Getting more heads in (hotel) beds and feet on streets, as the industry lingo goes, means constant marketing, local tourism professionals say.
They say they can’t rest on their laurels, even if those laurels include the beach and a riverfront in Wilmington that’s been voted best in the U.S. in USA Today polls. That’s because they’re competing with other destinations in and outside North Carolina to capture what can be the short attention spans of travelers.
Even as they work to draw more visitors to the area, state and local tourism officials predict a healthy season this year.
“From all indications, it looks like we’re going to have another strong summer,” said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority, which operates the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Officials outside of New Hanover agree.
“From the folks I’ve talked to that are in the tourism business, the outlook for this summer is very positive,” said Mitzi York, executive director of the Brunswick County Tourism Development Authority.
Most of the visitors who come to Wilmington and surrounding communities for vacations are from North Carolina, although others come from neighboring states and throughout the U.S. The Pender County Tourism Department has recently gotten a lot of interest from Canada, said Pender Tourism Director Tammy Proctor.
New Hanover County Tourism Facts
Room occupancy tax receipts were up 10.19 percent for the fiscal year through March (July 1-March 30
$521 million in tourism expenditures in 2015, a 2.55 percent increase from the previous year
5,840 people were employed in travel and tourism jobs for $121 million in payroll in 2015
(2015 is the latest year for which most tourism numbers, other than room occupancy tax receipts, are available from the state; 2016 numbers will be released in August this year.)
Source: Wilmington and Beaches CVB
“Right now we’re targeting Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, but we’re getting a huge request for information from Ontario,” she said.
But sites within North Carolina can offer the stiffest competition, officials said.
“We have such great competitors in state with us, with other coastal destinations, other cities. North Carolina’s just got great product for visitors. There’s a lot of choices. To stay top-of-mind with the visitor requires marketing, so it’s extremely important to keep up a very proactive campaign,” said Shawn Braden, vice president of marketing for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We do a lot with very little in the digital world and a lot through earned media and of course social media really helps us too.”
Highlighting The New
New initiatives for the Port City include the Wilmington CVB’s Riverfront Marketing Initiative, a campaign to reintroduce leisure and business travelers to Wilmington’s riverfront, as current and future development changes its shape, and to highlight what the CVB has dubbed the city’s Convention Center District.
The riverfront initiative is ongoing, during and beyond traditional tourist months, and will be rolled out in phases, CVB officials said. A phase this spring includes highlighting projects such as the 186-room Embassy Suites hotel at the Wilmington Convention Center, expected to open in October, and the 92-room Hampton Inn on Grace Street that opened in April.
Braden said one thing she reminds everyone she talks to about with regard to the riverfront marketing initiative is that the CVB is ramping up its promotion of the new riverfront developments, beginning with the opening of the Embassy Suites in the fall and familiarization tours in the spring with trade media and meeting planners, “where we’re actually showcasing the transformation. It’s just the beginning of the story as the riverfront and downtown Wilmington continues to evolve.”
She said tourism leaders want to make sure that when they launch the promotion, stakeholders, visitors and planners “understand that we’re, in essence, reintroducing the destination.”
Working with Wilmington-based firm SISDigital, the Wilmington CVB announced that it is the first destination marketing organization to incorporate SkyNav 3-D interactive tour technology into its official tourism website.
The SkyNav 3-D tour consists of 13 aerial and 14 ground, 360-degree panoramas that encompass the coastline from Wilmington to its three island beaches, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach. The Wilmington tour has more than 50 information beacons that are strategically placed throughout the tour when visitors either “fly” or use the “ground level” setting to explore an area.
Braden said the use of 3-D and virtual reality technology is expanding in the travel and tourism industry.
“A lot of people want to see something before they come and experience it,” Braden said.
She said the Wilmington CVB will also be launching a 3-D tour for the Convention Center District.
“Meeting planners like to actually view the facilities before they come so it’s a useful tool during trade shows,” Braden said.
In May, the Wilmington CVB launched a #GoLocal campaign across all of the destination’s social media channels. More than 20 #Go- Local videos kicked off the campaign and more content will be added throughout the summer, officials said. The videos are in the media galleries on the CVB’s website for Wilmington, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach.
The videos showcase attractions, landmarks and other things to see and do that are unique to the area or noteworthy, CVB officials said.
Such strategies are important, tourism officials say, to help get visitors already in the region out of their hotels and rental homes and into local businesses and attractions.
“Our philosophy is we get people to the beach, and usually by Tuesday, they’re sunburned or they’re tired of being on the beach, and they’re looking for something to do,” Proctor said. “That’s our opportunity to drive them to our shops and restaurants and to our attractions like Moore’s Creek National Battlefield.”
Also among the options for visitors is The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, which is the most-attended attraction in Pender, Proctor said.
As always when it comes to the tourism industry in a coastal region, the weather can be a major asset or a major challenge.
“We do a lot of weather-triggered advertising,” Braden said. “Sometimes you’ll be sitting in Raleigh and it’s raining, but it’s pretty down at the coast, so we have all these triggers set up when we see conditions like that that we shoot out to a lot of our feeder markets.”
Such ads, which are digital and show up as people are browsing the internet, tend to go out more often in the off-season.
“People forget that in September, it’s still summer for us,” Braden said. “It’s one of the best months there is.”
Threats or actual landings of tropical storms or hurricanes can dampen industry expectations. And a potential change to the school calendar that has been under consideration by state lawmakers, though postponed until next year, could cut into August, one of the busiest months for tourism in the Wilmington area.
For now, the campaigns to bring in more tourist dollars journey on.
“There’s a lot of channels that we’re in now that we didn’t have to be in before, but the marketing is critical. I think people sometimes perceive that the fact that, oh, we’re this beautiful area, we have beaches so people will come. Well, if they don’t know about you, or if they’ve come already and they said, ‘Well, I’ve already been there, so I’m going to go somewhere else’ … Especially in the state of North Carolina, you have to constantly push out what’s new because everybody’s looking for that next great thing,” Braden said.