The revised county tourism plan and the steady expansion of culinary tourism have insured that marketing to potential visitors to Tompkins County will hear more about businesses outside of Ithaca than they used to.
Since 1989 the county has collected a room occupancy tax from hotels and bed & breakfasts, which the proprietors charge their guests for every night that they stay in the county. Since 2002 the rate has been 4.5 percent for hotels and 3 percent for bed & breakfasts. According to the 2005-2010 county tourism plan, revenue from the room tax rose from just over $400,000 in 1993 to $1.2 million in 2004. According to the revised “2020 plan,” which was accepted by the legislature in 2012, it continued to rise until 2008 when it crested at $1.8 million. The “Great Recession” then caused a sharp decline of $100,000 in 2009, but by 2009 collections had exceeded $1.9 million.
Tom Knipe is a senior planner with the county and has served as “tourism coordinator” since June 2011. He was a prime mover behind the completion of the revised tourism plan. He notes that there was some rural emphasis in the 2005-2010 plan, but that it was more implicit than explicit.
“This is a county tourism plan,” Knipe emphasized. “We want to support tourism in all towns in the program. Ithaca, as a name, is more recognizable and is used to bring people to the area.”
This is also the refrain heard from Fred Bonn, the director of the convention and visitors' bureau (CVB), a division of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce. To drive Knipe's point home, the formal name of the CVB is the Ithaca/Tompkins Convention and Visitors' Bureau.
Right now Bonn is in the throes of planning the marketing strategies for 2014, which he said make frequent reference to the tourism plan. It functions in much the same way as a municipal comprehensive plan; it sets out guiding principles for economic development.
“We're maintaining programs that have done well for us,” said Bonn, “but we're also responding to new initiatives in the plan, like developing our culinary assets with a farm-to-table culinary campaign.” Bonn said they are also working on increasing the volume of mid-week group travel and plan to take advantage of the impending transformation of the downtown Holiday Inn. The renovated hotel will include a conference room that can accommodate 450 people, nearly double what is possible now.
According to Bonn, the historically effective marketing for the area has focused on waterfalls and natural areas. This has traditionally been aimed at a suburban audience with incomes of over $100,000. Baby Boomers, said Bonn, have been the county's best tourism customers. But the CVB recognizes the Millennials—Americans in their late 20s and 30s—as “emerging customers.”
“We've done some restructuring,” Bonn said. “We have more social and emerging media capabilities, and we've hired Kristy Mitchell. Her role is to build a bridge to the younger people.”
Mitchell is a 2008 Ithaca College graduate whose degree is in “integrated marketing management.” Happily, her job title at the CVB is “integrated marketing manager.” Originally from Endwell, she was hired in August 2012 after spending the intervening years in Los Angeles.
“There are so many platforms for people to participate in,” she said, “in addition to the traditional media outlets like the website, there are all the social media and email marketing.”
The CVB also attends trade shows. Last week Mitchell had just returned from the Ottawa Outdoors show, where the Tompkins County CVB had been one of the few “destinations” to have a booth.
“We don't go to travel shows,” she said, “because we don't want to end up between tables for Aruba and Hawaii. We focus on an audience that is about a one-day drive away, but further than 90 minutes.”
One target market is Philadephia where the CVB is working with radio station WXPN to create a campaign that includes underwriting, email blasts, a banner ad at the radio's website, and the creation of events.
“It is a strategy of going multi-platform,” said Mitchell, “to contact with a visitor regardless of their media preferences. We have an email sender that launches the blast [to an indiviual customer] at the optimal time for the individual to open it. Its based on analysis of that person's use patterns. We also use Google Analytics to track eyes on the site, where people are coming from and where they're going.”
Mitchell gives the wineries credit for creating well-organized trails with events that target the “shoulder seasons.” She particularly praises the upcoming Wine & Herb weekends (last weekend in April and first weekend in May) on the Cayuga Wine Trail.
“They tie in food and recipes,” she said, “and they're giving away something that visitors can hold onto. And they're giving away herbs; that hits on what we’re about in Ithaca: growing things.” Mitchell readily falls into the usual synedoche of using Ithaca to stand for the entire region.
