Tourism bureau given map to help calculate its course

Before setting out on a journey, it helps to have a map to guide you in the right direction. This was the thought process behind the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau’s decision to hire North Carolina-based Randall Travel Marketing last year.

By Jessica Bair

Before setting out on a journey, it helps to have a map to guide you in the right direction. This was the thought process behind the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau’s decision to hire North Carolina-based Randall Travel Marketing last year.

From December through April Randall Travel studied and researched the bureau’s coverage area: Dauphin and Perry counties. Cumberland, Lebanon and Franklin counties left the group about two years ago.

“We initiated the entire process because we went from representing five counties down to two (and brought) on basically an entirely new staff. We thought … now that we’re down to representing a very specific area, it would be prudent to do our homework before we moved forward,” said Robin Scaer, marketing director for the bureau.

Mary Smith became the bureau’s executive director in April 2006. She came from York County’s tourist-promotion agency, which had previously worked with Randall Travel.

Randall Travel has analyzed about 150 convention and visitors bureaus throughout approximately 25 states. While the cost of a study ranges, the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau paid about $45,000, said Judy Randall, president and chief executive officer of Randall Travel.

The company presented its findings to bureau members May 22. Randall Travel found that the area has good destination appeal, but visitors want more shopping and dining opportunities. Visitors are also frustrated by heavy traffic on highways, a shortage of signs and a streetscape that’s hard to navigate, the company said (see “About the market” and “What’s next,” this page).

To solve these issues and others, the first problem the bureau needs to address is funding. The bureau is underfunded compared with its peers, Randall said.

“They’ve done an awesome job with the limited amount of resources that they’ve had to work with, so their ability to prioritize is demonstrated. They just need more firepower to be competitive,” Randall said.

Randall supports increasing the hotel-room tax to provide a portion of that funding but said some of her company’s other recommendations should help bring in more capital.

Within the next year, the bureau hopes to drop one of its two visitors guides and become a non-member-based bureau. Taking steps beyond these changes will be difficult without additional funding from other sources, Scaer said.

“It’s something that we’ve already been trying to address with key members of the community. You really do need to re-evaluate how much money (we’re) receiving. They can’t expect these end results without giving us the right tools to make that happen,” Scaer said.

Raising the hotel-room tax is the most obvious and easiest option, but the allocation of those dollars is an equally important component, Scaer said.

Dauphin County’s hotel-room tax rate is at 3 percent. The bureau is scheduled to receive $586,000 of the $4.8 million in hotel-room tax dollars the county expects to generate this year. About $2.2 million of that will go toward debt service on bonds that helped pay for the Giant Center.

Barry Dively, assistant general manager and director of sales and marketing for the Hilton Harrisburg, agreed that the bureau is under-funded when compared with other area bureaus. He said Randall Travel’s findings were on target with what his hotel’s research has shown.

“Nothing really came to me as a shock, with the exception of how competitor TPAs (tourist promotion agencies) are much more funded than the HHRVB,” Dively said. “HHRVB clearly has a long way to get the capital investment needed to aggressively promote our area … especially when you compare our budget to others.”

Some of the most important recommendations were targeting first-time visitors and marketing for visitors during times when the region’s hotel occupancies are low, Dively said. He also thinks it’s important to create a visitor-orientation and sales center for the area.

Nancy Gates did not see the need for a visitor center. Gates is director of museum operations for the Antique Auto Museum at Hershey in South Hanover Township. She said such centers already exist throughout the region but acknowledged they aren’t easy to find.

“I think that the Hershey Harrisburg visitors bureau has sort of been struggling over the past couple years. I think that this is really a step in the right direction, and hopefully people will recognize the work that has been done and see where everybody needs to go,” Gates said.

About the market

North Carolina-based Randall Travel Marketing spent five months studying and researching the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau’s tourism coverage area. The company determined the following:

  • The primary destination in Dauphin and Perry counties is the vicinity of Hershey and Harrisburg, which is also where the vast majority of lodging rooms are found. Dauphin County has more than 7,000 rooms, and Perry County has fewer than 75.
  • It’s beneficial for the region that Hershey is a brand that is known around the world, but Randall found that Harrisburg also has its own destination appeal.
  • Dauphin County’s lodging occupancy is higher than the national average but is very seasonal. Occupancy peaks at about 85 percent in July and falls to about 42 percent in December.
  • The typical overnight group is a middle-aged couple or a family with children, and they come primarily from within a five-hour drive to stay for three nights. While here, they spend an average of $1,011.

    What’s next

    Randall Travel Marketing found that the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau is doing a good job of promoting the area, given the resources and funds available. There is room for improvement, though, Randall said. Here are the suggested focus points:

  • Shift from a membership-driven focus to a method where tourism-related businesses pay for the marketing opportunities of their choice. This should generate more funding than membership dues, which amount to less than 10 percent of the bureau’s total revenues.
  • Increase funding from the lodging tax and other sources to expand programs, drive growth in target market segments and increase the sales staff. The bureau’s budget is about $1.1 million. Randall said the budget should be closer to $2.45 million to be competitive.
  • Adopt a market-segmentation approach for marketing efforts. The bureau should target the following markets, in rank order: leisure travelers, group tours and weddings; conferences and meetings; sports; agriculture; visiting friends and relatives; and individual business travelers.
  • Target visitors who are within a five-hour drive of the region, primarily people in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region.
  • Develop gateway visitor-orientation and sales centers in Hershey and Harrisburg to compel people to stay longer and spend more. The centers should be highly visible attractions to lure visitors. One should be on Interstate 83 in Harrisburg, and Hershey’s Chocolate World should be designated as the official visitor’s center for the Hershey area.

    —Jessica Bair

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