Two years ago at a U.S. Travel Association conference, the ad agency FutureBrand shared results from a survey of more than 2,000 people. FutureBrand had asked them about their perceptions of a state they were unfamiliar with, then showed them marketing materials, travel guides and other information from that state.
Afterward, the agency asked questions to see how the person’s impression of the state had changed. Of all 50 states, Idaho had the highest increase in people who wanted to visit after seeing the information.
“Our hearts just stopped,” said Matt Borud, chief marketing and innovation officer for Idaho Department of Commerce, who had been watching the presentation at a table with his co-workers.
That insight has stuck with the tourism team ever since – this reminder that what the state really needs is simply more eyes on what Idaho has to offer.
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“Idaho is still, from a tourism perspective, an unknown quantity,” Borud said. “And we have to continue to try to reach new prospective visitors in different ways.”
But the state is making steady progress. In recent years, the Tourism Division of the Idaho Department of Commerce has expanded its media budget, added and shifted campaigns to drive tourists to Idaho throughout the year, and modernized its outreach approach. Idaho saw a 3.8 percent increase in the number of people coming through the state between 2015 and 2017, reaching 34.3 million, according to marketing researcher Longwoods International. Of those, 40 percent were here for overnight stays.
But perhaps most significantly, visitors are spending more money. Those overnight trips generated $1.9 billion in 2017, an increase of 12.2 percent from 2015, according to Longwoods.
And even if raising awareness of Idaho’s attractions remains a challenge, the reassuring news is that people have a great time once they get here. The Longwoods survey in 2017 found that 80 percent of visitors on an overnight trip were very satisfied with their overall experience.
“Longwoods had said that’s the highest percentage they’d seen in the last several years, and they actually couldn’t remember a time they’d seen a higher percentage than that,” Borud said. “It’s something that we’re really proud of and something that businesses, hotels, attractions, restaurants – everyone – should be really proud of.”
There are inherent challenges that come with marketing state tourism in a region of geographically similar attractions. But each state plays up a different persona, Borud said. Montana focuses on the adventure traveler, Wyoming and South Dakota emphasize their national parks, and Nevada showcases the nightlife of Vegas. Idaho’s niche: affordable, attainable, safe adventures for families.
Idaho Tourism’s primary demographic is women ages 24 to 45 with children. The state’s marketing cocktail of digital, social media, broadcast and radio advertising is geared to reach those moms. And the Visit Idaho website includes articles offering direct advice for young families from out of state who might not otherwise know how to plan a rafting adventure or a ski trip for beginners.
Idaho Tourism’s “18 Summers” campaign – which has run the past several years and garnered national awards – plays up that family angle. It centers on the premise that parents have only 18 summers to vacation with their children. Local marketing company Drake Cooper collaborated with the state to create materials highlighting the kid-friendly adventures awaiting in Idaho.
One of the attractions featured in this year’s 18 Summers videos is the Route of the Hiawatha biking and walking trail, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Last year, the converted railroad track attracted more than 43,000 visitors to Wallace.
Rick Shaffer, general manager of the Wallace Inn and self-appointed “prime minister of Wallace,” said the 18 Summers campaign appeals to a desire for escape. People are asking, “Where can I go where it’s not neon and electric?” he said.
Shaffer said the Hiawatha trail has meant “dollar signs for the region.” And that’s partly because people who visit the trail often end up staying longer than a day.
“It’s the four-hour adventure if you do it right. Minimal,” Shaffer said. “So that just lends itself to having people stay over.” And when they do, they discover everything else that Wallace has to offer – from an underground mine tour or zip-lining adventure to the Pulaski Tunnel Trail, which has a history rooted in the Great Fire of 1910, which burned 3 million acres in North Idaho and western Montana.
“Families have the biggest impact, because they’re not doing things as fast,” Shaffer said. “They’ll do more activities than a couple will do or a single will do or a senior will do. They’ll do more things in town.”
July is Wallace’s busiest month, with families out in full force. But the volume of people coming through tends to drop off once school starts in late August. Overall, the town relies on May to early September for its business.
