Tourism marketing taps high tech tools
© Culpeper TimesIn 1749 17-year-old future president George Washington was commissioned to survey and plot what would later become Culpeper. He said the town was located in “a high and pleasant situation.”
During the War Between the States, Confederate and Federal troops took turns occupying the town. It changed hands so many times it is said townspeople kept both Confederate dollars and Yankee currency so they would be ready whomever was in control.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, what made Culpeper a prize in the three preceding centuries continues to play a significant role in bringing visitors here: Location, location, location.
Equidistant from Washington, D.C. to the north, Fredericksburg to the east, Charlottesville and the University of Virginia to the south and Shenandoah Park in the Blue Ridge mountains to the west, Culpeper is at the crossroads of history.
The tourism department at the historic downtown Depot is well aware that the very train tracks that brought troops to town 150 years ago now bring tourists to Culpeper.
And whereas in years past the quality of life in Culpeper spread largely by word of mouth, today it is social media that has taken center stage in getting out the word.
Local turns global with social media
“We have always advertised in local and regional publications,” said Lori Sorrentino, who has been with the department since 2004. She became director in June 2011 and hired Sherri Azais to fill her former position of tourism marketing specialist.
“In recent years we have made a concerted effort to build up our website presence and in the last two years we set up a Facebook page. (As of Wednesday morning the page had 4,841 'Likes'),” said Sorrentino. “Our efforts reflect the priorities of the Virginia Tourism Corporation in marketing and advertising.”
Those efforts also include Twitter (@VisitCulpeperVa), Pinterest (VisitCulpeperVA), YouTube (22701CpepTourism) and the use of QR (Quick Response) codes – those now-ubiquitous images that can be scanned by cell phones.
“QR codes are a trademark for a type of matrix bar code…that can be scanned with a QR code reader, downloadable free online,” said Sorrentino.
Culpeper's 36-page “In & Around” brochure has four QR codes on the back that provide audio tours of downtown Culpeper, South East and South Main Streets, Piedmont and North Main Streets and Blue Ridge Avenue.
“We've embraced new technology to help make history, and all of our tourism resources in Culpeper, more appealing to a younger audience, as well as tech savvy baby boomers,” said Sorrentino.
But printed promotion has certainly not gone away.
In addition to the In & Around brochure the tourism department produces such materials as a map of the Historic District and an 80-page four-color visitor's guide. If you're riding Amtrak and pick up the latest issue of “Arrive,” the on board magazine, turn to page 79 and you'll find an advertisement for Culpeper complete with QR code. Even the business cards of Sorrentino and Azais have the QR code.
“We got an early start using social media to get our message out and that has allowed us to lead the way,” Sorrentino said.
Sold on Culpeper
Sorrentino had a background in sales, marketing and fundraising before coming to the tourism department in 2004.
“It seemed like a natural fit,” she said. “When Beth [Burns, former tourism director] left I stepped into the position and revamped some things.”
Azais said her background in real estate marketing taught her the importance of branding.
“Lori and I began to talk about the best way of branding the town and a lot of what we are doing now grew out of (those conversations).”
Sorrentino said Culpeper already had a lot of “brand equity” with its history and winning recognition as one of “America's Best Small Towns” as well as having one of the top Main Streets, among other national notice.
“In everything we do we try to re-direct people to other pieces of our promotional effort, cross brand and use the brand equity we already have,” said Sorrentino.
“We try to make sure that all of our ads have the same message,” said Azais. “There's always an element of the same colors and that comes back to branding. We want people to think, I need to go there.”
The Tourism Department logo has high recognition now, but it brought about a tempest in a teapot recently when Sorrentino suggested the town use the same logo. Ultimately the town stuck with its Minuteman flag logo on all official documents, but it will use the tourism logo on some of its direct promotional materials.
“We have put together an ad shell based around the logo,” Sorrentino said. “We can plug in different content based on the publication or the time of the year.
“Advertising needs to make an emotional connection. That's what a brand does. We are not the only charming historical town in Virginia.”
The department has been proactive in reaching out to younger generations.
“We want to make the town attractive to them, to get them involved in the history of the town,” said Azais. “That will only help in the long run.”
One way the department has reached out is to put its brochure in downloadable form on its website.
Sorrentino said older people often request print materials through the mail, but many in the younger generations prefer to go online and download what they need. The tourism department offers both options.
Sorrentino said she hopes to begin posting monthly contests on the Facebook site as another means of attracting page views.
“And every once in awhile we'll post a lighthearted cartoon,” said Sorrentino.
“One we posted about popcorn on a hot day last summer went viral,” Azais said.
“Many people now access the web through hand-held devices. If they like something they will pass it on to friends.”
If the pass along grows large enough an item is said to have “gone viral,”…spread through a larger population than that for which it was originally intended.
“Social media is a great way to fill in any gaps in print advertising,” said Sorrentino. “And it's a great way to reach and engage people before they come to visit and to stay in touch after they leave.”
Bottom line, though, is that Culpeper has always been a place people wanted to visit. Sorrentino knows that well.
“We just want to make it as easy as possible for people in Virginia as well as around the country to find out what Culpeper has to offer in terms of history, attractions, dining and entertainment and to want to plan a visit here.”