Harrisonburg looks to reboot tourism interest by luring conferences, events

Screenshot of an advertisement in ConventionSouth promoting Harrisonburg as a good location to host your next conference.

By Eric Gorton, Contributor

Located close to Shenandoah National Park and other outdoor attractions, and boasting a plethora of dining, shopping, entertainment and lodging options, Harrisonburg has a lot to offer tourists.

However, even with all of that going for it, the city’s relatively small size could be its biggest asset as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, said Jennifer Bell, Harrisonburg’s tourism manager since July 2019.

“A lot of people don’t want the big city destinations right now,” Bell said. “They want a smaller destination where there is more open space, that is a little safer, a little cleaner, a little healthier.”

With that in mind, Bell has been putting more effort into getting advertising in front of conference and event planners. Since October she has purchased four full-page color ads in Small Market Meetings magazine, a full-page color ad in the wedding edition of Virginia Living magazine, a full-page ad in ConventionSouth Magazine and an assortment of digital advertising across various platforms.

Harrisonburg was promoted as “Small Market of the Month” in ConventionSouth in April, where readers were told, “If you have been searching for friendly people, a cool small town with a local food ethos, and one of the best hubs for outdoor recreation, look no further than Harrisonburg. Vibrant, modern, and diverse, Harrisonburg, Va. boasts a happening atmosphere infused with a serious passion for local food and libations, cutting-edge arts and culture, and the historic roots that anchor it to the famous Shenandoah Valley landscape.”

The ad cost $3,000.

Bell has considered other options, including airline magazines and airports, but their high prices and relatively targeted audiences did not make as much sense, Bell said.

“You are picking one airline and you’re getting on a very specific flight route, a certain area,” she said. If you had an unlimited budget, I would love to do it.”

The city has an $86,000 budget for marketing this year, which is in line with what it has been since Bell has been in the position, she said. She has been able to supplement the budget with $100,000 in grants.

In November, she received a $20,000 Recovery Marketing Leverage Program grant from the Virginia Tourism Corporation to combine with local dollars to attract more visitors.

When the city attracts conferences and events, “we’re able to get a bigger group of people with our marketing efforts,” Bell said.

Harrisonburg has more than 21 lodging facilities with more than 2,100 rooms and three more expected to open in 2021, Bell said in a November press release announcing the VTC grant.

In addition to advertising with outside vendors, Bell has worked with some of the city’s hotels and attractions to design a new marketing piece targeting conference and event planners.

The city has also advertised in Small Market

A win for the city this year, Bell said, was a regional meeting last week for the motorcoach associations of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Held at Hotel Madison, the meeting brought tour and motorcoach operators who may consider adding Harrisonburg as a destination for their tour groups.

“Being able to expose Harrisonburg to many of them who had never been here was a great opportunity to attract future groups,” she said.

Since a lot of conferences and events are planned at least a year in advance, the payoff for Bell’s efforts since the fall could be realized later in the year.

“We want to get out in front of those planners as they start to make decisions on where to go,” Bell said, explaining that she also meets with conference and event planners and connects them with venues for tours.

The city continues to target other types of tourists and has run ads in Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, which highlights the area’s outdoor recreation and bicycling options.

“It appeals very much to the crowd that likes to patronize our craft breweries, so that ties in nicely as well,” said Bell, who also recently did some advertising with Northern Virginia Magazine, a good option for highlighting Harrisonburg’s culinary attractions.

Going forward, Bell said she plans to continue increased efforts to attract conferences and events and to spend more of the budget on digital advertising then print.

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