State tourism cuts alter marketing methods

Indiana’s reliance on social media outlets to promote summer travel packages is increasing as its tourism budget continues to shrink.

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, who oversees the Indiana Office of Tourism Development, kicked off "Visit Indiana Week" on Friday morning by announcing the department will offer several discounts for hotels, golf courses, concert venues and sporting events. The promotion runs through May 14.

There’s just one catch: The deals are only available to those who follow the tourism department on Facebook and Twitter, as well as through e-mails.

“Obviously, the challenge is that we’re working with a smaller pool of money,” tourism spokesman Curt Brantingham said. “So we’ve really reached into the social media market as a way to communicate with people who are looking for travel deals.”

Indeed, destinations throughout Indiana no longer can count on traditional state marketing campaigns that includes television and radio spots to help drive summer crowds.

Lawmakers who passed a biennial budget during the special session last year sliced the state’s annual contribution to the tourism department in half—from $4.8 million to $2.4 million.

The department’s financial woes have worsened even more, however. Because state revenue continues to fall short of projections, only about $2 million will be spent this year on tourism. The rest has been placed in a reserve fund to protect against future budget cuts.

No radio and television advertisements to promote Indiana attractions aired last year, and they won’t this year, either. Instead, the tourism office is using social media outlets as a “cost-effective” way to stretch its dollars.

The office has more than 2,000 fans on Facebook, more than 4,200 followers on Twitter and 50,000 subscribers to its monthly e-mail program.

“The market is changing anyway,” Brantingham said. “I think you would have to go this route no matter what.”

The overall decrease in the tourism budget could drop Indiana further in the ranks of state tourism spending, although most states are wrangling with budget cuts, too.

In 2008, the most recent statistics available from the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Travel Association, Indiana ranked 41st in tourism spending, and was dwarfed by neighboring states Illinois ($50 million), Kentucky ($15 million) and Michigan ($12 million).

Total travel spending in the United States in 2009 was $704.5 billion, down 9 percent from 2008, according to the travel association. It expects a 4.8-percent increase in travel spending for 2010, however.

“It will take us awhile to get back to the travel volume and spending we saw before 2009,” said Suzanne Cook, the association’s senior vice president of research. “That’s why it’s so important for destinations to continually reinvent themselves by using innovative approaches to increase tourism during these tough economic times.”

In fiscal 2007-08, Indiana’s tourism budget totaled $6.6 million, counting $1.8 million the agency generated from companies that advertised in state-produced tourism publications.

The department stopped producing the annual Indiana Festival Guide last year, handing it over to the independent Indiana State Festivals Association—a move that is saving the office about $100,000 a year.
The first discount, announced by Skillman on Friday at White River State Park, is a 60-percent savings on park passes. The discounted passes are $24 for an adult pass and $18 for a child’s pass, available to the first 64 respondents.

The pass is good for gate admission at the Indianapolis Zoo, Victory Field, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indiana State Museum, IMAX Theatre and the NCAA Hall of Champions.
More discounts will be announced at 11 a.m. May 10-14 through Facebook, Twitter and e-mail.

Tourism contributes about $10 billion a year to the state’s economy and employs more than 260,000 Hoosiers.

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