V.I. Tourism Conference Hoping to Get Travelers Buzzing

One of the latest guerilla marketing tactics in action--the faux spontaneity of the Flash Mob.Tourism professionals from across the territory, the region and the nation met this week for the 17th annual Destination Symposium, a conference designed to keep the U.S. Virgin Islands on the tip of vacationers’ tongues.
Presented by the U.S. Virgin Islands Hotel and Tourism Association, the symposium, held at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort, offered extensive networking opportunities for hoteliers and destination activities companies (as well as tour wholesalers) to meet face-to-face and discuss offerings, along with new marketing strategies and technologies.
“These meetings are the best way to challenge tour operators to bring more visitors to the Virgin Islands,” said John Poole, director of Sales and Marketing at Marriott Frenchman’s Reef Resort. “It allows us to educate them and enable them to talk comfortably about the destination. As technology increases … a face-to-face meeting is still the best way to conduct business.”
Briefing the group on the V.I. Tourism Department’s marketing strategies, Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty gave an overview of the current position of the territory in the market, with respect to the economy.
“The last two years have been anything but normal,” Nicholson-Doty said of the recession’s effect on tourism in the territory. “In 2010 economists are forecasting a year of restrained recovery.”
Forecasts predict a return to growth for a number of segments in 2011, Nicholson-Doty said, but she advised caution.
Calling the recovery “jobless,” Nicholson-Doty said that market indicators predict a “V"-shaped recovery, but if it turns out to be “a ‘W’ recovery [indicating a second downturn], we could have setbacks.”
Trends that are impacting local tourism include a tendency toward virtual meetings rather than destination conferences, creating a very soft market for conferences.
In addition, the department is monitoring the situation with BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which, in classic domino effect, could impact fuel prices, increasing flight costs and pricing a V.I. vacation out of many travelers’ budgets.
The department is also aware that many potential travelers are still concerned over their recession-depleted nest eggs, and these travelers will delay a vacation until they see a recovery.
But there is hope on the horizon and the downward spiraling numbers have lost some of their steam, according to Nicholson-Doty.
In 2009 there was an increase of 13,000 overnight visitors in the territory over 2008.
“We are beginning to see some shifting,” Nicholson-Doty said. “It equates to about 10,000 more visitors per month.”
West Indian Co. Ltd. CEO Ed Thomas concurred that there seems to be some improvement, with his bird’s-eye view of the cruise ship market.
“We are seeing an increase with the [Royal Caribbean] Oasis of the Seas and the Carnival Dream,” Thomas said. “As we move into the winter months, we are expecting around a 6 percent increase. Weather permitting, we are optimistic that we will have a great recovery year, and we are looking forward to a growth year in 2011.”
The department recognizes the territory’s commitment to the $30 million romance sector as a critical component of its overall marketing strategy. The industry recognizes the Virgin Islands really delivers return on investment for this sector.
“The Caribbean in general is the largest sector for couples for honeymoons and destination weddings,” according to Brides.com Executive Travel Director Heather Stoll-de Armas. “The USVI has it down. They understand that the bride wants a destination that is set up to help her with her special needs.”
The department also has the family vacations market in its sights. In addition, the department is also working the mature vacationers market heavily, as younger baby-boomers reach retirement age.
Geographically, the department is targeting central Florida as well as Texas and the Midwest, in the United States and the greater Toronto area in Canada.
Implementing a broader approach in the Northern Hemisphere, the department is now looking at the Scandinavian market as a whole, rather than a tight focus on the Danish market.
Nicholson-Doty said that in the current market it is even more critical that vacationers walk away with the feeling that they have left with more than they came with. Experiential travel is a key facet of the department’s strategy.
But for travelers to leave the territory with this feeling, they have to select the Virgin Islands for their vacation, and word of mouth is still the most important way for people to choose their vacation destination.
One new and quirky guerilla marketing technique the territory is leveraging is known as the Flash Mob.
Demonstrated at the symposium, the unannounced and unexplained Flash Mob started with three members of the Caribbean Ritual Dancers, performing choreographed dancing to local music in carnival costume, to local music, and then one by one, again with no explanation, seemingly random members of the audience and joined them, “somehow” knowing the dance, too.
The rhythm was contagious, and the excitement electric. Pretty soon the audience was clapping every time someone else joined them and then people who didn’t seem to know the steps began joining the dancers.
The tactic is to generate a lot of buzz when crowds of people and cameras are present, which will pair spontaneous fun and the territory in potential traveler’s minds.
To further spur word-of-mouth promotion, the V.I. tourism industry is jumping on the social networking bandwagon, with heavy FaceBook and Twitter participation, not to mention other emerging social networking technologies.
“Eighty percent of travelers look to friends and family for recommendations,” said Brad Laney, a V.I. account executive at the advertising firm of M. Booth and Associates. “Traditional marketing channels will always be very important, but they don’t always capture word-of-mouth. Social media marketing allows destinations to be a part of the consumer conversation that is taking place between friends and family about where they should go on vacation.”
FaceBook and Twitter are considered cutting-edge communications techniques for those who did not grow up with mobile communications devices, but those users are about to be wowed again with the use of FourSquare and QR codes as travel marketing channels.
FourSquare is an application available for smart phones, which lets users “check in” in a location and then see who in their social groups is in the same place. The most frequent checkers-in can become a “mayor” of a location.
Laney sees the potential to use these “mayors” as ambassadors for visitors to the territory and sees the application helping to drive yet more word-of-mouth advertising for the territory and its hospitality and activity offerings.
QR stands for Quick Response code, a hot new marketing tool using smart phones reader capabilities to “read” a symbol, which looks much like a barcode. The smart phone will then open up the sponsor’s message. To entice users to “read” their symbol, marketers will offer a chance at a promotion like a free trip.

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