U.S. cities tout merits of less costly 'staycations'
As the economy drags, cities launch campaigns to woo residents to local attractions.
Mary Knox Merrill – staff
They're all ways America's cities are encouraging local residents to vacation at home in this summer of high airfares and soaring prices for gasoline and food. As many states reel from reductions in consumer spending and sales-tax collection, successful efforts to turn tourism promotion inward could breathe much-needed life into local economies.
"Anytime you can keep a dollar at home, that's good," says Bonita Kolb, a marketing professor at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. "If you have commercial attractions like theme parks, local people may often go there. But there's a lot more to a city than that, like local cultural events that people might just ignore because they take them for granted."
Last week, New York City unveiled a "Go Local" website that highlights free or inexpensive activities ranging from an African guitar festival in Brooklyn to the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in Queens. The city will dispatch street teams every Thursday for the next five weeks to distribute savings passes, weekly itineraries, and Go Local-branded stickers, temporary tattoos, and beach balls to residents.
"This is the first time that the city has actively called on New Yorkers to discover their backyard," says Christopher Heywood, a vice president for NYC & Co., the city's marketing and tourism organization.
New York joins a slew of cities engaged in similar initiatives. In an attempt to mimic the way people use pins to mark destinations on a map, Boston has installed 1,500-pound red pins at 10 city landmarks to reacquaint Boston-area residents with Beantown's charms. Visitors can send a text message at each pin to learn more about the location.
In Chicago, tourism officials are offering locals hotel packages that include theater tickets, and they're urging Chicagoans to recount their "urban adventures" on a special website.
Dubbing itself "fun central," Arlington, Texas, has created a "staycation" page on its website replete with adrenaline-pumping music and discounts on jaunts to the local Six Flags amusement park.
The campaigns are, in large part, responses to the country's changing travel patterns. About 1.3 percent fewer Americans will fly anywhere this summer compared with the same period last year, according to a forecast by the Air Transport Association, which represents the major carriers. High gasoline prices are also causing people to travel closer to home, take fewer trips, and spend less money on incidentals like souvenir shopping, says Mike Pina of the American Automobile Association. But, he adds, a significant portion of the US population is still traveling.
Yet even if these campaigns resonate with the summer's vacationing ethos, measuring their success rates proves difficult. It's impossible to say New York's Go Local "will generate X amount of dollars for the economy," Mr. Heywood says. "But Fox  picked it up, New York 1 picked it up, our CEO was on Bloomberg Radio. It seems to be a message that's very relevant."
Evaluating a promotion by comparing summer 2008 visitation rates to summer 2007 rates is problematic because gasoline prices have not remained constant, says Mike Carlton of Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation, which is sponsoring an initiative to inform Tennesseans about "Less Than One Tank Trips" to state parks.
Boston's "Visit the Pin" website did receive more than 5,000 hits within 24 hours of being launched in late June, according to Julie Burns, Boston's director of arts, tourism, and special events. But data on total hits or pin-related text messages received in July are not yet available, she says.
"To experience your local environment in a way that you have not before requires you to break [everyday] patterns, and to do that you need to open your consciousness," Mr. Brein says. "And no one can do that for you."
Sitting on the steps of the square's fountain, Carbonneau said he came to appreciate Boston's beauty not through any city campaign but by living in Hawaii and then returning to his native city with fresh eyes.
Chris Kurth, who was selling sunflowers and squash at a farmers' market nearby, complained that the pin was an eyesore compared to the square's historic, Neo-Romanesque Trinity Church. Mr. Kurth said he's seen no increase in customers that he could attribute to the pin's presence, and he recommended that the city promote stay-at-home vacations through special events like live music instead.
Other Bostonians had a more positive view of the campaign.
"It's really cool, and I didn't know anything about it until a visitor told me, which is ironic because I work right there," said Tanya Priyadarshini, gesturing toward the nearby John Hancock tower. "My parents are visiting soon, and the pins make me want to learn more about the whole [campaign] before they come."
As they craft their initiatives, tourism officials in all cities should make sure to engage directly with residents, says Professor Kolb.
"Let's say you're in the south side of Boston. You should ask local people, 'What should people experience here?'... It's neighbors talking to neighbors, and that will build a sense of community."