America’s Great Outdoors has always been cherished – and more than ever it is understood as hugely important to our nation’s economy. Annual recreation spending in the U.S. is $650 billion. According to the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation (FICOR), close to 1 billion visitors spent $51 billion and supported 880,000 jobs in communities close to public lands in 2012. According to the National Park Service, for every dollar that is invested in national parks, $10 are returned to the economy. And parks and public lands are also a prime lure for international visitors.
DMOs play an integral part in building awareness of enjoyable experiences in the Great Outdoors, and we now see that many DMOs are active in tourism development and operations as strategies to generate buzz, meet visitor expectations and leave visitors eager to return.
Examples of DMOs going beyond promotion can be found across America – even far from the mainland in the US Territory of Guam in the middle of the Pacific. This small island of 209 square miles hosts 1.34 million visitors annually and is a model of how public and private organizations can partner together to improve visitor experiences.
The Guam Visitors Bureau is working with the local government to make people’s visits as fun as they can be. Improvements funded by the Visitors Bureau’s development team include installing lampposts, security cameras and sidewalks, as well as cleaning beaches and sponsoring music festivals. These efforts encourage people to share their positive experiences and produce positive buzz, encouraging new and returning visitation to Guam.
According to Nathan Denight – the Deputy General Manager of Guam’s Visitors Bureau and point man of Guam’s five-person destination development team – the effort has been so successful that over just the last three years, occupancy tax collection has grown by $10 million.
Several thousand miles to the east, the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau is partnering with the National Park Service’s Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area to use social media and word-of-mouth to get new visitors to the park. The effort has been so successful that it received a prized “Beacon” Award from the American Recreation Coalition during Great Outdoors Month 2014. The award triggered attention from the local news media, building even more buzz.
The two organizations launched an Instagram campaign and contest called #TakeOnPocono. Visitors were encouraged to take pictures of scenic areas in the park and surrounding region and share them on Instagram using that hashtag. Tagged photos were automatically featured on the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau’s website and their contributors became eligible to win weekly prizes and a grand prize getaway to a local resort. To help publicize the initiative, six influential Instagram users were hosted on a 3-day familiarization tour of the area. The results?: over 13,000 photos have already been uploaded and have attracted 7.7 million views!
A third example of DMOs working with local governments is the Currituck County Travel and Tourism Commission’s efforts on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. In addition to promotion and research, the commission guides use of the county’s 6% occupancy tax to fund lifeguard and EMS services, to restore the historic Whalehead Club and aid the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and sponsor popular events including a 4th of July Festival. Surveys show that these services attract and retain vacationers from across the nation and boost both rentals and rental rates.
Most public agencies managing Great Outdoors places depend upon annual appropriations and have been forced to reduce services. Even though the basic attractions remain, the numbers of rangers and interpreters are down and visitor center hours and programs have been cut. These changes can disappoint visitors. DMOs can be and, in a growing number of places are, an important part in forging a new financial model for sustained, high-quality visitor experiences. And DMOs can capitalize on a planned major national marketing effort beginning in the first quarter of 2015 – Find Your Park - highlighting the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which has 401 units and attracts nearly 300 million visits annually!
We invite you to help lead this change. Tell us what you and your organizations are doing right now to help visitors to public outdoor places in your area have the kind of experiences which lead to raves on TripAdvisor and other social media. Share what you’re thinking of doing in the future. And so that we all know what challenges we face, share what roadblocks you’ve run into so we can all find ways around them. Help us help your visitors have the time of their lives when they come to your region. Who knows, your efforts might even result in a Beacon award in 2015!