Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

Seven county tourism coalition a leader in regional marketing

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

In a time and place where regionalism is an all too common buzzword, Porter County residents may be surprised to find out that their county’s convention and visitor bureau is already part of one of the nation’s most acclaimed partnerships for regional development.

For the past twenty years, the Northern Indiana Tourism Development Commission has been carrying out efforts to lower program costs, enhance destination development and products, integrate research in strategic business planning, and spur economic growth for Porter and six other partnering counties: LaPorte, St. Joseph, Marshall, Elkhart, Kosciusko, and LaGrange.

Past members also included Lake and Steuben counties which went their own ways in the mid-1990s.

In recent years, Lake County has attempted to merge with Porter and LaPorte Counties, but has met strong resistance from Porter County commissioners and tourism officials.

With a kind of “if it ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” view, Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitors Commission Executive Director Lorelei Weimer believes that NITDC is a positive and healthy regional organization that clearly focuses on creating strong partnerships and collaboration.

“Porter and LaPorte County Convention and Visitor Bureaus believe strongly in regionalism and we have a strong track record in regionalism with our efforts with Northern Indiana Tourism Development Commission,” said Weimer.

NITDC Executive Director Dan Bearss recently shared with the Chesterton Tribune results from a study commissioned by Purdue University of 20 regional tourism commissions across the nation. Researchers ranked the NITDC one of the top three most effective regional destination marketing organizations in the national survey and number one in the state.

“…(analyses) indicate NITDC demonstrating high superiority in destination planning, brand development and conversion and marketing programming economic returns. NITDC is clearly one of the better travel marketing and sales cooperatives in America,” the statement from Purdue said.

Bearss said the organization began taking shape in 1989 when county visitor bureaus collaborated with the Indiana Toll Road division of the Indiana Department of Transportation to help manage the ten travel plazas located along Interstates 80 and 90 for INDOT and in return, be able to market their county’s tourist destinations.

Diana Lawson, executive director of Elkhart County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said instead of competing against each other, the counties decided to partner into one organization to help each CVB leverage the financial ability to market their destinations, and by doing so, compete against other Midwest destinations.

Bearss said travelers on the interstate between Illinois and Ohio care very little about state or county borders and are looking for destinations that offer a variety of experiences. The organization works as one unit to bring those travelers into the communities, whether it’s the Dunes in Porter, the University of Notre Dame in St. Joseph, the Blue Chip Casino in LaPorte, or Amish Acres in Elkhart.

“Our motto is ‘Doing together those things we cannot better do as an individual CVB,’” said Bearss.

Sharing Means Saving

The individual visitor bureaus pay an annual buy-in of $35,000 for membership and cooperative marketing programs. There is also a component where private sector groups can buy into the program with their advertising dollars. The group also receives support from the Indiana Tourism Division.

The pool of resources allows the NITDC groups to form a common brand or campaign to afford being a collective presence in expensive media markets like Chicago or Indianapolis where it would be close to impossible for individual CVBs to market on their own.

From this partnership, members are able to get about $200,000 worth of exposure just by buying in annually.

Under this one campaign, each member leverages about 50 times their investment and makes over $1,700,000 in advertising placements possible in publications such as Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Travel Section and Midwest Living, a bi-monthly magazine that reaches approximately 4 million readers.

“We are getting that much value because we have the clout of all of us working together,” said Bearss. “It’s just the smartest way to spend their marketing dollars.”

Having a strong regional brand, Bearss said, is instrumental in catching the eye of the large population sites that form a triangle around Northern Indiana: Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis. Thirty-two million people live within a three-hour drive of Northern Indiana; 11.1 million live in Chicago.

Arts and Earth and Beyond

Apart from managing toll road travel plazas and marketing, NITDC added a new feature to its list of accomplishments.

In June, the organization launched its one-of-a-kind Arts and Earth Trail that connects all seven partnering counties. The trail loops highlight a total of 150 individual businesses including artisan shops, restaurants, outdoor and indoor markets, -- all elements of a trend called “agritourism.”

Bearss said it is very likely the trail will keep growing due to its “enormous” success of creating those partnerships with businesses on the trail that have seen tremendous interest, sixteen of which are on the Porter County/Indiana Dunes Loop.

NITDC is now on the brink of jumping into its next phase of launching its own regional Web site that will instantly plug in with each individual CVB’s subsite. Although all eight of the sites will be connected to the same database, each will have their own unique look and domain names.

Bearss again echoed that the CVBs were able to acquire these state-of-the-art capabilities due to their leveraging power in their memberships with NITDC, otherwise the endeavor would have cost them well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The sites are currently being finalized by the Canadian-based VERB Interactive, a company highly skilled in internet marketing for tourism-based clients. Each individual site will now have 70 percent more tools on the site. The sites will be increasingly more interactive for the visitor, quickly navigating them to find the information they need.

“We’re going to be light years ahead of other folks,” said Jack Arnett, executive director of LaPorte County Visitor Bureau.

Respect Equals Success

Weimer, who is also the current president of the NITDC board and has been for the last five years, said there is a family-like component in the partnership that has been able to foster success because of that level of respect.

Weimer said consultants that work with the unit tend to be amazed at how a seven-partner organization can sustain such a relationship. She said that partnerships cannot be forced and that each individual CVB has equal power with the rest of the group.

Working towards the same goal, the group is able to come forward about the problems they see and can work them out with the group.

Weimer said allowing partners to come together to work out solutions they cannot do on their own embodies the concept of regionalism.

“People who truly believe in regionalism work towards creating positive, collaborative efforts with their partners. Forced mergers and takeovers don't mean regionalism. They are the opposite of regionalism and actually hurt regional efforts by all the negativity that is associated with them,” said Weimer.

Bearss said that the NITDC is there to serve the CVBs and not the other way around.

“They collectively determine every single thing we do with all the marketing and the other things in our strategic business plan,” said Bearss. “It’s a great business model that saves every one of our CVBs a ton of money every year.”

Bearss said travelers who participate in NITDC programs have about a 90 percent return rate. He said the people value the service NITDC provides and want the organization to develop new programs.

 

 

Posted 9/15/2010

 

 

 

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