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Media and research support Travel South USA’s domestic marketing

Liz-BittnerLiz Bittner

All trails lead to West Virginia,” replied Liz Bittner, executive director of Travel South USA, when asked what her organization’s domestic emphasis was this year. “This is the first time we’ve ever had Travel South Showcase in the state, and we’re excited to be bringing such an influential group with us to Charleston and other parts of the state in February.”

That group includes tour operators from across the United States but also from key markets for the Mountaineer State. Bittner said that’s by design.

“Obviously, we attract national interest within the tour industry as the country’s No. 1 travel region, but we also emphasize a regional approach as well, based on where we are holding Showcase,” she said. “West Virginia is a key state for a lot of itineraries coming out of the Midwest into the South. Groups from states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and others to the north are tying West Virginia into a lot of trips that feature Southern destinations. We want to make sure we expose them to all the music, culinary offerings, outdoor opportunities and mountain heritage West Virginia has for their groups.”

Bittner has long espoused the philosophy that tour operators are not in the business of creating demand for her 12  Southern states’ destinations as much as they are in filling it. So Travel South USA builds a strong turnout of travel writers and related media for Showcase who can help fuel that demand.

“We need earned media exposure for our destinations, the kind we can’t necessarily afford to buy,” she said. “We need travel journalists on-site to see the excitement and help us create demand. So we also target media in those same key markets for the Showcase host city and state. If we can focus the attention of key media on the state using the same event, we’ve helped the attending tour operators immensely. If the demand is there, they’ll sell the product.”

Although Travel South USA aggressively seeks earned media during Showcase and in ongoing efforts with travel journalists from the United States and abroad, its member states have also created a growing paid media effort to supplement that exposure. Travel South’s Ultimate Ad Challenge program brings together major consumer media such as the Meredith Corporation, and Garden and Gun Magazine, which bring elaborate media programs to the table for one day in a competition to win major ad contracts with the Southern states.

“We had eight or nine companies bid this year, and we signed business that day for $3 [million] to $4 million in media from the South,” said Bittner. “These are print and online travel campaigns — we’re not negotiating broadcast media.”

This year, in addition to creating and filling demand for group travel into the South, Bittner’s organization is going to begin measuring it. Travel South USA has announced that it will be partnering with the American Bus Association to begin quantifying motorcoach group business in 2014. Bittner said her organization has agreed to work with ABA on a new group travel industry research program that will measure key economic impact indicators for motorcoach travel into the Southern states.

“Historically, measuring the economic impact of group travel has been hard to do,” she said. “With a partner like ABA, we think it can be done. We expect to get started with the new research in 2014, and we’ll have more information for our industry very soon.”

Mac Lacy

Mac Lacy is president and publisher of The Group Travel Leader Inc. Mac has been traveling and writing professionally ever since a two-month backpacking trip through Europe upon his graduation with a journalism degree from the University of Evansville in 1978.