Travel a tough sell when money's tight

As fuel costs rise, experts alter sales pitch to focus on value

May 24, 2008|By New York Times News Service

As the crucial summer travel season starts, how much are tourism marketers scrambling to meet the challenges from fast-rising gasoline prices and airfares? Well, "What happens here stays here" is not staying around, at least for now.

That feel-good slogan, which promotes visits to Las Vegas - also known as "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" - is being shelved for harder-hitting pleas. The familiar commercials with cute, funny tales about travelers whose lives are changed by trips to Las Vegas have been supplanted by spots with a fast-talking pitchman who urges the world to "do Vegas right now."

"'What happens here stays here' is being given a rest," said Rob Dondero, executive vice president at R&R Partners in Las Vegas, the agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, because "it doesn't have a strong call to action."

"We need to be a little more retail," he added. "People want to know what is the best value for their getaway dollar."

The Memorial Day weekend marks the traditional start of campaigns to peddle vacation destinations. Even experts in tourism marketing say they have not experienced a market like this one.

"We are clearly in uncharted waters," said Peter Yesawich, chairman and chief executive at Ypartnership in Orlando, Fla., whose agency, formerly Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, has long specialized in travel advertising.

"There is a palpable nervousness on the part of everybody in the industry," he added, "and for good reason."

"We've seen some of these conditions individually," Yesawich said, referring to problems like high fuel prices and reduced capacity on airlines, "but never all of them at once."

The result has been "a spate of promotional offers for this summer," he added. "We say, value is king right now."

That is underscored in a campaign from his agency for the attractions of Panama City Beach, Fla. An upbeat slogan, "The beach lovers' beach," is being supplemented with a direct appeal to saving money: a "Summer white sale" offering discounts, gasoline credits and other deals in person and online (pcbwhitesale.com) at more than 50 local attractions, accommodations and restaurants.

"I still think people will travel," said Dan Rowe, the executive director of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, "but it is tough."

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association will reach out, starting in mid-June, to residents of nearby states like Pennsylvania and Virginia with a campaign by the Silver agency and Carton Donofrio Partners in Baltimore.

There will be promotions such as Harbor Pass+, adding an extra day to the Harbor Pass that offers local attractions at discounted prices, as well as offers to buy two nights at participating hotels and get a third night free.

"It's going to be a very competitive summer among destinations," said Sam Rogers, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at the Baltimore association, and urban destinations like his can make a compelling argument to potential visitors "worried about high gas prices: You can put your car in a garage and walk everywhere."

Destinations are not the only travel marketers seeking to woo consumers through ads and Web sites as well as public relations campaigns and events marketing.

For instance, car rental companies like Hertz are offering bargains like 50 percent off weekend rates. The Extended Stay Hotels chain is proclaiming, "Take shelter from the economy," in suites with kitchens from $59.99 a night.

Even American Express is bringing back a promotion, Going Once, that joins with merchants to sell travel packages at discounted prices.

"It's like the perfect storm, highly unpredictable and pretty volatile," said John Dunn, executive vice president at Tourisme Montreal. "People still want to go on holiday," Dunn said, but "I'm sure there are some who will scale back."

This summer's appeal will be aimed at tugging on the heart strings, he noted, and also at loosening the purse strings.

In Florida, the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau is still running an upbeat campaign by 22 Squared in Atlanta, which carries the theme "Say yes to Orlando." The commercials show parents having such a great time with their offspring that they turn into children.

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