“The rest of the time, we’re fighting for our lives,” Shaffer said, illustrating the plight of small-town tourism in an out-of-the-way state.
Scrappy and innovative
Summer, certainly, is Idaho’s most important tourism season. Idaho Tourism continues to push summer marketing earlier in the year, now starting in February. Winter, too, is a big opportunity – one the state has promoted more in recent years – with advertising starting in October, Borud said.
This month, however, Idaho Tourism is launching its first autumn campaign, deemed “Fall for Idaho.” Not only do outdoor activities still play exceptionally well in the fall, Borud said, but it’s a great time to promote culinary tourism, craft beer and wine.
“Idaho has tremendous assets in terms of attractions there,” Borud said.
The spring “shoulder season” of March, April and May remains tricky, but new events such as Treefort Music Fest in Boise have helped. Borud is also hopeful that a push to promote April as Idaho Craft Beer Month will draw people to the more than 60 breweries across the state.
“It’s so representative of our state when you get into hops production,” he said. “It just ties together so many elements that we’re proud of in our state.”
The Idaho Tourism budget itself comes from a 2 percent convention and lodging tax that was passed by the legislature in 1981. This past fiscal year, it collected $12.4 million – a significant jump from $11.2 million the year before and $9.9 million before that.
“We’ve been really on a stretch,” Borud said. “It’s been a really impressive run that the whole state has been working toward.”
Of the funds collected through the tax, 45 percent is used for Idaho Tourism marketing programs, 10 percent covers administrative costs and 45 percent goes back into communities through Idaho Regional Travel and Convention grants.
And even though $12.4 million might sound like a lot, Idaho is surrounded by states with budgets two or three times larger.
“We are kind of that little engine that could,” Borud said. “We try to be scrappy, we try to be innovative. … We love trying to figure out where we can get an edge because we don’t have the edge from a funding perspective.”
One of Borud’s favorite marketing efforts was a campaign that specifically targeted Seattle residents. One rainy day in December 2016, people hailing an Uber in Seattle were given a “Visit Idaho” travel guide, a lift ticket to an Idaho ski resort and an umbrella featuring an image of a sunny, blue Idaho sky. Idaho was trending on Twitter in Seattle most of the day.
‘Uncomplicated day’s journey’
In general, Idaho aims to target travelers who can make it to the state in “an uncomplicated day’s journey,” Borud said, meaning up to an 8-hour drive or a direct flight. Visitors from Seattle, Spokane and Salt Lake City make up the majority, with strong numbers also coming from Yakima, the Tri-Cities, Reno and Portland. Phoenix and San Diego are emerging markets for Idaho, Borud said, as are Dallas and Houston now that direct flights to Boise are available.
Thanks to its proximity to Yellowstone National Park in neighboring Wyoming, the family-owned Rankin Motel in tiny Ashton sees its fair share of international travelers in the summer months.
“They’re always amazed by how much space we have, the fields and the crops” – and they’re always discouraged by how much driving is required to see all of Yellowstone, said motel owner Jennifer Groom. In contrast, the Snake River’s beautiful Mesa Falls – also featured in this year’s 18 Summers campaign – sits just 20 miles up the road.
Jennifer’s daughter-in-law, Niki Lewis, who helps run the motel, has noticed more people who come to Ashton interested in the waterfalls. And even if they’re not initially, she will send them that way for a “quick, satisfying experience.”
She will also point out Yellowstone Bear World in nearby Rexburg, which she deems the “quick fix” version of the national park – a chance to see all kinds of wildlife in one place.
Beyond the park travelers, the Rankin Motel sees an influx of those going fishing in June when big hatches hit Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. It also hosts a fair number of family reunions. Still, business remains slow when they open for the season in April. They close for the year after October.
Nevertheless, Lewis is proud to be part of a business that’s stayed within the family for 90 years – a history illustrated by the artifacts that decorate each of the motel cabins.
“We think it’s a special roadside motel,” she said.