Thursday January 10, 2013

MANCHESTER -- A collaborative effort between four local arts organizations will be receiving a substantial boost in support from the state Department of Tourism as this year's version is prepared.

Not only will "significant" state resources be deployed to bolster the marketing efforts behind "Hills Alive!" -- a partnership of four area arts organizations which offered discounted ticket prices during one week of events and performances last July -- but the concept will be expanded to include venues in Bennington and possibly Stratton, said Megan Smith, the state's commissioner of tourism and marketing.

"I took a personal interest in that program," she said during a telephone interview last Friday. "I thought it had all the elements of what we're trying to sell as our brand of Vermont."

Last year the state invested $5,000 as part of the partnership's overall $15,000 budget to help spread the word about performances hosted by the Manchester Music Festival, the Southern Vermont Arts Center, the Dorset Theater Festival and the Weston Playhouse Theatre.

Smith declined to give a specific dollar amount the state would be committing towards this year's effort, but said it would be "significant" and consist of logistical support, staff time and marketing.

In addition to expanding beyond the Manchester, Dorset and Weston area, the event will also grow to a five week-long event, running from June 28 to Aug. 4, she said.


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In another change from last year's format, the "passports" -- essentially discounts on ticket prices offered at each of the venues, will be discontinued. Instead, the focus will be on raising marketing awareness about the performances with an eye towards boosting the potential attendance and attracting more visitors, she said.

"We're going to pull an events calendar together to promote it as a destination for the arts," Smith said. "It's going to be a full-on marketing campaign for us this summer."

One of her goals for the year was to focus closely on promoting the arts in Vermont. "Hills Alive!" will parallel and precede another arts festival in the Mad River Valley, farther north, that the state is also active in helping grow, she said.

Like last year's event, none of the participating venues -- which this year will include the Oldcastle Theater in Bennington and the Bennington Center for the Arts -- will be offering any special programming or performances that would not have been staged or scheduled anyway. This year's event will concentrate on the performing arts and the partners hope to have a calendar of events developed by mid-February, said Tricia Hayes, of Focus Advertising and Public Relations, who will be serving as project's arts coordinator for the event.

Following a review of last year's effort, the feeling among the principle partners was that a $5 or so discount off a ticket price wasn't enough to drive increased ticket sales, Hayes said.

Package plans with area inns and lodgings are also in the works, so that room reservations can be bundled together with tickets to the events within the five weeks of Hills Alive!, she said.

"We think enhancing awareness in the marketplace, before folks are making their reservations to come up here, will help attendance across the board," she said. "If this can be grown into a festival that every year celebrates the arts, we think its a good image for southern Vermont -- for all of Vermont."

Hayes anticipates the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce will act as a sort of "concierge" for the event, where visitors can pick up or arrange for tickets for events. Several local businesses will be approached for to be sponsors as well; last year's business sponsors played an important role in helping Hills Alive! get off the ground, Hayes said.

The Chamber of Commerce will be one of the sponsors, said Executive Director Berta Maginniss, and will also encourage its members to develop packages to tie into the Hills Alive! events, she said.

The Chamber will also be helping market the event through its own Web site and social media as well, she said.

"We feel strongly that the first year was a good start but we really need to expand it," she said, adding that the new facility the

Chamber now inhabits on Bonnet Street will allow it to play a strong role in helping distribute tickets and provide information to visitors.

The two new venues in Bennington are also looking forward to being part of the mix.

The Bennington Center for the Arts is working on a program schedule, said Elizabeth Small, the chief operating officer of the arts center in an e-mail.

"We want to fill our wonderful theater with the sounds of music and laughter from opera, foreign music to some good old country music," she stated.

The Oldcastle Theater, which recently moved to a new location in downtown Bennington, is also excited about taking part, said Eric Peterson, the theater's producing artistic director.

"I'm excited about it; we'll have more information by next month," he said.

Word that the state was getting involved even more actively than last year was greeted warmly by the original group of arts partners, said Ari Rudiakov, the artistic director of the Manchester Music Festival.

Last year's event was a learning experience for all the partners, who came away with a better sense each other's capabilities, he said.

"Last year was a groundbreaking effort for the four organizations to work together to attract more people to southern Vermont," he said.

"We are thrilled and heartened (by the enhanced state support) -- we think it's great and it will be great for the region."