If you’re supposed to make hay when the sun is shining, what do you do when skies unexpectedly darken?
That’s largely the question facing Visit Durango, the destination marketing organization for Durango and La Plata County.
Rachel Brown, Visit Durango executive director, said the agency has suspended paid advertisements seeking to attract tourists to the region, but that doesn’t mean it has completely ceded efforts to boost visitors when restrictions that discourage nonessential travel are lifted in Colorado and across the country.
“Obviously, when things closed down and safer-at-home went into place, we did stop advertising and promoting people to visit. But we’re still engaging with our consumer audiences on social media and building kind of like a pent-up demand around Durango,” she said.
Destination marketing management organizations like Visit Durango are caught between a rock and a hard place – dedicated to promoting tourism, they now must balance public health into the advertising plan and judge when it is safe to resume efforts to bring in visitors.
And at some point, visitors will be necessary to heal the tourism-dependent economy in Southwest Colorado.
Brown said 48% of customers at Durango’s restaurants in an average year are visitors and 62% of retail shop patrons are out-of-towners. Tourism accounts for 30% of La Plata County’s economy.
Social media focusVisit Durango recently emerged from what it calls a “triage phase” of its recovery marketing plan. Paid advertising had ceased during “triage” in order to preserve the group’s $140,000 advertising budget for later in the year, when COVID-19 restrictions are expected to ease.
While paid spending, predominantly pay per click advertisements on social media, temporarily ceased, other forms of free marketing efforts are underway.
On social media, Visit Durango is pushing a #DurangoDreaming campaign encouraging locals to tout the benefits and attractions of the area until the situation with COVID-19 allows greater travel.
“The campaign is designed to inspire people to come visit Durango in the future. It’s kind of building that pent-up demand for when it is safe to travel again, we’ll be in the forefront of people’s minds,” Brown said.
The campaign is geared toward engagement with visitors who will be the most likely to return early on when traveling resumes – young people looking for outdoor adventures.
“We’re asking people to submit their photos and videos of wide-open vistas, mountain views. Last week, we were promoting photos that had no people in them. And this past week we started including people in the shots. So it’s a gradual shift in what we’re doing,” she said in mid-May.
Beyond the #DurangoDreaming campaign, Visit Durango is working to maintain contacts with tour operators, state tourism officials and other industry entities to ensure when travel becomes more widespread, logistics for group tours and other tourist sector functions are immediately ready to resume.
Visit Durango is launching a safety-focused campaign, #CareForDurango. This campaign will highlight extra precautions businesses are taking to keep their properties clean and customers and residents safe. It will highlight all public health order recommendations including: wearing a mask in public, not traveling if you feel sick, discouraging travel for at-risk populations and maintaining a social distance of 6 feet from others.
The group also is compiling a list of businesses that are open, and it is providing best practices to businesses to ensure they are following the latest health guidelines recommended by San Juan Basin Public Health and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The group is also working with families and small groups to postpone and rebook events, such as weddings, family reunions and other gatherings.
Three-phase planThis month, Visit Durango began a three-phased approach to gradually return to normal tourism marketing.
In Phase 1, which started in early May, Brown said, Visit Durango plans to spend 10% of its tourism advertising budget to target other Coloradans and people within Southwest Colorado’s traditional regional drive markets to come visit.
Phase 1 will emphasize what local businesses are doing to combat the spread of COVID-19, and marketing will emphasize measures in place to protect everyone – visitors and locals – from the novel coronavirus.
Heavy emphasis in Phase 1 will be placed on the region’s hiking, biking, kayaking, camping and other outdoor pursuits viewed as safer activities. Marketing for outdoor recreation will come under a new advertising campaign called “Find Your Escape.”
Regional marketingIn Phase 2, tentatively set to begin in July, advertising campaigns will extend beyond Southwest Colorado’s regional drive markets with an emphasis on markets with direct flights to Durango. Brown said she plans to spend 50% of her advertising budget during this period, which should extend through August.
“So we will be promoting the fact that we’re remote and we’re rural because people will be avoiding urban environments and then we’ll be promoting the safety messaging. We’ll be pushing some sustainability initiatives like Leave No Trace,” she said.
As Purgatory Resort, Mesa Verde National Park and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad come back online, their openings will be integrated into advertising.
A survey conducted in April of 1,400 people examining a trip to Southwest Colorado by Visit Durango, found 1,352 people had trips to the region altered by COVID-19.
Six hundred and seventy-one people said their trips were canceled all together. However, most people said they would feel safe traveling to the area within six months after health restrictions are lifted.
Brown said the survey also found the vast majority of people would feel more safe driving to a destination rather than flying, and that is something that plays to Southwest Colorado’s favor as it is principally a drive-to destination.
‘Find Your Escape’Phase 3 of the recovery marketing plan, which Brown plans to begin in September, would return paid advertising to the international market. During this phase of the campaign, Visit Durango plans to spend about 29% of its advertising budget. Phase 3 will feature a campaign designed around the theme “Find Your Escape.”
“A lot of international travelers will fly to Denver and then drive to Durango in fall, and we’ll be promoting the fall colors. We’ll be targeting millennials, adventure-seekers and high-value travelers. We do predict that the first groups of people that will be traveling will be a younger, more adventurous segment,” Brown said. “We’ll be promoting wellness, sustainability and just kind of the general small-town pace of Durango, which we think will be appealing to people at that point.”
[email protected] This article and a photo caption have been updated to note that Visit Durango recently resumed paid advertisements to attract visitors to Southwest Colorado