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Destination San Diego

Protecting the region's tourism in times of war

No matter how you feel about the military conflict in Iraq, one thing is certain -- war is not good for the worldwide travel and tourism industry. Visitor destinations across the nation are struggling to attract leisure and business travelers, but with the world fixed on the images and thoughts of warfare, this is no easy task. Consumer confidence is weak, a sluggish economy is affecting the discretionary income levels of consumers, and feelings of insecurity and fear of flying have pervaded much of the travel market. These are definitely hard times for the visitor industry around the globe.

During times like these, creative target marketing is the only way to survive. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau realized that its "tried and true" sales and marketing plan -- highly successful when the world was at peace -- would have to be significantly altered to deal with the almost daily changes in the marketplace.

Recognizing the fact that people no longer wanted to travel long distances to reach a vacation destination, we concentrated our advertising efforts in our core markets, Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas. While potential travelers in these regions may not want to fly to Europe, Asia, or even to the East Coast, we assumed they would not hesitate to drive a few hours or take a short flight to San Diego for a holiday.

Our assumption was quite correct. Although San Diego tourism remained relatively flat in 2002, our hotel occupancy (68.4 percent) ranked third in the nation last year, behind New York City and Oahu Island, Hawaii, making it one of the nation's strongest lodging markets.

Now with yet a new challenge facing our nation and the travel and tourism industry -- war -- we are forced to look for new markets and opportunities to sell our region and its many amenities to the vacationers who, despite the war, will inevitably need to take a break to refresh their spirits. We want to make certain that San Diego is on the top of their minds when they start to think of a place to escape and spend a few carefree days. Ultimately, once the nation begins to understand the scope of what is at hand, people will begin to resume more of their normal routines. Consumers will remain cautious, but they will also want to escape, visit friends and family, and spend quality time with loved ones.

To that end, we have re-entered the Seattle market with our advertising efforts and have added, for the first time, the Texas (Dallas-Ft. Worth) market. Preliminary market research told us that Texans would be more than willing to fly up to three hours to reach a vacation destination. With several direct flight connections to Dallas, San Diego would be a convenient and logical travel destination.

To get more advertising bang for our buck, we've joined forces with several partners for co-op ad campaigns in our Western Region markets. These include a San Diego Magazine "Summer Guide" co-op advertising insert that will reach our regional markets and hot weather spot markets in the West; an Amtrak co-op in Los Angeles; a Family Attractions co-op in San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and on Travelocity; several other co-op campaigns with our attractions in markets throughout the West; and a San Diego-Anaheim promotion in Chicago.

While the leisure travel market continues to buoy our visitor industry in these tough times, it's no secret that the meetings market nationwide is at an all-time low. As a result, despite its excellent reputation among meeting planners, San Diego continues to feel the effects of this situation. Understandably, meeting planners are more cautious than ever when booking a meeting, since they cannot foresee how economic fluctuations or war developments will affect attendance and the number of room nights they will require. They are therefore waiting until the last minute to book space and rooms, in an effort to avoid cancellation fees or other charges that may arise if their situation changes.

Again, ConVis has taken a proactive marketing approach to this problem and has developed a creative offer aimed at sweetening the deal for corporate meeting planners. In cooperation with its members in the hotel and airlines industry, ConVis is reaching out to planners with its new San Diego Hassle-Free Meeting Guarantee. This plan offers meeting planners flexible terms and conditions, free meeting room rental, group discount airfares with American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, attractive room rates at 18 convention and conference properties throughout the region, and free daily continental breakfast or coffee break. As a further incentive to book San Diego, planners are offered prompt, personalized service with a four-hour turnaround on space and rate availability as well as a 24-hour turnaround on meeting contracts.

We're getting the word out about the sweet deal by running media spots in our target corporate meetings markets in California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Texas, as well as ads in national business publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Fast Company, Inc., Money and Business Week.

The ad includes a listing of each of the participating San Diego hotels and also an invitation to the meeting planner to call and speak with a dedicated ConVis sales contact. A special link on our Web site at www.sandiego.org is another means to reach the planners with this offer. Our goal is to save meeting planners time and money by taking the hassle out of planning a meeting, even under the worst of global circumstances.

To be sure, world peace is certainly the ideal state in which travel and tourism can flourish. But if this is not to be, at least for the time being, ConVis will continue to look for creative ways to stimulate leisure and business travel to our destination as part of our mission to protect tourism, our region's third largest industry. In the meantime, ConVis joins the rest of our community in praying for a speedy and successful end to this conflict and the safe return of our troops, a large percentage of whom are based in San Diego.

Reinders is president & CEO of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. E-mail him at reint.reinders@sddt.com.

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