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COVID-19 puts state tourism marketing on hold

Plans in place once recreational travel resumes

April 21, 2020 by Jamie Taylor

Regional tourism specialist Jeff Anderson of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism participated in a recent meeting of the Oneida County Tourism Council to share information on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Wisconsin’s crucial tourism economy.

The tourism department is changing its messaging in light of the pandemic, he told the group.

“Messaging that we’re currently focused on revolves around inspiring potential and future travelers to dream now and travel later,” Anderson said. “(We are) sending positive messages about travel when it is safe to travel again.”

He said the messages are being shared by five interactive “experiences,” along with virtual tours at the department website discoverwisconsin.com. 

“Certainly the impacts on the industry is monumental, and we’re continuing to monitor that and (try to) understand what the impact is and will be,” Anderson said. 

He noted a recent online survey of chambers of commerce throughout the state would give the department valuable information as to how operations at the various tourism partners have been affected. This includes hours of operation, staffing, and the impact the pandemic response has had on marketing activities.

“For the most part, destinations are no longer marketing their communities,” Anderson said. “Not gone totally dark but are fogged on their direct marketing initiative. Some of you I’m aware are discouraging travel if it’s found to be not safe.”

He said the current advertising the department is running is season-neutral, and focuses on social distancing. When the current health situation changes, all of the department’s usual marketing initiatives will resume, he noted.

Anderson also noted there is a COVID-19 resource page for tourism agencies and businesses that includes state, regional and national data on travel projections going forward.

“Most of the nation is not actively planning travel at this time,” he said. “However, we can see that those that are planning automotive trips — or travel by car — there is more of a positive outlook then those that are looking to book travel that requires airfare. There’s some insight into recovery and what that might look like because we’re traditionally a drive to destination.”

He said once restrictions on travel and group gatherings are lifted, the area should see some immediate impact on the economy.

“Of course, this is all uncharted territory, we’re just trying to look out and anticipate what we can expect,” Anderson said, adding the department has been working with Grow North and the other eight regional economic development agencies to get a survey out to businesses to gauge the impact of the public health emergency on their businesses.

“It is designed to be a pulse check on local businesses and the overall impact on employment and gross sales and business operations,” Anderson said.

The link to the state’s marketing push for summer tourism “Have you ever had the perfect summer?” was also unveiled to those in attendance. Anderson said there is over an hour worth of commercial spots featuring tourism secretary-designee Sara Meaney spotlighting the wide variety of activities available in Wisconsin.

“There’s footage from 15 counties and it is very much focused on water and recreation and outdoors,” Anderson said. “And you’ll be able to see Oneida County represented directly and just through the concepts that are presented in that spot.”

He also said the department will soon be able to help fund research by interested counties to determine where people who come to Oneida County come from and how they get here.

Encouraging ‘staycation’

Lyn Pilch of the marketing firm Pilch & Barnet said while the council hasn’t met in the last couple months, the local chambers have been working together on how to approach the Safer at Home order. 

“Even though the OCTC hasn’t met, for chambers in Rhinelander, Three Lakes, Tomahawk and Minocqua have been meeting to talk about marketing related activities all year, and as this was coming forward, we were talking about our different messaging and tactics which are basically what Jeff was just outlining. (We) want to be present, we want to be top-of-mind, but also not encouraging travel today.”

She said another thing the committee has been mindful of is “the way we message may change day-to-day.” 

“So things need to stay pretty fluid and need to have ways to pivot off of it and looking for things that don’t particularly cost a lot of money for messaging because we want to hold some of the Oneida County Tourism (Committee) budget until we’re really ready to be welcoming people back,” Pilch said. 

At the same time, area chambers “have to be in conversation with our audience as we are kind of moving forward,” she noted.

She said one way to do that would be by declaring that for the remainder of the month of April, people are on “staycation” and encourage them to post themed photos of themselves and their families doing fun things right around Oneida County.

“What we want to do is use our current brand, which is ‘You’re on vacation,’ and we want to twist that to ‘You’re on staycation,’” Pilch said. “And basically have each of the chambers be part of this idea of showing what people can do while they’re on staycation, which is similar to what they can do in Oneida County when they’re on vacation, only done in the home.” 

Pilch’s plan also included other activities local residents could do using social media to help promote Oneida County in a safe way.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at [email protected]

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