last year, a whopping 63,938 e-mails, phone calls and Web site searches came through looking for information about Richmond.
"It's great, really," said Linda Valinsky, assistant director of sales for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We are at the point now where we are aggressively pursuing the larger corporate convention market for the first time."
"It's tough to get these campaigns going even in a good economy," said Chris Engel, research analyst at the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. "So the slogan is mostly being used where marketing money is already being spent in ads and online."
Last spring, Engel spearheaded the chamber's effort to spread the "Easy to Love" message to Richmond-area residents.
"We wanted to increase awareness. For the branding to work, residents have to embrace it and knowing about it is the first step," Engel said.
The chamber launched a television ad campaign with the "Easy to Love" logo taking center stage. Area businesses adopted specifics weeks to push the slogan through their own advertising campaigns and promotional contests. "It was a real grass-roots effort," Engel said.
But the main focus of the "Easy to Love" campaign has always been to lure out-of-town visitors.
Launched in 2001, it began with a modest $125,000 budget from the pooled resources of the nine partner organizations.
Leading civic and business groups including the Greater Richmond Partnership, the Retail Merchants Association of Greater Richmond and the Convention and Visitors Bureau underwrote the project, which involved Chesterfield, Hanover, Henrico and New Kent counties and the city of Richmond. The idea was to create a more unified approach to marketing the area to convention planners, tourists and companies with an eye for relocating.
"We wanted a cohesive message that would be used whenever marketing dollars were spent for promoting the region," Sims said.
"In the travel industry, your voice can be easily lost. It's much better if you can have lots of the same message out there instead of a lot of different messages."
Created by adman David Martin, who helped create the "Virginia is for Lovers" campaign 30 years ago, the "Easy to Love" slogan came to life after research conducted by Martin's firm, Martin Branding Worldwide, revealed that residents liked Richmond because it's "easy to get around, family-friendly and affordable."
Ease ranks high on Betty Burns' list of requirements in selecting a convention site. Burns, convention manager for the American Business Women's Association, said that location and the ability to get in and out of a city are important to the selection process for her organization's annual fall conventions. This year, 2,000 members of the 52-year-old association will convene in Richmond to elect directors, conduct seminars, network and recognize the top 10 business women of the year.
"Hotel and convention center rates, how easy it is to work with the people there and cost effectiveness for association members are important to the selection process," said Burns. "A slogan does not mean one thing or another to me."
Marianne Lawrence, owner of Triangle Resource Group, a quality-management consulting firm based in Mathews County and leader in a local association chapter, helped persuade the group to bring its meeting to Richmond.
She is not a big fan of the "Easy to Love" slogan but accepts it can be a useful tool.
"It seems sort of bland to me," Lawrence said. "I'm just not that thrilled with it. That's not to say I haven't used it. Last fall at the national convention in Las Vegas, I had to make a big presentation on the convention coming to Richmond, and I used the slogan in my remarks. It's in a lot of places, and I know they're going to see it somewhere," she said.
That, says Kelly O'Keefe, branding specialist and chief executive officer of Emergence Inc., is precisely how branding succeeds.
"Consistency and use are key to the success of any brand name," said O'Keefe.
Allstate's "You're in good hands with Allstate," and Maxwell House's "Good to the last drop," are all examples of this, he said.
"Sticking with it again and again and again. That's what's important," he added.
Nonetheless, funding for pushing the "Easy to Love" slogan has evaporated.
It has been left up to the individual organizations originally responsible for its creation to use the branding concept in their own marketing efforts with their own marketing budgets.
At the Retail Merchants Association that has meant adding the "Historic Richmond Region: Easy to Love" logo to its monthly newsletter distributed to nearly 2,400 retailers.
Association members were also encouraged to add the logo to their ads last year in a newspaper supplement promoting Garden Week in Virginia.
"About 90 percent of those ads had the 'Easy to Love' logo in them," said Bill Baxter, president and chief executive officer of the Retail Merchants Association. "I'm very pleased to see that the campaign has been embraced by local organizations and businesses."
In fact, the logo has even turned up in some unexpected places. Chris Thurston, chief executive officer at RightMinds, the marketing firm that launched the "Easy to Love" campaign and donated $250,000 of pro bono work to the cause, discovered the logo on a mural in an O'Charley's Restaurant on West Broad Street in Henrico County.
"We do murals for all of our restaurants," said Stephanie Vanns, spokeswoman for the O'Charley's Restaurant chain. "We do research to find out what stands out about a community and include those things in the murals."
Thurston calls it a "viral success."
"Individual organizations have incorporated it into their advertisements. It's on company letterheads. It's included in marketing campaigns used by the Greater Richmond Partnership. We have incorporated the message into communications to our clients, and other groups have also put the logo into their marketing collateral. The key has been talking about it and using it as a standard," he said.
In its short life span, the "Easy to Love" campaign has earned awards from the Virginia Public Relations Society, the Washington D.C. Public Relations Society of America, the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association and the Travel Industry Association of America.
But not everyone is thrilled with its performance. "It's probably not been as successful as we wanted it to be," Baxter said.
Funding is an issue. The authenticity of a slogan is equally important.
O'Keefe believes any successful branding campaign must ring true. "I have respect for Dave Martin and his work." But O'Keefe continued, "You can't just do a cute slogan and a jingle. Consumers want the truth."
He pointed to the condition of some areas of downtown as an example. "We should worry less about a slogan and more about making it a great experience to be here," O'Keefe said.
He cautions against making promises you can't keep. "Take Starbucks, they have stores on every corner, incredible consumer loyalty, but no slogan. They are more focused on making the consumer experience the best it can be."
Sims and Baxter say improvements to the Broad Street corridor are under way. In the meantime, marketing efforts focus on the city's current attractions. "This region has so much to offer," Baxter said.
The "Easy to Love" message and an invitation to visit the area are reaching a lot of people lately. Because the Internet is the top source for travel information, much of the Convention and Visitors Bureau's marketing budget is used to create ads on the Web.
Sims has invested in programs such as ValueClick, which creates ads for travel Web sites. The bureau only pays for the ads when consumers click on the ad to get more information -- an action called a "click through."
The ads direct people to the bureau's Web site. Last year, 69 million people saw the ValueClick ads and 48,499 clicked through. Each time they encountered the "Easy to Love" slogan.
Also last year, according to Sims, the bureau experienced a 145 percent increase in its Web site traffic.
"Then we face the constant conundrum of conversion. Consumers go to our Web site, they see our ads, but who is converted into a visitor?" she said.
"It takes time," said Engel, the chamber official. "Even the best slogans aren't able to produce results immediately."
-----To see more of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.timesdispatch.com
(c) 2004, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. VCLK,