Marketing the island as a year-round destination

Thu, 10/03/2019 - 6:00pm

The goal of both the state and local marketing efforts on behalf of Block Island is not to increase the number of visitors to the island, but rather to get them to stay here longer.

“Heads in beds,” is how Block Island Tourism Director Jessica Willi put it. In other words, people who stay over for at least one night on the island.

How to get those visitors here was the topic of the annual meeting of the Tourism Council, which was held at The Spring House Hotel on Tuesday, Sept. 24.

Heather Evans, Chief Marketing Officer of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, first spoke about the efforts her office is taking to bring the island to the attention of potential visitors from out of state.

She described the marketing efforts as a combination of “planning and experimentation.” Evans said Rhode Island doesn’t see nearly the traffic that neighboring Massachusetts does, noting that Massachusetts sees 2.5 million international visitors each year, and Rhode Island sees about 200,000. She said that 30 percent of Rhode Island’s visitors stay overnight, while 80 percent of those who visit Massachusetts stay overnight.

Part of this is size. Rhode Island has fewer than 12,000 hotel rooms in the entire state.

Evans also noted that Rhode Island is still very much a seasonal tourism destination, the cities and towns in South County are especially so, but the marketing effort by the Commerce Corporation is to “position Rhode Island as a year-round destination and run targeted campaigns in proven markets to attract overnight visitors.”

Evans said she uses a service that can track where local hotel bookings originate, and so her efforts have targeted New York City, Hartford, and Philadelphia. She said there is also an international campaign focusing on the United Kingdom, Germany, and South Korea. Evans said South Korea “is the fastest growing Asian market.”

“A lot of this is about tests,” Evans said. “We hope to learn from what we are doing.”

Tourism Director Willi said she was also trying to learn by example. She cited examples of marketing techniques that could be helpful to Block Island. Boulder, Colorado has a mobile tourism office in a remodeled Volkswagen bus. In Franklin, Tennessee, the city offers classes to build a team of citizen ambassadors for the town. Each person that takes the class becomes an official ambassador, which has become something of a status symbol, Willi said.

Resident Jamie Johnston asked if the Tourism Council had thought about putting an office on the mainland, “so when people get on that boat they have their maps and they can hit the ground running.”

Willi said she had not thought of it but added that it was a good idea.

After detailing some of the figures from the past year (the tourism website had a total of 532,458 visits; Willi pointed out that 310,445 of those visits were made on a handheld device), she said that “we’re doing well, but vigilance is key.”

Tourism Council member John Cullen said that there did seem to be more discussion about the number of cars and the amount of trash this past summer, but he said when you look back at the summer after some time has passed “and there is the feeling that it wasn’t that bad. Then it becomes March and we’re busy getting ready again. So how do we have that conversation?”

Willi said the meeting they all were attending was “the start of that conversation,” and mentioned that there will be a meeting in October to go over the summer’s activities.

Town Councilor Chris Willi, who was in attendance, said whatever action is taken will “come down to the Town Council, including some tough decisions, some that will involve money, and some things that people won’t like. It’s easy to have these conversations, but we need to take action.”

There was also high praise for Eben Horton’s glass float project, which the Tourism Council helps fund every year, with many people saying that project alone introduces the island to so many people.