It seems that all of us in rural America are going to have to work a little harder this year to attract tourists and other regional visitors to our businesses.
Apparently, state tourism and commerce agencies are finding it quite a challenge to get travelers to go out for an occasional night on the town, let alone leave their homes to take a vacation. Advance sales of tickets for festivals and concerts are very low, as are long term bookings for accommodations, group tours, airfares and other forms of travel.
Susan Thomas, vice president of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce’s Visitor & Convention Bureau, said bookings are coming more at the last minute during the recession, particularly for leisure travelers but also for groups.
“We know booking windows have continued to shorten,” Thomas said. “We seem to be experiencing people holding off and taking a wait-and-see attitude.”
So travelers are still traveling and spending money, but deciding to do it at the last minute. It doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a season that’s ‘business as usual.’
Let’s take a look at what we’ll call ‘last minute tourism’.
How Travel and Tourism May Be Different This Year
It’s anyone’s guess as to how extensively prospective travelers will still be researching the areas they’d like to visit. Their desire to travel could be strong, and they could be collecting reams of information on their favorite locations – just not making their final decision until close to the vacation time.
Tourists who are very loyal to particular destinations probably won’t choose this year to try other places. Unless of course, the favorite location is always very expensive, and choosing someplace else would save greatly on travel costs.
Sticking with the region they know, and the businesses they’ve been satisfied with in the past, will probably be their best economic bets. Tourists who believe in ‘buying local’ at their hometown often also support small business in tourist towns. If they visit a region frequently or annually, they probably have loyalties to rural businesses and shop owners there, practically feeling like they’re old friends.
Travelers who hesitate to make reservations because of financial concerns may delay too long, and miss out on staying at their favorite places. Sad for them, but potentially good for rural businesses. They might not be able to schedule their usual activities, whether that’s getting a ‘Tee-time’ at the golf course, booking a trail ride at the local horseback riding stable, or a table at their favorite restaurant.
They will be looking for back up plans, and will need to be more open to activities different from what they might have chosen if they followed their ‘usual’ routine.
Waiting later to book vacations can have other consequences for travelers too, like not being able to find childcare or a place to board pets. Odds are they’ll be choosing shorter vacations, and ones closer to home. Family friendly vacations will be more ‘in’ than ever, and free or low-cost attractions will win the day.
This should be a banner year for agritourism and nature attractions, but a challenging one for rural retailers. Shopping as a tourist activity isn’t too popular when they’re trying to avoid spending money!
Marketing To Last Minute Travelers
Most rural businesses that benefit from tourism know they have to market to those travelers who plan ahead AND also market to those who discover opportunities after they’ve arrived in their town.
Over the last ten years, more and more travelers have engaged in planning their trips ahead of time. And rural businesses have adapted by getting their information out to information resources online to reach those eager planners.
But this is probably a year to get back to basics, and focus on your ability to attract visitors who look for things to see and do AFTER they’re already arrived in your area.
How to attract last minute travelers to your rural business
Marketing To Travelers After They Arrive:
• If you don’t already have membership in your local Chamber of Commerce, JOIN. Consider rack card distribution services if you’ve not tried them before. Last minute travelers will have to act more like visitors of long ago and rely more on traditional sources of information about your area, like Visitors’ Centers and brochure racks. You and your business must be visible in those locations if you’re going to compete for tourists’ dollars.
• Collaborative marketing efforts or ‘cluster marketing’ among rural businesses that share a theme will be very helpful.
• Don’t assume that all businesses in your town know who you are, where you’re located, and what you offer. Go around and introduce yourself, bring posters and brochures.
• Your exterior signage always needs to provide more than just directions to your location. But this year, more visitors may learn of your business for the very first time as they see your signage driving by. So it might be more important than ever to post open signs, demonstration times, brand names you carry in your store windows, etc.
• Consider using social media, like Twitter, that tourists might access while traveling.
Marketing to Travelers Before They Begin Their Trip
• Be sure your website is current with special offers and coupons that visitors can print out, and bring with them when they visit you.
• Email or send e-newsletters to customers who’ve visited you in recent years. Send them coupons, make offers, extend special invitations. Let them know you appreciate their continued support of your business, and you hope they’ll visit this year too. If you don’t have email addresses, snail mail them. You do keep a Visitor’s Book, don’t you?
• Don’t forget those previous customers who might need to forego their trip to your area this year because of finances. If you don’t have products or services that you currently sell on your website, give some thought to creating products customers could purchase from you without traveling to see you.
The Bottom Line on Last Minute Tourism?
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics professor at Duke University, says there is still hope despite this ‘Psychology crisis’ of consumer behavior.
“People are still interested in living,” he says.
And if that’s the case, they’ll still be interested in vacations too. Generally, vacations in rural locations are less expensive than other geographic areas. Rural America could have a very good year!
What else can you do to lure last minute travelers to your rural business?