Md., Va., D.C. lure foreigners Regional approach markets area abroad


September 07, 1997|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Across the Atlantic the foreign travelers come by the tens of millions each year, to see the must-sees, do the must-dos.

They ferry across New York Harbor to behold the world's most famous symbol of liberty. They do Disney World and sunbathe on beaches by turquoise waters in Florida.

They marvel at the Grand Canyon and head for Hollywood to see life imitating art imitating life.

But most foreign visitors never stray far enough from the perennial draws to take in Baltimore's waterfront, Annapolis' Georgian gems, Richmond, Va.'s Southern gentility, the Shenandoah Valley's autumn glory.

More than anything, that's a product of ignorance abroad, say tourism leaders, and a historically parochial mind-set at home, long focused on marketing individual cities and states instead of the region.

Hoping to lure a bigger slice of the lucrative international travel trade, tourism agencies in Maryland, Virginia and Washington have put aside traditional rivalries to market abroad jointly.

Encouraged by promising early results of a 6-year-old informal partnership, "Capital Region USA" will form a nonprofit corporation this month with an annual budget of $1 million and a promise to attract millions more European visitors to largely uncharted territory.

"Many European travelers have already been to New York, they've done Orlando, they've been out West," said Marie L. Tibor, vice president of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association.

"So they're looking for places a little less discovered when they come this far. The regional small towns, the Annapolises, the beaches, the Shenandoah Valley all complement the cities very well.

"But," Tibor added, "the problem is most of them have no idea all this is here. It just hasn't been packaged enough as a distinct region."

The nonprofit hopes to change that by bombarding its top European markets -- starting with England and Germany but hoping to expand -- with a campaign built around its slogan: "Virginia/Washington, D.C./Maryland -- America at its best."

To get the message across the ocean, the partnership relies on a many-layered approach: advertisements, displays at international trade shows in Europe, sales blitzes, visits to hundreds of European travel agents, a video shown to tour operators and on international flights, slick brochures.

Then there's the rolling advertisement that began cruising the streets of London this spring: A cab decorated in stars and stripes in red, white and blue with a likeness of George Washington on the side and "Capital Region USA -- Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland" in bold letters.

The man behind the wheel, Simon Brent, tells his passengers all about such attractions as the Inner Harbor, the Smithsonian, the mountains of Western Maryland, the cradle of Colonial America in Williamsburg, Va.

He knows well the turf he speaks of: The regional partnership brought him over to see it all up close and tell him all about it just before painting his cab.

In all the marketing and promotions, boundaries disappear, and that's by design. The effort touts diversity, proximity of attractions, an ever-growing number of direct flights into the expanding Baltimore-Washington International and Washington airports.

"The foreign travelers are not in any way conversant with our political boundaries," said Matt Gaffney, vice president of the Virginia Tourism Corp. "So drawing these divisions wasn't making any sense."

And Peter C. Chambliss, who leads Maryland's international marketing efforts, said that going global reflects mega-trends in the tourism industry.

While the overall domestic travel market for trips within this country appears to be leveling off, the international market continues unprecedented growth.

Foreign travelers coming to the United States spent some $80 billion in 1995, up 37 percent from five years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the number of foreign visitors coming to this country has quadrupled to nearly 50 million in the past decade.

International tourists' U.S. spending is expected to climb to $100 billion by 1999. (Domestic travel still is expected to account for a much greater proportion of overall U.S. tourism spending, projected at $425 billion a year by 1999).

Foreign travelers also differ from domestic ones in other key respects, Chambliss said: Those coming from abroad stay an average of 17 nights, compared with less than four nights for domestic trips, and average daily spending per foreign visitor amounts to $96, compared with $68 for domestic travelers.

"The European traveler is coming into an area for two or three weeks at a time, and we're giving them reasons to spend that much time in this one region by marketing it as a region," said Chambliss, assistant tourism director.

"Alone, few of the destinations would keep them, but as a region, there's more than enough to do for a few weeks."

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