ByMaggie Johnson, Gina M. Tynan
These days, American travelers are an astute crowd. They seek authentic experiences and want to learn new things when they travel, including how they can preserve and protect the local history and culture of the destinations visited. With the use of web sites and social media to plan their trips, travelers explore what can be found outside of theme parks and name-brand tourist destinations.
Over the last 10 years, the market for this kind of heritage tourism, or “geotourism,” has grown substantially and appears to be here to stay. It also has tremendous potential to put dollars in the pockets of small businesses throughout rural America. In West Tennessee, one regional partnership has found a way to tap into this “geotourist” market to reap community and economic development benefits for distressed rural counties through a program called West Tennessee Day Trippin’.
In late 2011, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development (TDTD) awarded Memphis Area Association of Governments (MAAG) a five-year, $159,250 Tourism Endowment Grant to develop and implement a regional tourism promotion plan to foster community and economic development. Award of the grant made MAAG the state’s regional tourism organization for Shelby, Fayette, Tipton and Lauderdale counties in southernmost West Tennessee.
The first order of business was to assemble a regional Tourism Advisory Board (TAB), made up of county-appointed representatives including staff from the local convention and visitors bureau, chamber of commerce and economic development organizations, as well as representatives from local sites, attractions and businesses. Next up? Come up with a good plan for promoting the region. Tourism netted $16.6 billion in revenue through direct expenditures in Tennessee in 2012; so, the ability to maintain and grow the industry is essential to the state’s economy.
From the start, MAAG’s TAB had the foresight to recognize that just developing another brochure was not the way to stand out. They wanted to develop a sustainable brand for the region that would be recognizable and viable for many years. While Memphis is the region’s primary attraction (visitors from across the globe come each year to visit Graceland, Beale Street and events like the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest), the TAB wanted to find a way to capture the attention of visitors, extend stays in Memphis and spread the economic benefits of tourism throughout the region.
With this goal in mind, the West Tennessee Day Trippin’ marketing campaign was born. The campaign aims to support small and emerging local businesses and encourage entrepreneurship in rural counties by increasing both visitor trips and travel-generated revenue to these counties through the promotion of day trips originating from Memphis.
Supported through funding from the TDTD and MAAG’s member governments, the West Tennessee Day Trippin’ video series was officially launched in February 2013. These broadcast-quality ads highlight unique places and events within the MAAG region and utilize online media and video, the fastest-growing direct marketing delivery method. Each of the four videos highlights a single county and features the mayors of Shelby, Fayette and Lauderdale counties and the executive director of the Covington-Tipton County Chamber. The videos are currently televised through public broadcasting and local community access stations in Memphis, and can be seen as public service announcements within the Flinn Broadcasting Corp. network that crosses state boundaries. The videos are promoted through both print and online media promotions, including MAAG’s web site, YouTube channel and social media. They are also featured on the web sites of the regional chambers and local businesses.
Developed on a shoestring budget and as a result of outstanding partnership and participation extending across county lines, the West Tennessee Day Trippin’ video series brought international attention to the region and has received several awards, including the Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts’ 2013 Communicator Award of Distinction for online video selections promoting travel, the Bronze Telly Award for outstanding achievement in online video and the Innovation Award from the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO), which acknowledges creative approaches to regional community and economic development throughout the nation.
Organization of the TAB has also provided an outlet for tourism and economic development professionals to share ideas, leverage funding opportunities and cooperate in new ways that reduce competition among sites and share the benefits of increased regional visitor counts. One example of this is the West Tennessee Heritage and “Roots” Day Trippin’ Bus Tours, which took place in February 2014. These tours were cooperatively developed with MAAG, Heritage Tours and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center in Henning, Tenn., and the chambers of commerce in rural Tipton and Lauderdale counties. The tours highlighted the cultural and literary heritage of West Tennessee as part of the region’s celebration of Black History Month. Originating in Memphis (Shelby County), the bus trips took visitors to important sites in African-American history, with stops in Henning and the Ripley Historic Downtown District in Lauderdale County, and an outing on the Covington Town Square in Tipton County. During the month of February, the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center saw a 70 percent increase in visitation, which continues to rise.
With the success of the West Tennessee Heritage and “Roots” Day Trippin’ Bus Tours, MAAG and Heritage Tours partnered again to develop three new West Tennessee themed tours: Antebellum Homes, Civil War, and Blues and “Roots.” Again, these tours begin in Memphis and take visitors to LaGrange (a large collection of antebellum architecture), Fort Pillow and Randolph (two important Civil War sites), and the Alex Haley site along with the stomping grounds of the blues in Covington.
More than 25 distinctive attractions and events are currently featured in the West Tennessee Day Trippin’ videos, representing more than 80 regional jobs. Retailers across the region and at the Fort Pillow State Historic Park have documented a rise in visitors since implementation of the West Tennessee Day Trippin’ campaign.
Based on its successes to date, MAAG was awarded additional grants ($20,000 each) from the TDTD and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to expand the program. In 2014, the campaign increased its print and online media marketing, developed and produced new and updated content for its video series, and launched a dedicated West Tennessee Day Trippin’ web site to promote tourism and to sustain the brand as a recognizable regional marketing campaign. With the additional funds, MAAG was able to place ads at the Memphis-Shelby County International Airport—the first time these rural communities have been featured there. The ads can also be seen in several magazines (Group Tours, American Roads, Memphis Downtowner, Vacations) and at the Memphis area visitors’ centers.