Tourism marketing shows outsiders a sparkling Vermont, open for business

VERMONT — Vermont’s glossy winter advertising, an annual investment in the state’s $2.8 billion tourism industry, is rolling out apace this year, despite the quarantine order that effectively blocks most out-of-staters from visiting.
“It’s just you and the mountain, and an exhilarating run to the bottom, and then warm drinks, and locally sourced cuisine, and a fireplace in your cozy hotel room at the end of the day to warm you back up,” says a piece that the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing paid $80,000 to publish recently in New York Magazine. “This quintessential winter experience has always existed in Vermont. Now, during this most unexpected year, it’s just waiting for you to discover it.”
That piece was commissioned in the summer, back when Vermont’s infection rate was so low that the state’s Covid-19 travel map was surrounded by “green” counties from which it was permissible to visit without the required 14-day quarantine, or seven-day quarantine and a negative Covid-19 test.
But since then, as the infection rate has risen nationally and in Vermont, the state has put strict guidelines on visits from any place outside of Vermont and recently installed 328 metal road signs informing travelers about the rules. 
Meanwhile, the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing recently spent $85,000 on a travel piece that appeared Nov. 25 on the website Outside Online, $200,000 on a piece published Dec. 2 in the Wall Street Journal, and $50,000 for a piece due to be published in The Boston Globe early next week.
Tourism Commissioner Heather Pelham says the state is using its advertising dollars to let would-be visitors know about the quarantine rules, which are foreign to some in neighboring states.
“We know that those days have changed, so since then we have pivoted our entire marketing efforts to an educational stance on travel safety,” Pelham said.
The piece in the Wall Street Journal, while an invitation, focuses on the state’s safety measures.
The Outside Online piece starts with a warning that travel needs to adapt to the current reality, but quickly moves to the state’s attractions.
“Does that mean your adventure plans are canceled this winter? If you’re headed to Vermont, the answer is a resounding no,” the piece says. “If you’re cool with protecting yourself and Vermonters, then the winter adventuring will go on.”
The New York Magazine piece barely touches on the topic of Covid-19 precautions, saying only “Before you go, be sure to plan ahead and check the state’s latest COVID-19 travel restrictions, which require quarantine to travel there” before launching into a description of the “foodie haven” that awaits.

Since the pandemic began, Vermont officials, like many in other states, have been trying to tread a thin line between suppressing the infection rate and allowing businesses to survive. 
The state has consistently had the lowest infection rate, or among the lowest, in the nation. But it also closed hospitality businesses for months. Many of those businesses rely on tourism that has been suppressed by the state’s rules. 
In applications for the state’s emergency economic recovery grants, hospitality businesses showed average monthly losses of 96.6% at the height of the pandemic, state officials said in a report Aug. 17 to the Legislature — the highest of any sector of Vermont’s economy. Food service businesses reported average monthly losses of nearly 87%.
Lodging business owners have complained in the past that the state’s strict quarantine rules are sending the wrong message to visitors. Hans Van Wees, manager of the 125-room Hotel Vermont in Burlington, said the advertising makes sense.
“I see now as a time to invest in the Vermont brand and to continue to let the world know we’re a great place to visit, and a safe place,” he said. He added that in states with rising Covid-19 rates, workers and students might be staying home now, making it easier to quarantine and then travel to Vermont. “If you can quarantine right now, it’s very well worth a visit,” he said.
But he also doesn’t expect it to make much difference short-term.
“Is that going to fill all our beds?” he said. “No, by far.”

The Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing usually spends about $300,000 annually on winter tourism advertising. This year, the department got an extra $6.5 million for promotion from the state’s $1.25 billion share of the federal CARES Act, money that enables it to spend more than it ever has before — about $1 million. Pelham calls the more recent advertising “safety messaging.”
“We’re spending three times (the $300,000) making sure folks understand what the rules are,” she said.  Some of the promotion money has also gone to local organizations to market local attractions to Vermonters.
The state is also working with the Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, Food Network, HGTV and Outside TV for the first time ever, thanks to the CRF money.
“Our resources have never allowed us to target anywhere beyond our drive market,” Pelham said, and much of the advertising includes links to the state’s travel restrictions.

Pelham noted that visitors tend to plan ahead, so the messaging is intended to reach people who already have plans to travel. It’s also aimed at travelers planning for next summer or a year from now.
“It is important to not lose sight of the fact that there is a future for Vermont, beyond this pandemic,” Pelham said. “It’s our job to make sure the state is positioned so that when folks can freely travel, they will still consider Vermont as a destination. We’re planting the seed that ‘Hey, please come to Vermont someday.’”
Van Wees thinks the advertising might pay off in late winter, when he hopes the infection rate will slow enough for people to start visiting without quarantining.
“We might have a chance to see some travel return in the February vacation,” he said. 

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