Rebrand targeting four visitor groups ‘paying dividends’ for the city and region, it says
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Ashland tourism has a new brand and a fresh strategy, thanks to a visitor study released earlier this month that outlines a more personalized advertising approach that reaches out to new visitors identified by research conducted on behalf of Travel Ashland.
The study, compiled by Destination Analysts of the San Francisco Bay Area, has helped the agency advertise to four reoccurring target visitors: Those making Ashland a “quick escape,” a destination for friends to meet up, families or wanderers. All have different modes of travel. From visitors intrigued by the wine and culinary scene to the outdoors, the different interests require a “matrix” to attract each individual group.
“It’s not just a broad brush brand,” said Katharine Cato, director of Travel Ashland and president of Travel Southern Oregon. “It’s specifically targeting who they are, what they’re interested in, and how they might want to receive that information.”
Travel Ashland unveiled its report about the study at the Ashland City Council meeting held via Zoom April 5, drawing praise from councilors, business owners, and area tourism officials for their efforts. The report covered the timespan of the July 2020-June 2021 fiscal year.
Travel Oregon generates 100% of the lodging tax with their lodging partners and tourism organization, according to Cato in a followup interview with Ashland.news. Seventy percent of that amount goes back into the city’s General Fund, with 30% being restricted to tourism dollars that must go back to tourism efforts by state statute.
The study cost upwards of $80,000, with the city of Ashland allocating $50,000 in tourism dollars in 2020 toward research that led to the study. Travel Ashland paid $30,000 from its own budget for the study.
Councilor Tonya Graham, who was standing in for Mayor Julie Akins Tuesday evening in her absence, praised Travel Ashland for their work.
“The council made that investment and it’s so great to see how that investment has been leveraged in this work, and the results that we’re already starting to see out of that,” Graham said. “It’s always a little scary to invest when things are as uncertain as they were in the pandemic, but it’s great to see what’s happened with that investment.”
Travel Ashland says Ashland is running at roughly 250,000 visitors each year, according to the visitor study, and the organization is continuing to study how they can personalize advertising for those who visit the area. While that number is down from years before the pandemic, there is evidence that there have been new visitors during the pandemic, many of them young families and travelers looking for meaningful experiences, which Ashland provides in spades.
The tourism organization has created digital icons for each season for visitors to navigate activities, giving a nuanced touch to the various types of visitor experiences.
“It’s really being a good steward of our brand because, how are people finding us?” Cato said. “They’re finding us online, they’re finding us through our website, they’re finding us through search.”
Travel Ashland is investing monthly in social media marketing, but emphasized it isn’t about buying ads.
“It’s actually about organic posts and sharing and frequency and followers and engagement,” she said. “So we actually have invested more in this current fiscal year we’re in – 2021-2022 – that we’ll be reporting on next year.
“Much like placing an ad, you’re spending for every space you’re paying for, there’s so much out there for social to be able to share and garner followers and traction that actually (doesn’t) necessarily cost out of pocket.”
Cato said Ashland is recovering economically, movement compelled by strong occupancy and consistent room rates that Ashland and Southern Oregon have had as a region through the pandemic. “For many, 2021 exceeded 2019 revenues and we carry that optimism forward.”
“Ashland’s recovered much faster than many other destinations in Oregon – Why?,” said Cato said. “The resilience of our businesses and industry, coupled with our efforts of having completed the visitor study and built a new brand all contributed to recovery that we continue to see.”
Pete Wallstrom is chair of Travel Ashland’s board of directors and has owned Momentum River Expeditions, a local rafting company based in Ashland, for 18 years.
“A big part of our current health and growth is because of groups like Travel Ashland,” Wallstrom said.
Wallstrom said Travel Ashland was already focused on diversifying and promoting outdoor tourism before he arrived in Ashland, but once the pandemic began, all the outdoor tourism just “exploded.”
“To have that base already there was huge and I don’t think we would’ve been able to capitalize on it as well if they weren’t thinking about it before it happened,” Wallstrom said. “As a small business owner, I know that even the best run small businesses have limited time and resources outside of running the core business, and having these strong and nimble public-private partnerships are so important.
“As a small town, small business, we can’t compete with bigger places without groups like Travel Ashland.”
Graham Sheldon, owner of Ashland Creek Inn, also praised Travel Ashland’s work in navigating the past two years.
“The last two years have been a real doozy, gotta say,” Sheldon told the council. “The help from Travel Ashland was really quite pivotal for us to make it through, from little things like PPE to helping just the whole community respond.”
For years, Sheldon said his businesses biggest “shoulder” season was November and December, a period which was slower than other times of the year. Sheldon said he worked with Travel Ashland for a long time on how to address this and that he’s seen some gains from that effort.
“This last November/December were the best I’ve ever had in my history; unfortunately, this January through March are the worst,” he said.
Bob Hacket, executive director of Travel Southern Oregon, the regional destination bureau for the southern part of the state. Hacket said the visitor study undertaken by Travel Ashland was done during one of the most trying periods in modern history for destination marketing organizations. Challenges included wildfire smoke pre-COVI19, the Almeda Fire and COVID-19 impacts on Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s play schedule.
Hacket’s background includes 20 years working in marketing for OSF before he joined Travel Southern Oregon in 2017.
“Ashland is near and dear to my heart,” Hacket said. “I think what you saw was the Travel Ashland team take the opportunity of this challenge to reimagine what Ashland as a destination is. I think everybody knew that it was good for Ashland to look at itself going forward and what kind of town did it want to be, what assets did it have in addition to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.”
View the full report here.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.