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Why Idaho tourism workers built an ad campaign aimed at families

Screaming children jump off a wooden dock into the lake. A family of four speeds down a mountain trail on bicycles. Children and teenagers hang-glide, ride horses through a meadow, zipline over the high desert and scream on a roller coaster alongside their friends or siblings.

The vignettes end with a woman’s voice, “We’ve done more in six hours than we’ve done in six months.”

Several commercials like this have played during the past six weeks, urging parents to make all 18 summers with their children count. At the end, a web address — 18summers.tv — flashes across the screen.

When that commercial runs, multitaskers pull up the website on their smartphones, leaving a data point that tells Idaho tourism chief Diane Norton something important: Potential tourists were intrigued by the latest Visit Idaho advertising campaign. With luck, they will book a reservation.

Idaho’s tourism department hopes to persuade people in and near the Gem State to spend the summer playing here. That’s nothing new. But a million-dollar broadcast marketing campaign based on market research, repurposing videos the state’s contracted tourism-ad agency Drake Cooper produced years ago, is.

A series of “18 Summers” commercials played on television sets in Idaho’s largest cities — and in Seattle, Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Reno and Salt Lake City — for six weeks. The campaign ended May 15.

Why an advertising campaign now? Why not two years ago?

It comes down to funding, says Norton, whose team is part of the Idaho Department of Commerce. The tourism staff had been yearning for the money to research consumers and raise Idaho’s profile as a vacation destination, she says.

The state’s collections from a 2 percent lodging tax have grown steadily in the past five years, generating cash for such efforts, she says.

(The department also undertook a reorganization that included some high-profile layoffs in 2013.)

The state is making more money each year from tourists and travelers, with revenue growth far exceeding the overall inflation rate. The Idaho Department of Commerce’s projections for the fiscal year that ends this summer show a 13 percent increase in bed-tax revenues from last year’s $8.8 million.

That doesn’t include the money that Airbnb users, and other off-the-books innkeepers, are legally required to collect but don’t.

Why just play the commercials in neighboring states? That comes down to funding, too.

Before diving into a marketing blitz, the tourism division needed to update the rusty data it was using to target potential tourists. The division last year hired an Indianapolis-based research firm to conduct an “image study” — a blunt look at what people think of Idaho, so the state can either create or capitalize on good perceptions.

The company, Strategic Marketing and Research Insights, emailed surveys in October to people identified as leisure travelers. About 1,500 people from Western states and 300 from Canada completed the surveys.

It quickly became clear to Insights that Canadians were not a good target audience. People in neighboring states seemed to be intrigued by Idaho or had visited in the past few years.

And budget-wise, the state’s tourism office had to be careful with its advertising spend.

“We were pitched to have Idaho shown in Times Square,” Norton says. “I don’t even remember what it [cost] per second.”

The study found that Idaho “does not have a clear, defined image among potential travelers. Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Colorado are well defined and represent destinations that are perceived as more sophisticated and with a variety of activities and things to do.”

Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Montana and South Dakota were lumped together in the minds of travelers: scenic beauty and lots of outdoor activities.

But even in that five-state peer group, Idaho stood out only as “fairly bland — characterized as ordinary, affordable and safe.” In other words, why would most people bother traveling to Idaho for a vacation, when they could get the same thing at home?

The company found that active families and outdoors enthusiasts — as opposed to “urban sophisticates” or passive vacationers — were a good bet for future tourism. And they’re well-educated with high incomes.

With children in tow, they want to visit safe locales, while at the same time being willing to try anything. Those travelers also are looking to spend time on the river, on mountain trails and in the forest, the report says.

The company advised Idaho Tourism to stick to its family-focused advertising but to play up the fun-and-excitement factor. By using footage in a new way, Norton thinks the division hit that mark in a cost-effective way.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey. This column appears in the May 18-June 14, 2016, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on travel.

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