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What Went Wrong With Stronger Than the Storm?

He told the committee that his experience working as a tourism official in Connecticut, New York, and Washington taught him that tourism campaigns work best when state officials promote their territory as a single destination. After prospective travelers take an interest, he said, regional destination-marketing organizations can more easily help them take the next step by facilitating connections to local attractions, lodging, and entertainment.

Despite the campaign's limitations, speakers agreed that they succeeded in presenting New Jersey positively and capturing attention across the state and in the many national and Canadian media markets where they ran. But the state missed another opportunity, they said, by pulling them off-air too soon. Instead of ending the run on Labor Day weekend, as it did, the state needs to coordinate ongoing outreach that will carry its tourism industry safely through the next five years -- the amount of time it often takes to fully repair the reputation of an area hit by a natural disaster.

Robert Hilton, who heads the convention and visitors bureau for Ocean and Monmouth, said that despite the late summer and autumn surge in hotel occupancy, overall he considers the summer to have been “absolutely a disaster.” What’s worse, he calls this the most dead December on record. One out of 10 businesses in the counties’ small downtowns are thinking of closing in January and not reopening.

“The folks in my area are scared. They survived the storm and a year later they’re going to close because they can’t get the foot traffic? That just isn’t fair,” he said. “We need an immediate marketing campaign to start in January.”

The governor’s office hasn’t publicized the cost of the campaign so far or whether it plans to go after more federal grants for this purpose. The travel and tourism division runs its own programs but hasn’t told the tourism community when it will unveil its 2014 plans.

The agency is severely limited. It receives a minimum of $9 million per year from a hotel occupancy tax created in 2003 but gets no other funding for promotional activities. A few weeks ago the Assembly tourism and arts committee released a bill that would increase this required minimum. The state can allocate a higher proportion of occupancy fees to tourism, but since the recession funding for tourism marketing has remained stagnant, with the undedicated remainder of the fee helping to supply the general fund.

Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D-Cumberland), who’s been temporarily chairing the committee since Matthew Milam (D-Vineland) resigned from the Assembly earlier this year, supports an increase in funding for this purpose and asked speakers to propose alternative solutions to raising the minimum allocation.

Davidson suggested the state might create a dedicated revenue source for the tourism department by siphoning off a small percentage of taxes generated by hospitality-related businesses. Speakers also recommended that future promotional messaging emphasize overnight visits as a way to boost income from the occupancy tax. Although it’s been several years since the agency has received more than the minimum $9 million annual disbursement, it’s possible for governors to devote an additional fixed portion or percentage of occupancy tax collections to the tourism bureau. Therefore, in theory, more hotel stays today could translate to more money to promote future hotel stays tomorrow.

Riley has promised to recommend a task force to figure out how to improve tourism marketing and build any victories to be found among the litter of this year’s tourist season. They’ll likely start by questioning Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce officials who shared that the resurgent seaside city has enjoyed an “amazing” year.

And if Hilton is involved, he’ll readily reiterate his position that the medium matters. He told the committee that visitors age 40 to 65 did not believe the positive stories they read in Stronger Than the Storm’s social media posts, which formed a major and relatively inexpensive part of the campaign’s strategy. But did they trust reports in the newspapers and on TV. Thankfully, many called his office to verify, which allowed staff to present a positive spin, he said.

Older visitors continued to have “extensive misperception issues” because they didn’t engage at all with the social media messaging. That may help to explain why Ocean and Monmouth counties welcomed a relatively large number of 21-to-40-year olds who responded strongly to social media messaging (especially the Twitter hashtag #STTS) and according to Hilton, formed “good memories and will return.”

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