Howard County Tourism & Promotion’s (HCTP) board of directors, composed of business and community leaders together with Tourism’s team of marketing professionals, are moving Howard County forward as a weekend destination and smart choice for corporate travelers. HCTP works with its promotional partners, county government and the Maryland Office of Tourism Development to be an active part of increasing tourism expenditures.
According to the most recent 2014 statistics for the county, the tourism industry employed 10,000, and the total direct consumer tax impact totaled $23,879,334 (up from $22,656,411): from the admissions and amusements taxes, $2,812,488 (up from $2,214,540); room taxes, $4,587,835 (up from $4,404,564); and comptroller-designated Tourism Promotion Act sales taxes, $16,479,011 (up from $16,037,307).
For the first nine months of fiscal year (FY) 15 (July 1, 2014–March 30, 2015), Howard County’s tourism sales tax revenue (admissions/amusements taxes, rooms taxes and comptroller-designated Tourism Promotion Act sales taxes) is $13,084,658, up 11.3% from $11,760,540 in the same time frame in FY14.
Howard County is ideally located to capture primary market access from more than 25% of the nation’s population base. The primary market is generally described as the 200-mile radius from the geographic center of the county, but is principally within the mid-Atlantic states and District of Columbia.
Signature destination events, outdoor recreation, outdoor concerts and upscale shopping are important to these customers. While escaping urban areas and visiting friends and family are major motivations, there is continued potential to convert day-trippers to weekenders by packaging events and attractions.
A portion of HCTP’s secondary marketing effort is focused on county residents, making them aware of the many sites and events available.
The media campaign for FY15 included more than 100 media placements. Many of these purchases were made possible by the Maryland Tourism Development Board grant program.
They highlight Howard County’s unique attractions and businesses to the niche audiences of regional publications. AAA World, Southern Living and Meredith (Better Homes & Gardens, MORE, Family Circle, Traditional Home) magazines delivered the best results, with thousands of direct requests for the Visitor + Resident Guide from readers.
Television campaigns on Comcast and Maryland Public Television were developed to promote winter and summer Restaurant Weeks, ghost tours, golf attractions and that “every season there’s a reason to visit Howard County!” New online campaigns with TripAdvisor and ongoing campaigns on WashingtonPost.com bring significant web site visitation.
HCTP also ramped up its social media usage, with nearly 5,000 “likes” on Facebook and more than 4,000 followers on Twitter. HCTP routinely boosts its posts; buys ads on Facebook; and is active in Pinterest, LinkedIn and Instagram.
Media Relations & Film Office
HCTP placed media hits at local, regional, national and international media outlets. Every major promotion is previewed or reviewed by the media, giving credible third-party endorsement of the activities. Of note was Ellicott City being named a top weekend getaway for “history sprees” and shopping in The Washington Post newspaper. WJZ and News8 also featured live interviews and cooking demonstrations for Restaurant Weeks.
These media successes are the result of HCTP’s dedication to cultivate trusting relationships with journalists, bloggers and broadcasters. The public relations value of these media hits translates into thousands of dollars that did not need to be spent on advertising.
HCTP is regularly quoted in local papers as being expert in tourism with a pro-business message. Its ongoing partnership with CRUSA (Capitol Region USA), Visit Baltimore, Destination DC and the Maryland Office of Tourism resulted in several traditional media and blogger familiarization tour (FAM) visits and the media events.
HCTP works in partnership with the Maryland Film Office and assists with location sites and other needs of filmmakers. In addition to working with HBO’s “VEEP,” HCTP provided location and local assistance to HGTV, Discovery, SyFy and other local productions for television commercials.
Clever marketing, social shopping promotions and online ticketing continue to bring successes to “Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City” ghost tours (also available to the deaf community); and “Spirits of Ellicott City” (a haunted pub crawl.)
These and the elementary school heritage tours bring thousands of visitors to Ellicott City, who return to shop and dine. Ellicott City was named one of the spookiest towns in the U.S. by TripAdvisor.
In FY2015, more than 30,000 persons stopped in the Howard County Welcome Center (from all 50 states, 34 countries and all three U.S. territories), located in Historic Ellicott City.
The Welcome Center in Historic Savage Mill transitioned from being staffed on weekends to being a self-serve visitor “lounge” with comfortable seating and an interactive touch-screen display available every day of the year. This center was made possible by the generosity of the owners of the mill and additional grant funding from the Star Spangled 200/Bicentennial Commemoration of the War of 1812.
HCTP’s red pop-up tent “Welcome Center On The Go” allows the team to meet-and-greet visitors at all major events in Howard County. HCTP also staffs the Howard County Fair with a booth in the main exhibit hall.
HCTP participated in appointment-style tradeshows and sales missions to grow the county’s meetings business. The Maryland Office of Tourism’s marketing grant funding, in addition to cooperative booth-sharing with Destination DC and Howard County hotels, allowed HCTP to stretch its marketing dollars at regional tradeshows. A glossy, fold-out Meeting/Events Planning Kit, new sales collateral and a new tradeshow booth display were introduced this year.
The creation of Capital Connection, a destination sales partnership with Montgomery, Washington, Frederick and Prince George’s counties, allows the partners to collaboratively market meetings in Maryland to planners interested in an affordable option to Washington, D.C. HCTP invested in Cvent and ConventionPlanIT to enhance its sales lead generation to better connect county hoteliers with qualified planners.
