Tourism’s new markets |

Tourism’s new markets

John Seelmeyer

The marching orders to the Reno Sparks Convention & Visitor’s Authority, marketing chief Michael Thomas says, can be summed up in two words:

“Grow visitation.”

A new study of the northern California markets that account for about 40 percent of the visitors to the Reno area strongly suggests, however, that the growth in visitors is unlikely to come among folks looking for gaming.

Those consumers know the casinos are here, and they are coming to Reno at least a few times a year, finds the study by EMC Research Inc. of Oakland.

The greater opportunity to grow tourism, the study suggests, may be among Northern Californians who are looking for a getaway but don’t necessarily think of Reno as a fun and accessible place to spend a few days.

The telephone survey conducted in late August marked the first effort by RSCVA in eight years to develop information about the area it considers its core market the Interstate 80 corridor through California, along with the Central Valley as far south as Fresno. EMC says the margin of error in the results is 2 percent.

A similar study of tourists from so-called “fly markets” those outside driving distance is expected to be completed within the next month or so by the Regional Marketing Committee, a group that seeks to increase air service.

Among the key findings of the study commissioned by RSCVA: About 20 percent of Northern Californians say that gaming is important to them when they plan a vacation. Far more important are cultural activities, sight-seeing, outdoor activities and shows and events.

That suggests, Thomas says, a subtle shift in the marketing pitch by RSCVA as well as hotels, casinos and others who woo visitors.

“What will we lead with as we market the region?” he asks. “Gaming probably isn’t our primary lead.”

Visitors who have been to Reno within the past couple of years have an overwhelmingly positive impression 80 percent favorable of the city.

“Our investment in the destination is paying off,” Thomas says.

When Northern Californians think about a trip to Reno, they typically think about ease of access, fun and value, the study finds. Ease of access and value, Thomas says, are likely to be increasingly important as consumers feel the pinch of the nation’s economic downturn.

Educational level plays a big role in what people think about Reno and the more education they have, the more likely that their opinions will be negative.

The EMC survey found 44 percent of respondents who have an advanced collegiate degree have an unfavorable opinion of Reno, as do 35 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees.

Among high school graduates, however, the unfavorable marks drop to 20 percent.

And in a finding that intrigues RSCVA, the survey found that black and Hispanic consumers hold especially high favorable attitudes about Reno 80 percent favorable among blacks, 72 percent among Hispanics.

That, Thomas says, suggests that marketing targeting minority groups in Northern California may pay benefits.

The Lake Tahoe area, meanwhile, draws strongly favorable remarks from visitors across demographic and economic strata, and nearly 90 percent of the people surveyed said they want to visit Lake Tahoe.

About 95 percent of them say Lake Tahoe has beautiful scenery, 85 percent say it’s an adventure destination and 68 say a Tahoe vacation represents good value.

(By comparison, 63 percent say Reno has beautiful scenery, 48 percent say Reno is an adventure destination and 65 percent say Reno is a good value.)

Ninety percent of those surveyed had visited either Lake Tahoe or Reno as an adult. When they were asked about possible getaway locations, those questioned in the survey most commonly mentioned Lake Tahoe. Reno ranked third, trailing second-place Las Vegas.

The next step for RSCVA, Thomas says, is to develop marketing strategies on the basis of what it learned from the survey of its core market.

Those plans are likely to unfold over the next several months as the agency looks to move quickly to boost tourism out of a slump.

“We need visitors now,” Thomas says. “But the competition is fierce. Every destination is on sale.”

The marketing effort is challenged, too, by budget cutbacks for RSCVA. The agency draws a big portion of its funding from bed tax collected from travelers, and falling visitor numbers cut into its revenues.

That’s going to put a premium, Thomas says, on cooperative marketing efforts involving RSCVA as well as the casinos and hotels that target northern California consumers.

Even before the findings of the core market survey were formally presented to the RSCVA board last week, the tourism agency’s staff was meeting with casino marketers to talk about cooperative efforts.