Vermont — especially Southern Vermont — has everything people are looking for. They just don't know it exists, and they don't even really know where it is. How can we get the region to become top of mind?
Amy Spear, vice president of tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, has written an op-ed calling for a $500,000 increase in the state budget for tourism — not unreasonable, considering that visitors spend $2.5 billion in our state every year. Yet state spending has fallen 6 percent over the last five years, she reports, with only $2 million for destination marketing.
Perhaps to fill some of this void, groups in both Bennington and Brattleboro have convinced their respective town governments to fund their own marketing campaigns to entice more visitors.
Bennington Community Development Director Shannon Barsotti says that while the "Vermont Begins Here" campaign began a few years ago, it is now being taken to the next level, thanks to increased local funding, a new website, and a new logo that makes "Bennington" more prominent and includes the web address.
The campaign targets the Albany, N.Y. area and the Berkshires utilizing all of the tricks of the trade. She explains that the focus is to attract and accommodate visitors by promoting larger events, using high-quality photography, social media, and blog pieces.
Economic development is beginning at home, with local talent responsible for the creative effort.
"We hired a local writer and photographer, which has the benefit of high-quality travel writing and engaging images — while at the same time, we're helping to support our local talent," Barsotti says. Eight Oh Two Marketing, a digital marketing firm, designed the new website.
Barsotti stresses the importance of collaboration — especially key in a small town where no individual entity has a large staff.
The Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce (until recently, the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce) and the Better Bennington Corp. also have their own distinct projects.
Matt Harrington, executive director of the Chamber and chairman of the Governor's Travel and Recreation Council, says that now that the Benningtoncentered chamber has become countywide, embracing the Northshire and all of the collective 17 towns of Southwestern Vermont, the organization is placing more emphasis on destination marketing. He adds that the Chamber puts major effort on promoting the Shires of Vermont brand along with promoting the Chamber's member businesses and regional events with an updated website that is performing well.
While Vermont Begin Here and the Shires of Vermont brands are mainly focused on bringing visitors to Bennington, John Shannahan, executive director of the Better Bennington Corp., says that his organization concentrates on downtown businesses.
Better Bennington does some tourism promotion through its website, which links visitors to the town and chamber sites, as well as to regional or state sites. It also markets to Albany and the Berkshires. BBC is involved in free downtown community activities and events, including holiday decorations.
The BBC also posts Bennington events or information on no-cost Vermont marketing websites, helping these promotional messages reach a wider audience, he said.
Brattleboro recently launched a marketing graphics campaign with the slogan "Love Brattleboro VT." Organizers, including the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, explain that the campaign naturally draws from Brattleboro's strengths and its reputation as a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive community.
To that end, the graphics are designed to appeal widely and also to a more specific LGBTQ+ tourism audience, a fast-growing market, especially in New England. This sector is recognized to travel more often and demonstrate higher-than-average patterns of spending.
The overall aim, says Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, is for the "Love Brattleboro VT" campaign to inspire visits and "to reinforce fundamental values and Brattleboro's quirky, artsy, and welcoming spirit."
While it is really encouraging that Bennington and Brattleboro are working hard to boost destination tourism and that the Vermont Chamber is fighting for increased funding, it is curious that the towns, chambers, and other economic-development entities in Southern Vermont don't all get together, pool some money, bring in some public- and private-sector partners, and develop an umbrella brand for Southern Vermont to promote the entire region.
This wouldn't mean giving up each town's respective marketing efforts, but a destination marketing campaign for Southern Vermont would help enhance these more-narrowly-focused efforts, perhaps by marketing and promoting Southern Vermont's cultural attractions, as well as the area's artisan's goods and services, along with outdoor recreation.
Such a regional campaign, with a global, national and regional target market, would also boost those regions that can't afford such campaigns — arguably because their local economies could sorely use some of these economic benefits.
These individual local efforts to cultivate tourism hold so much promise, and increased state tourism funding could extend and amplify those efforts. But with collaboration and support between and among local entities, we could do so much more with the money we have and the funds we have yet to raise.
As Amy Spear says, "It's time to work together."
Lynn Barrett is publisher of Vermont Arts & Living, editor of Okemo Valley Magazine, and president of Primetime Concepts, Inc.