John Oliver, CEO of VisitErie, Erie County’s tourism promotion agency, has heard the accusation more times than he can remember.
It’s the claim that Erie’s growing tourist segment is a poor substitute for lost manufacturing jobs. It’s a statement wrapped up in the assumption that Erie has to choose one or the other.
Oliver doesn’t see it that way.
In fact, he is convinced that the future growth of Erie’s commercial and industrial economy may be tied in part to an improved sense of place through a growing list of attractions.
The addition in recent years of numerous wineries, a long list of breweries, the Splash Lagoon indoor water park, Almost Isle Downs & Casino, the Bayfront Convention Center and four bayfront hotels have all contributed to the attraction of Erie.
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These attractions, along with Près Isle State Park, Pennsylvania’s busiest state park, spurred visitors to spend more than $1 billion in 2019.
While tourism spending has increased over the years – and largely recovered from a crash associated with COVID-19-related closures – Oliver said VisitErie is not content with the status quo.
The organization, he said, plans to direct and expand advertising and use search and data mining in hopes of attracting more visitors.
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“We are never satisfied with the number of visitors,” Oliver said. “We know we can handle more than we get.”
VisitErie does not rely on a strategy of hope or even the knowledge that, among tourist destinations, Erie lives in an ideal location of low-cost communities that tend to draw the bulk of its visitors within two hours on the road.
Spread the message
VisitErie will again advertise to potential visitors to its core area of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo.
In Pittsburgh, VisitErie purchased advertising space at bus stops.
“Our message is really that we provide the escape that people are looking for. We provide them with the idea of coming back to the vacation that you had,” Oliver said.
VisitErie, which touted the virtues of salt-free and shark-free beaches in a previous ad campaign, has rolled out some new slogans.
One of them is “Big Rides, Short Lines”. The other is “Get unwined in Erie”.
“It’s kind of a nostalgic feeling of how the holidays used to be and how easy it was to use,” Oliver said. “Erie is kind of an easy destination to come and enjoy what we have.”
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Data mining for tourism information
While VisitErie raises hopes of a nostalgic visit, the organization’s plan to attract visitors has less of an old-world feel. It has signed a contract with a company that will use publicly available information from cell phones and other devices to collect information from those who visit or click on VisitErie advertisements.
In general terms, “We want to know who they are and we want to know what they do when they get here,” Oliver said.
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Company information will tell VisitErie if a potential visitor has searched for information and visited the travel promotion agency’s website. It will also let Oliver staff know how much a visitor is spending on accommodations, food, and other attractions.
All of this information, he said, is for more targeted marketing.
“It will really allow us to figure out and start focusing on what people are looking to do when they get here and are we reaching them. Is the message getting to them?”
VisitErie also tracks reports from Smith Travel Research, which provides information on room rates and occupancy; and a new contract with a company called Air DNA, which tracks the short-term rental market.
“This kind of information and research will make us stronger as an organization,” Oliver said.
Oliver said the information should prove useful for companies such as Scott Enterprises, the casino and Waldameer who advertise outside the region. Nick Scott Sr., president of Scott Enterprises, owner of Splash Lagoon and numerous hotels and restaurants, said he would like more information.
“I think it will be very interesting,” he said. “Anytime you can get more information like this, it helps. It can show how to reach these people and maybe some nuance about where they’re from. I think that’s a good thing.”
Residents enjoy the attractions
Oliver says visitor spending is just as good for local residents who frequent attractions made possible by out-of-town visitors.
For decades, this has included shoppers, who come for duty-free purchases on clothing.
“If we didn’t have visitors, we wouldn’t have these attractions,” Oliver said. “If you look at all the big box stores, there aren’t enough of us living in Erie County to support them all. We need visitors.”
These visitors help support retailers that might not otherwise exist in Erie.
Even at a time when record inflation and soaring gas prices are giving many of us pause, Oliver predicts a busy tourist season. Early travel figures predict he might be right. Erie County hotel tax revenue is up for the first three months of the year compared to 2021.
Scott said his optimism was based largely on Erie County’s growing list of attractions.
“We have such a beautiful waterfront and the downtown area comes alive,” Scott said. “It’s wonderful to see this happen. I know the future bodes well.”
But what about the short-term outlook — will inflation and high gas prices hold back?
Oliver said he thinks Erie’s status as a relatively inexpensive destination will work to his advantage.
Americans are tired of staying home, held hostage by the pandemic.
“Travel is a priority,” Oliver said. “The first thing they look forward to doing when they can is getting out and traveling. It’s almost like a birth rite.”
Contact Jim Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ETNMartin.