Reaping the Benefits of ‘Nothing’

By Beacon Staff

A New York Times article earlier this month highlighted starkly contrasting realities facing two Western state tourism offices.

In Washington, the entire tourism office has folded due to budget cuts, becoming the only state in the nation without such a bureau. Then there’s Montana, where the tourism office is making such waves with a marketing campaign that even the outgoing Washington tourism director couldn’t help but pile on praise.

“If you live in the greater Puget Sound area and you don’t want to go to Montana by now, you haven’t been paying attention,” Marsha Massey, executive director of the recently folded Washington tourism office, told the New York Times.

“Even I want to go to Montana.”

Massey was referring to an aggressive advertising campaign launched in 2009 by the Montana Office of Tourism that targets Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis, among other out-of-state markets. The campaign, using the slogan “There’s Nothing Here,” was born out of a challenge issued by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who asked the state’s tourism industry to come up with ideas to define Montana’s brand.

Katy Peterson, consumer marketing manager for the Office of Tourism, said in the past Montana has struggled with a dilemma shared by other tourist destinations: With so much to promote, how do you winnow down a cohesive marketing campaign? Does the Montana brand need to promote horseback riding or history? Who does it appeal to?

“Like a lot of markets, the state struggled with trying to be everything to everybody,” Peterson said.

After conducting research, state tourism officials found that most people, when it comes down to it, want to visit Montana for its scenery and wide-open spaces – its “spectacular” and “breathtaking” landscape.

Tourists are attracted to the state’s relative lack of a human footprint, the researched showed. They like that “there’s nothing here,” as in “uncluttered vistas, a million stars shining and unspoiled places,” Peterson said. And those are the types of tourists Montana wants.

“This ‘nothing’ concept was pretty bold and pretty provocative, but we ultimately found that it turned people on to the fact that nothing is something,” she said.

“We knew we had to stand out and have a breakthrough campaign,” she added. “There are a lot of states and countries that spend a lot of money to vie for that tourism dollar. You can pick up a Travel & Leisure and see what we’re really up against.”

The campaign has been effective, according to studies by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research and the market research firm Leisure Trends Group. From 2009 to 2010, studies show, potential vacationers in target markets were 36 percent more aware of Montana and three times as likely to travel here if they had seen the campaign’s advertising than those who hadn’t.

“This showed us that tourism doesn’t just happen,” Peterson said.

According to UM’s tourism research institute, the marketing campaign contributed $424 million of the overall $2.6 billion of economic impact tourism has in the state. Peterson said her office had a $6.2 million budget last year for advertising and marketing, which ranked 27th out of 50 states. Funding comes from the state’s bed tax.

“Our return on investment was for every dollar invested, $104 came back in visitor spending,” Peterson said. “That’s double where it was five years ago.”

Visitation to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks broke records last year, Peterson notes, while nationwide national parks saw a decline in visitors.

“The state of Montana has realized we have two icons in the parks,” Jan Metzmaker, executive director of Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau, said. “That’s why people come here – the vast majority, that’s why they come here.”

Metzmaker said the state’s marketing efforts greatly benefit Northwest Montana.

“We think it’s been fabulous, because the Montana Office of Tourism leads the way with their marketing campaign and we kind of follow behind with ours,” she said.

The campaign’s three primary target markets are Seattle, Minneapolis and Chicago. Statistics showed that tourists from those areas already traveled to Montana with regularity and have the characteristics local tourism officials seek, in terms of preferred hobbies, household income, education and other factors.

Additionally, Peterson said those cities don’t have nearby attractions that directly compete with Montana’s offerings, as do cities such as Denver and Salt Lake City. The sides and backs of buses and trains can be seen in the three target cities sporting the Montana brand.

The tourism office has also partnered with online resources such as National Geographic’s website, the Discovery Channel and Google, Peterson said. Magazine advertising includes Budget Travel, the Smithsonian and The New Yorker, along with some radio advertising.

“It’s not just about getting more people to the state,” Peterson said. “For us it was about getting the right kind of people to the state.”

The Office of Tourism contracted with Bozeman-based communications agency MercuryCSC on the marketing campaign, as well as other partners. Their collaborative efforts were rewarded with a prestigious silver Effie Award in June. The Effie Awards, started in 1968 by the American Marketing Association, recognize the year’s top advertising campaigns.

“It’s not every day that we find ourselves in the company of Toyota, Old Spice” and other large corporate names, Peterson said. “It’s a great accomplishment.”

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