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New Media Helps Tourist Economies Rebound

PresidioMPAIT headshotWords by Presidio Information Technology
Leadership & Transparency

The following case study is part of a project by MPA students at the Presidio Graduate School on information management technology and policy. You can read the rest of the series here.

By Evelyn Lee
In the US, the tourist industry routinely generates more than $10 billion a month in trade surplus and is consistently listed as one of the top five employers for more than half of the country’s 50 states.   In addition, the United Nations World Tourism Organization recognizes the growth of the tourist industry as a model for sustainable local economic development.  It goes without saying that the tourist economy plays a key role contributing to the development and upkeep of local infrastructure including parks, museums, stadiums, restaurants, and additional city spaces open to the public. It is also a highly competitive industry from state to state, or even city to city, with each local tourism bureau trying to entice potential visitors to leave their homesteads and stay for a while.  Marketing within the industry is equally as complex. Tourism boards struggle to find the best ways in which to reach their target audience while cities continue to cut budgets given the current state of the economy.

Long gone are the days when travel recommendations for vacation destinations are gathered through word of mouth with the assistance of a travel agent.  Individuals are more empowered than ever to do their own research, make their own reservations, and put together their own travel itineraries, inevitably changing the way tourism bureaus market to their target audiences.  With unavoidable, city, state, and national budget cuts, the marketing budgets within the tourism industry dwindles due to current economic struggles.  Adding additional pressure, the increasing use of technology is forcing the tourist economy to strategically change the way they reach-out to their targeted markets.

Tourism is a vital industry to many local economies, but budget cuts and changing technologies have made traditional marketing within the industry obsolete; in order to succeed, local tourist bureaus must make a dedicated commitment to new media in order to remain responsive and relevant to potential visitors seeking out new vacation destinations.

Traditional Media in Tourism

Traditional media has been a staple in tourism industry as early as the first printing press, “coaching” potential visitors on the most appealing places through representations and images of physical spaces.  By the 1970s, cities copied the politicians playbook to marketing, the earliest and most successful campaign was undertaken by New York State.  In 1977, the state increased its tourism budget from a mere $200,000 to $4.3 million in order to back the “I Love New York” advertising campaign. Since then, cities and states have been launching campaigns to bolster their local tourism industry in everything from the television to magazines including New Orleans’s campaign in both Harper’s and the New Yorker, along with famous quotes from the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Shakespeare, “A beautiful lady is an accident of nature. A beautiful old lady is a work of art.”

On the other hand, with the advent of technology and access to information including the internet, tablets, and smart phones, the use of traditional media in marketing tourism continues to become more and more obsolete. This is a trend that is affecting both the public and private sectors.  In 2010, travel publishing sales fell by an additional 10.7% after a 26.8% drop in 2009. 2009 also marks the year that the National Geographic Travel Adventure Magazine shut down its presses, and was also the year that the largest traveling publisher in the world, Lonely Planet, decided to reposition themselves as a “cross-media” provider, escalating its digital strategy.

New Media in Tourism

Changes in technology and smaller marketing budgets are forcing tourism bureaus to make the strategic change as well.  Due largely in part to the economy and budget cuts within their office, the Indiana Office of Tourism Development shifted their media strategy away from traditional channels towards their website, www.visitindiana.com,  placing an emphasis on their blog and social media initiatives.  Considered a drive-to state, their new media implementation is focused primarily on residents of Indiana as well as its surrounding contiguous states including, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Michigan. Launched in 2008 their state tourism blog, www.visitindiana.com/blog,  has seen steady if modest growth over the past three years: 8% growth in 2010 over 2009. Much of the blog's success can be attributed to Facebook and Twitter promotion.

In addition to the success they have found with their blog, Indiana takes a fresh approach to promotions through FourSquare as well as Flickr.  In 2009, the Indiana Insiders Blog ran a successful campaign on Flicker titled “My Indiana Summer,” calling for residents and visitors alike to submit their favorite photo from their summer in Indiana.  The contest received over 1,700 photos and nearly 3,500 voters picked their favorite from the top submissions. In 2010, the office ran a campaign promoting the State Fair by offering giveaways to users who responded to daily trivia questions, “liked” their Facebook Page, checked into and “friended” them on FourSquare, or visited them in-person at their booth on site.  Each interaction on the web and in-person throughout the campaign gave individuals an opportunity to win goodie-bags, t-shirts, tickets to upcoming attractions, and hotel stays.  In their most recent campaign the office of tourism development dedicated webspace to their “leaf cam” that not only highlights the changing colors of the season, but also highlights local area discounts and sightseeing opportunities.  In addition, those who check-in at the LeafCam on FourSquare are emailed an exclusive discount offer that may be redeemed in the surrounding area.

Although it would seem that Indiana is ahead of the game, it appears as though they are right on track with the changing use of marketing in the industry.  New media is making old-new by increasing word-of-mouth traffic through social media strategies.  According to research from Stikky Media, travelers are relying on social media more than ever to decide where to vacation and what to visit, and it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of the travel companies within the tourism industry plan to increase their social media marketing budgets.

  • 40% of online travelers visit social networking sites to influence destination selection

  • 70% of consumers trust online recommendations while only 14% trust advertisers

  • Facebook has the greatest influence on 24-34 year olds’ holiday choices, and the greatest influence over men

  • TripAdvisor had the greatest impact on female booking habits

  • The biggest consumer trend over the next 5 years will be booking holidays through the use of new technologies

The same survey indicated that 40% of the travel and tourism industry views social media as a major opportunity over the next five years.

New media has also proven to be very efficient and an important resources in times of hardship for the tourism industry.  Following the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, the Gulf Coast was facing huge revenue losses due to the lack of tourism.  Florida in particular was facing a large shortfall from their economy’s primary source of income, tourism, which pulls in $20 billion annually in visitor spending.  Just three weeks after the spill, the state launched their Florida Live (http://www.visitflorida.com/floridalive) marketing campaign providing real time information on how the spill wasn’t affecting most of their coast. The results of the marketing campaigned actually increased tourism statewide by 3.4% over the past year.  Lori Pennington-Gray, a tourism crisis management expert at the University of Florida’s Center for Tourism Research and Development states, “that the tourism industry is beginning to recognize the strength of social media to mitigate and be responsive to events that are taking place globally… and are making the sure to spend more marketing dollars as well as staffing individuals designated to maintaining a consistent online voice that is responsive on a regular basis including times of crisis.”


The tourist economy provides an important source of revenue to many local and state municipalities, but budget cuts and changing use of media and technology requires that many tourist bureaus strategically change the way they promote their local area.  While traditional media is not going away anytime in the near horizon and cities continue to produce marketing material available in print, on radio airwaves, and for broadcast television, it has become inevitably clear that the integration of new media technologies is necessary for its survival, especially because it is such an incredibly information-centric industry and more individuals are receiving information directly through handheld devices.  New media not only provides a less expensive approach to marketing for tourism bureaus during economic deficiencies it also provides a timely response to areas in crisis.  Finally it offers many opportunities for visitors and residents alike to engage with their hometown or the city they are visiting, instantly telling their personal stories attracting potential visitors or keeping them at bay based on their own experiences.

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