For ski towns, a plan to boost summer economy
The hills of Mount Snow, bare of skiers on a sunny fall day. The Deerfield Valley is looking at a five-year marketing plan to attract visitors during the summer months to improve the region’s year-round economic health.

For ski towns, a plan to boost summer economy

Dover and Wilmington selectboards receive consultants’ five-year marketing plan as towns look to re-establish the Deerfield Valley’s foothold as a spring and summer vacation destination

A consultant from a Virginia-based marketing and advertising firm has presented a new branding strategy for the Deerfield Valley region - “the Foothold of the Green Mountains” - as part of a five-year strategic marketing plan.

“A foothold suggests that it's a secure position from which progress can be made,” Julie Garel, chief curiosity officer with Charrette Agency, told members of the Dover and Wilmington selectboards as the firm recommended the tagline at least as a “placeholder.”

“It is, in fact, your geography - you are the first important point for visitors when they're driving to Vermont,” she added. “It's a geographic advantage, a competitive advantage; you're closer to get to than most of your competitors.”

Garel said the proposed tagline - if adopted by the committee and ultimately the selectboards of both towns - combines a sense of serenity and balance with the cachet associated with the words “Vermont” and “Green Mountains” already carry with many of the people with whom consultants with the firm spoke.

The goal of the marketing plan, estimated to cost the towns $1,111,650 over five years, is to develop the valley's identity and keep the story attached to that identity - or brand - at the front of travelers' minds as an April-through-August destination, consultants said during the online meeting.

The spring and summer months comprise what is traditionally the valley's slower tourist season, compared to the winter months when the area's ski economy kicks into overdrive.

State meals and rooms taxes from both towns in 2019 - pre-pandemic - show an almost 40-percent decline in such economic activity between January through March and July through September.

In comparison, hospitality tax receipts in the summer months for all of Windham County declined by 20 percent when comparing the same three-month blocks of time - and, when both Dover and Wilmington are removed, the other Windham County towns' tourist economies differed by 15 percent.

Good marketing will also hook people earlier in the vacation-planning process, consultants told the board members during the joint meeting to hear Charrette's presentation on Jan. 12.

According to Gretchen Havreluk, Wilmington economic development consultant, the strategic plan is a priority for the marketing effort of the two communities' Bi-Town Economic Development Committee.

Dover and Wilmington formed the committee approximately a decade ago as a way for the two towns to pool their resources.

Last June, the two boards approved a $71,500 work plan - each town contributing equally - that included $25,000 to hire a consultant. In the fall, the towns chose Charrette from 11 firms who responded to a request for proposals.

Soon, the committee will release another RFP, this one for creating videos and photographs to showcase the area in the summer.

Havreluk noted that last summer, the committee had spent the $30,250 approved in the work plan for digital marketing.

A rebranding process, which will include new street banners, has already been on the committee's work plan as part of the overall strategy, she said.

Who's coming to visit?

Charrette's own branding bills the company as “a marketing forum,” and its website describes the firm's process as rooted in the planning process for which it is named.

Its marketing materials define a design charrette as “an intensive, communications planning approach wherein citizens, designers and stakeholders collaborate on a vision for the development of a project, providing a forum for ideas, inspiration, debate, and ultimately, consensus.”

As part of its research, Charrette staff conducted interviews and compared the valley's marketing materials - like advertising, brochures, social media, and websites - to marketing tools of other New England communities.

Garel told the board that while Wilmington and Dover have many of the features that travelers want or expect in a Vermont or New England vacation, the area's marketing materials aren't reaching the people most likely to visit the valley.

“The bi-town area feels like a well-kept secret,” she said.

To attract these visitors, the valley needs to speak in their language, Garel explained.

“These are sophisticated consumers,” she said. “All of us, and those consumers in particular, are highly experienced in dealing with technology across retail categories, not just in their travel planning.”

Garel added that many of these travelers also expect a high level of service, including personalized algorithms “to serve them what they didn't already know they needed,” packages to arrive the next day, and easy reservation bookings.

The company has also profiled and nicknamed three types of travelers - “Three Generations and a Dog,” “The Shippies,” and “The Adventurer” - most likely to be attracted to the area as potential visitors around whom the marketing plan should be sculpted, said Amanda Carter, Charrette's chief relationship officer.

The plan created profiles for the three groups based on what they're looking for, who makes the decisions, and how much money their household has.

• Three Generations and a Dog: A multi-generational family traveling together, often with a pet. In general, women between the ages of 25 and 54 are the decision-makers for the group. The marketing would target families with a household income of at least $100,000.

“That active multi-generational family searches for experiences that are going to allow them to relax, reconnect, and share togetherness - something for everyone,” Carter said.

• The Shippies: Groups of friends between ages of 25 and 54, without kids and traveling together. The household incomes of the people in this group would be at least around $75,000.

“They're looking to strengthen their relationships or friendships in a drivable regional destination that's going to allow them to have change of pace from that hyper-connected new normal that we're all sort of living,” Carter said.

• The Adventurer: Solo travelers, usually men between the ages of 18 and 34, with a household income of $50,000. These visitors want outdoor activities.

“They want to enjoy those outdoor activities, hiking, mountain biking, endurance, cars country, water sports, you name it,” Carter said.

Charrette's marketing plan aims not only to target these people but also to hook them earlier in their trip-planning process, she said.

What's the plan?

To make the plan a reality, the Bi-Town Committee needs to complete three steps, Garel told the boards, whose members mostly listened to the consultants, breaking in only to ask clarifying questions.

First, because the plan calls for too many tasks for a staff member, volunteer, or board member to tackle in their spare time, she said that a dedicated staff person will need to oversee the plan's implementation.

Next, this staff person must shepherd the valley's campaign, she said. Its important that all the marketing images, tone, and communication be constant and high-quality.

Finally, the marketing plan needs funding, Garel said. If the Dover and Wilmington boards adopt the five-year plan, they could expect to spend $161,000 in the first year.

By year five, the annual cost would rise to $273,610, with a presumption that a successful regional marketing campaign will consume more resources for future growth.

To achieve most of what Charrette suggested will require multiple updates to the valley's current marketing tools - for example, a website redesign, the addition of more videos and photographs, establishing an active social-media presence, and more positive coverage from national media outlets.

Eventually, the consultants suggested, the valley would also benefit from a more-integrated events and weddings platform.

The consultants said that outreach materials should highlight everyone in the valley who is able to work on such events. For weddings, such a promotion would cover every need, including caterers, planners, officiants, and venues.

It should also be simple to book everyone from one website, they added.

Rich Santos, senior vice president for digital at Media Works, Ltd., which collaborates with Charrette, walked the board members through the recommended media plan.

His suggestions included creating an active social media campaign on established sites such as Facebook and Instagram. But he also suggested that the valley promote itself through influencers - users of such platforms who have attracted huge followings and who can be paid to promote a product, service or, in this case, a region to visit.

'It's all fluid'

Carter explained that year one would serve as a planning year. Most staff time would focus on establishing the infrastructure in order to fully launch the marketing initiatives in year two.

Given the ongoing pandemic and its impact on the hospitality industry, a year to establish infrastructure and to plan rather than actively recruit travelers might work in the valley's favor, she said.

Garel added that Charrette didn't expect the committee and the two towns to tackle all the recommendations at once.

“It's all fluid,” she said.

The Bi-Town Committee will follow up Charrette's presentation with recommendations to both selectboards in late February or early March, Havreluck said.

In the meantime, she added, the committee is working on a blogging policy and content list.

“If anyone is interested in blogging, we'd love to talk with them,” she said.

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