She also cited the Experience! The Finger Lakes tour company, which although they also offer excursions that cater to Bonn's “traditional” focus of waterfalls and nature, they have also organized a farm-to-table cooking series, a visit to a local brewery, and a vertical wine tasting series. Several local bed and breakfasts, Mitchell noted, use local wine and food in their kitchens and are explicit about this fact in all of their own marketing.
“Marketing the whole county is an interesting challenge,” said the integrated marketing manager. “Ithaca doesn't have all of the resources that we tout [in our promotion].” There are, she noted, no farms in the city of Ithaca.
Local businesses that are developing culinary programs for tourists include Gothic Eves, which arranges for guests to pick their own breakfast food, and Rogues’ Harbor Inn, where guest can pick hops that will be used in the inn's microbrewery. The RoseBarb Farm, a bed and breakfast in Caroline, even has guests helping with farm chores.
“Rita [Rosenberg] says that people don't want to leave,” Mitchell laughed. “It is great to see people light out and explore beyond the two miles of downtown.”
Part of Mitchell's job is to comb the Internet to gather information about the public's shifting interests and shopping habits. She is a keen participant in Pinterest, a website that calls itself “a tool for collecting and organizing things that you love.” Judging by her browsing through this site and others, Mitchell believes that many people's aesthetics are going back to more rustic and rural styles, including growing interests in older furniture and vintage jewelry. She said that stores like Funky Junk and Bluebird (both of which are downtown on State/MLK St.) are very busy.
“Marie Sirakos [of Bluebird] is running all over the Northeast trying to find things for people,” Mitchell said. “Ithaca offers the hominess that people want. Vintage is the new modern; people like that shabby chic look now.”
In other words, soon CSA farmers will be fashion plates for the urban middle class.
In addition to the farm-to-table culinary movement and the authenticity of rural aesthetic, Mitchell has found that the regional development of alternative energy has also been a helpful marketing bullet point.
“I will request information from B&Bs and other businesses,” she said, “about packages that they are offering, and they will often add kind of off-handedly, 'Oh by the way, we're solar powered too.'” She is headed to the Green Festival in New York City this week, where the focus is on going green and green businesses. “We are a green destination,” she said.
The funding for the CVB comes from the county's room occupancy tax. And their marching order come from the county's tourism plan, which is overseen by the Strategic Tourism Planning Board. The STPB includes representatives from the accommodations, agriculture, and recreation sectors, from the arts and culture community, from the colleges, and from the business community at large. The STPB also administrates and oversees the awarding of a number of different tourism grants.
“We're starting to see funding of projects in the towns and villages,” said Bonn. “This is in response to the new strategic plan. We will see an alignment between the grants that are approved and what is in the strategic plan.”
In his marketing interactions around the Northeast, Bonn said he sees a rise in the value he describes as “I want to know where it's made.” He said that people want to have a meal and then walk back to where the ingredients came from. Businesses that can provide this experience stand a good chance of getting a tourism grant through the STPB.
The regional shift toward sustainable, green tourism would seem to be a case of the business community leading the government and the marketers. When Knipe describes the process of revising the 2005-2010 tourism plan, he emphasizes the role of focus groups, workshops, and surveys, all of which canvassed the general public.
“What we did with this plan,” he said, “is synthesize what information we got from the community.” There are 15 “focus areas” in the new plan. Two of the established areas (they were in the earlier plan) have rural emphases: culinary tourism and natural area tourism. One of the emerging types is educational tourism. While some of the destinations are institutions set up expressly for education, the rise of interest in farming and locally sourced products means that some of the new destinations are functioning businesses that just happen to also be of interest to tourists. Not only are people visiting farms, but places like Wide Awake Bakery in Mecklenburg welcome visitors who want to see how artisan bread is made.
Ed Marx, the commissioner of planning for the county, said that regional planners are now thinking in terms of rural development to promote a sustainable economy. Tourism is not a primary focus, but rather agro-tourism is listed as one way to grow a rural economy.
“Our county comprehensive plan talks about how important small businesses and self-employment is to the rural economy,” he said. “Tourism is implied, but it isn't highlighted. Our focus is on the benefit to the farmer.” Rural revitalization as a whole is a hot topic among planners, Marx said. Tourism is just one way of adding value to rural products.