HCTP meets every other month with hoteliers and other businesses interested in group sales. It sent out leads generated from tradeshows, sales missions, Cvent and Conventionplanit and hosted planners on site visits.
HCTP, as part of the Maryland Association of Destination Marketing Organizations, again partnered with the Maryland Office of Tourism Development to commission a comprehensive analysis by Oxford Economics. This study culled out tourism statistics on how much the average day-tripper and weekender spent per county, as well as where and how they are spending their dollars.
HCTP is the host organization of the successful summer and winter Restaurant Weeks; the summer promotion is co-hosted with the Howard County Economic Development Authority and the winter with the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. With nearly 30 restaurant partners, HCTP manages the culinary promotions, creates all collateral materials and directs the publicity activities for each.
Ongoing seasonal promotions (via paid and earned media plus social media) included The Great Indoors, February Bromance, March Gladness, Pink Plate Specials, Spring Flower Power, Summer Arts Al Fresco, Family Haycations, Girlfriend Gift Shopping Getaways and Holiday Hoopla.
New this year was the Great Golf Giveaway, a month-long promotion during May of all 10 county golf attractions, from putt-putt to the pros, with weekly giveaways of foursomes, pro shop gift cards and Restaurant Association of Maryland dining cards as incentives for golfers to play multiple courses. Cooperative media placement in AAA World, Destination Maryland, the Golf channel and ESPN via Comcast, coupled with “Golf with Klug” radio buys on The Bay and significant social media push, resulted in an increase in golfers to the county.
Of significance was the launch of HowardOnTap, Maryland first craft beer trail app and HCTP’s first transition from developing award-winning traditional to digital product (see cover story).
Visitors + Residents Guide & Web Site
In January, HCTP again partnered with Custom Media Options to publish The Official Visitors + Residents Guide to Howard County, adding a “Residents” resource area and growing the magazine to 92 pages. The HCTP team authored editorial, coupled with photos highlighting the county’s historic districts and modern amenities. The well-received over-story is the “Take a Hike (bring your bike!)” highlighting all the outdoor leisure locations, and the Dock-to-Dish Question & Answer article, with chefs celebrating Chesapeake Bay favorites.
Feature stories identified Columbia/Ellicott City as one of the Top 10 “America’s Best Places to Live” according to Money magazine, and for Pet Lovers according to U.S. News & World Report. New was a story capturing the trend of thrifting and antiquing to find vintage clothing and home décor not only at Savage Mill and on Ellicott City’s Main Street, but off the beaten path at one-of-a-kind retailers.
HCTP entered into an agreement with Oracle/MICROs eCommerce to optimize its award-winning web site’s performance for each seasonal promotion. The web site saw 140,064 unique visitors in FY15 and 408,582 page views. Satellite sites such as HowardCountyRestaurantWeek.com have seen more than 22,000 unique visitors.
Also introduced this year was seasonal consumer e-news highlighting local events plus shopping, dining, sightseeing and lodging offerings that, in addition to its opt-in readership, is sent to attendees of major county sporting events and festivals.
HCTP takes an active role in promoting sporting events that generate significant overnight visits by out-of-state athletes. It also supports the activities of Elite Tournaments, which produces and hosts many weekend soccer tournaments in Howard County, with a two-night minimum stay for out-of-state families.
It is an official partner in Team Maryland offered by Maryland Sports/Maryland Stadium Authority, which worked NASC, one of the nation’s largest sports marketing tradeshows, and S.P.O.R.T.S., letting sports event planners know that “Maryland Is Here to Play!”
As a not-for-profit, partnership-based organization (501[c]), HCTP represents nearly 200 marketing partners across Howard County, mostly independent businesses. In FY15 partnership retention and renewal numbers are up to 92%, and new partner referrals from present partners are up, as well.
In addition to its Annual Meeting & Luncheon, HCTP hosted a variety of free seasonal networking events for its partnership and introduced a spring launch party for the Visitor + Resident Guide and an open house for partners to tour the Welcome Center.
In FY15, HCTP welcomed Tiffany Ahalt as its new chief operations officer, and promoted Sarah Kurtanich from sales coordinator to digital marketing manager and Bridget Graham from Welcome Center co-manager to solo Welcome Center manager. Retiring this year were Kim Phillips, former Welcome Center co-manager, and Taffy Rice, former director of sales.
HCTP is actively interviewing for its new destination sales & marketing coordinator to assist both the CEO and COO.
Having Fun Is Serious Business
Tourism is a vital industry to Howard County’s economic health and the well-being of its citizens. Visitors and residents are encouraged to indulge in Howard County’s many amenities and weekend offerings and, as HCTP says: “Imagine It! Dream It and Experience It — This Is It — Howard County!”
And yes, you are an active part of HCTP: When your friends and family enjoy restaurant weeks, play a round of golf, get pampered at a spa or rock out at Merriweather, plan a wedding or family reunion, or take your annual pilgrimage to the pumpkin patch, say to one another, “Having fun is serious business!”
Rachelina Bonacci is CEO of Howard County Tourism & Promotion. She can be reached at 410-313-1439.