By Ann Meyer
As a marketing consultant to the destination travel industry for more than a decade, Robin Malpass watched as Midwest tourism bureaus and resorts struggled to attract attention in a tough economy.
She knew the Midwest was often overlooked as a destination for travelers. “People often dismiss it,” Malpass says. “People think you have to get on a plane to see anything fun or interesting, but that’s not true.”
To address both challenges, Malpass launched BestMidwestTravel.com a year ago. The site offers trip ideas, information on special deals and events as well as related blog and social media content. To make it work financially, Malpass pitched the tourism bureaus on the concept of collaborating by becoming sponsors of the site. In return, besides mentions on the website, the company would pool the funds the sponsors provided and buy ad space in media outlets that they couldn’t afford on their own. The sponsors also would get access to the site’s permission-based e-mail list.
Economy’s downshift a double whammy
Malpass saw a need for a collaborative approach partly because the downshift in the economy has meant less hotel and travel taxes are being collected and disbursed to tourism bureaus at the same time that consumers are looking for more affordable destinations closer to home. By helping the agencies spread the word about local attractions, the site also would be helping consumers with their travel planning.
“We’re constantly trying to get the name out there,” says Robert Navarro, executive director of the Heritage Corridor Convention & Visitors Bureau in Romeoville, which is a sponsor of BestMidwestTravel.com. “Any time we can reach the visitor through the back door…that’s making a connection for us.” Few travelers search for the Heritage Corridor bureau by name because they don’t know it exists, Navarro says. By being part of a cooperative effort, the organization can gain awareness at a reasonable cost, he says.
Users to the site often aren’t aware that some of the content is provided by travel bureaus because the site doesn’t disclose the source of its content. Aside from a few ads, such as one promoting VisitGalena.org on the home page, the site doesn’t announce its sponsors, so users don’t know which content has been supplied by a tourism agency and which is written independently. “Most of the content is client-supplied,” Malpass says.
Some say that raises an ethical question. “Any time you have people providing information, it should be declared,” says Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair professor at the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. “I’m fine with the tourism bureau providing information. I just want to know where it came from.”
The issue isn’t new. As the number of bloggers attempting to make a living by accepting payment or freebies from companies they wrote about accelerated, the Federal Trade Commission in October 2009, clarified the rules on advertising disclosure to include blogs. At that time, the FTC referred to “the long standing principle that `material connections’ (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers “ connections that consumers would not expect “ must be disclosed.”
Providing full disclosure about the source of online content allows the reader to make their own decision about the information, Banaszynski says. “I applaud these people who are trying to make a living, but I want some transparency about where their information came from,” she says.
While readers of a travel guide published by a single state or regional tourism bureau know as soon as they pick it up that it is promotional in nature, websites or publications put out by independents generally are assumed to be informational. “If a journalism is presenting themselves as a credible site, then I’m counting on them to vet that information or at least tell me where it comes from,” Banaszynski says.
Malpass says she wasn’t aware of the rules on disclosure. She simply wanted to give the tourism bureaus more bang for their marketing dollar than they could accomplish on their own. “I was really looking for a way to help my clients reach more of the market and with less money,” Malpass says. After a phone call with a reporter to verify that some content on the side was supplied by sponsors without disclosure, Malpass said she intended to publish a notice on the home page disclosing that fact.
Besides funding the site, Malpass says, sponsor revenue goes toward cooperative marketing programs, including social media and advertising in news media in major markets. The Paducah, Ky., Convention & Visitors Bureau, which paid $5,000 to be a sponsor from May 15 to Nov. 15, says BestMidwestTravel has made Paducah a featured destination and offered to publish three travel itineraries on the area as well as its events. It also has re-tweeted the bureau’s Twitter communications for more awareness, says Rosemarie Steele, marketing director at the bureau. “We’re seeing people coming to our website as a result of it,” Steele says.
Levels of sponsorship
BestMidwestTravel.com tried offering two levels of sponsorship at $5,000 and $15,000 for the summer season, but no one bought the more expensive offering this year, Malpass says. At the $5,000 level, sponsors are granted access to the site to post events and travel deals using their own copy and photographs.
Content from or about sponsors also might be mentioned in blog posts and an eNewsletter sent to users who sign up for it. Malpass also shares e-mail addresses of those users ho have agreed to receive information from the site’s partners. In June, that amounted to a list of 1,100 addresses. At the higher level, sponsors would have received “more real estate in all of our P.R.,” Malpass says, including blog posts, Facebook posts, Tweets, banner ads on the website and mentions in the site’s eNewsletter.
Regardless of whether an item was obtained from a sponsor, “We try to make it helpful content,” Malpass says. “All of our clients have things that are interesting,” says Malpass, who says the site’s startup costs were “in the six-figure range.” She has a team of 10 who work on the site and social media. In addition, sales reps in seven states target travel bureaus, resorts and destinations.
Providing readers with recommendation from a local tourism bureau is acceptable if they’re informed of that fact, Banaszynski says. But BestMidwestTravel.com generally doesn’t use bylines or credit the source of the information on the site unless clients request it, Malpass says. “We don’t distinguish between paid or unpaid (content),” Malpass says. “A lot of the content is unpaid.” But even unpaid content can be promotional in nature.
The home page of BestMidwestTravel.com offers a featured video describing the Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal. At the end of the video, users learn the Bloomington Normal Area Convention and Tourism Bureau provided it.