Marketing campaign boosts Duluth tourism after floodThanks to a swift and aggressive marketing campaign, Duluth was able to turn the tide of cancellations into a river of new reservations after flooding hit the city in June.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
As news and Facebook images of flood damage in Duluth raced around the world June 20, cancellation calls poured in to local hotels.
“Our phones started ringing immediately,” recalled Bill DeSanto, chief operating officer for ZMC Hotels Inc., which runs four hotels in Duluth.
“We were getting calls at the Inn on Lake Superior from people concerned our building had been washed away because they had seen pictures of Grandma’s under water at the mall,” he said, describing the state of confusion and outsiders’ assumptions that the entire city must be a disaster zone.
The initial post-flood outlook appeared grim for Duluth’s hospitality industry as hotels, restaurants and bars began their crucial summer season.
But thanks to a swift and aggressive marketing campaign, Duluth was able to turn the tide of cancellations into a river of new reservations.
Recently released tourism tax receipts show a 10 percent surge in local hotel and motel revenues in July compared with the same month last year.
The numbers are even more remarkable when you consider that July 2011 boasted five weekends, and July 2012 had only four, said Duluth Mayor Don Ness.
Karen Pionk, general manager of the Sheraton Duluth Hotel, said the story line would have been far less rosy if not for the community’s rapid response.
“The cancellations were just flying in at first,” she recalled, saying guests were scared away by the images of collapsed roads and rushing water.
Pionk, who also serves as president of Visit Duluth’s board of directors, said business leaders quickly huddled with city officials, realizing they needed to let the world know that much of Duluth was unscathed and still open for business.
With the help of a $75,000 appropriation from the Duluth City Council, Visit Duluth mounted a marketing initiative in just a couple weeks.
“We attacked the campaign with the mission to save our summer season and maintain our business. The rainbow is that we actually managed to grow it,” Pionk said.
The effectiveness of the campaign exceeded DeSanto’s expectations, as well. He credits a timely and thoughtful response.
“It was just terrific, the way community leaders got behind this and jumped all over it,” DeSanto said.
Without the intervention, DeSanto predicts: “We would have lost most of our summer business, and our summers are short enough as it is.”
Although tourism tax figures have not yet been compiled for August and September, Pionk and DeSanto said business has continued to hold strong.
Pionk said the timing of the campaign at the start of the summer was fortuitous, explaining: “We were able to reach people at a decision-
In addition to blitzing the Twin Cities market with ads, local leaders made themselves available for numerous interviews. Leading the charge were Mayor Ness; David Ross, president of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce; and Terry Mattson, president and CEO of Visit Duluth. They acknowledged the hardships caused by the flood but also stressed that much of the city remained intact and ready to welcome visitors.
“They were all on the same page, so we weren’t sending a mixed message,” Pionk said.
Ness said he offered assurances that Duluth was safe to visit, as long as guests weren’t looking to cross safety barricades. But he also appealed to their desire to help.
“More so than most other cities, people seem to have a deep emotional connection to Duluth,” Ness observed.
“When Duluth was struggling with the after-effects of the flood, people were looking for ways to support our community. There were people who made a point to come up to Duluth for a couple of days to stay at a local hotel and to eat at local restaurants as a small way to show their support for us in a time of need,” he said.
Ness said that encouraging people to visit while simultaneously making the case that the city needed disaster assistance required the striking a difficult balance.
“No question, it was a difficult message to handle, but I’m proud of the fact that we handled it well,” he said. “It required good coordination of everyone who had a public platform,” he said. “It takes discipline to talk about each of the elements of the story and give it its own proper weight and worth.”
Pionk said the early-summer campaign was so effective that some in the hospitality industry are wondering whether Visit Duluth should repeat the promotional effort next year.
But she noted Visit Duluth might not be able to expect the same results without all the attention the flood focused on its campaign this year. Pionk also observed that it’s unlikely Visit Duluth could stretch its advertising dollars as far in 2013 as it did this year, when many broadcasters offered reduced rates to help Duluth recover from a disaster.
Still, Pionk said, Visit Duluth is looking into the matter.