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Setting Their Sites Near and Far

Tourism Sector Seeks Visitors from Across the Valley — and Across the Big Pond

As the peak summer tourism season approaches, the players in this sector are tempering their expectations against the backdrop of a softened economy and soaring gas prices. They see potential opportunity with regard to two quite different constituencies — those who may stay closer to home due to the current economic conditions, and Europeans who can take advantage of a weak dollar, and can now take a flight directly into Bradley International Airport in order to do so.

Western Mass. Woos International Travelers

Ray Smith, vice president of Marketing and Operations with the Berkshire Tourism Council, said he’s heard one intriguing statistic that speaks to current trends within European tourism in the U.S., regarding the number of new suitcases that are purchased to bring back to home countries.
“Apparently, a lot of Europeans are coming here and making specific trips to buy new bags, leaving the old ones here,” he said.

With a laugh, Smith added that he’s more than happy to capitalize on whatever “keeps them coming back.”

“All the more power to the luggage stores,” he said. “That’s one of the things that is already wonderful about Western Mass. — those shopping areas, from the outlets to the outdoor shopping venues and eclectic galleries. Those are a key part of a region’s entire flavor.”

That flavor is something the Berkshire Tourism Council and other regional tourism councils (RTCs), including the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), are working diligently to highlight of late, as they are in the midst of a new, stronger focus on attracting international tourists to the state, particularly from European countries.

Mary Kay Wydra, president of the GSCVB, said Europeans already have an understanding and appreciation for the Bay State and New England as a whole, making them a prime audience to target. Now, the various regions of the Commonwealth, from the Cape and Islands to its most westerly borders, are trying concurrently to bring new tourists in, with significant assistance from the Mass. Office of Travel and Tourism.

“MOTT has taken international tourism on 100% this year,” said Wydra. “The office has facilitated contacts in various European countries — Germany and the U.K. being the biggest markets for visitors to Massachusetts.”

Just as day and driving trips are gaining popularity among domestic travelers seeking more cost-efficient vacation options in light of soaring gas prices and a weak U.S. dollar, European travelers are taking advantage of this economic downturn in the states as well. For them, there’s never been a better time for a trip across the pond, and MOTT and its member RTCs are hoping they can turn an economic downturn into a traveling boom.

Selling the State

Smith said Massachusetts, and the Berkshires in particular, have already seen some healthy numbers in terms of European and other international travelers, but this is the first time the entire state has worked as one to create a cohesive plan that, after it’s been given time to root itself, could return some significant, measurable results.

“The exciting aspect for the Berkshires and many other regions is that now, we have a significant plan,” he said. “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has an international marketing plan that started when Gov. Patrick was elected, and we’re doing quite a bit of outreach.”

Smith added that MOTT secured press contacts abroad and created a number of targeted marketing plans for each country. In addition, the department has planned several ongoing ‘sales missions’ to Europe that involve representatives from all of the RTCs across the Commonwealth.

“We have been challenged, and are in fact required, to talk about the entire Commonwealth and to sell the entire Commonwealth,” he said. “MOTT has created teams covering various countries, and we need to be able to sell our own regions as well as New England. It’s a total team effort.

“It’s exciting to see this occurring in this fashion,” Smith continued. “We’re knocking down borders that international travelers never see anyway. They don’t care where the Berkshires end and Greater Springfield begins.”

Smith added that the collaborative aspect of MOTT’s approach to international tourism does more than offer an opportunity for RTCs to bone up on attractions in the rest of the state. It also makes available precious funding that each region could not otherwise access.

“This goes a long way toward pooling resources,” Smith said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this alone. The state is taking the lead to make it easier for its regions to execute plans, because we don’t have the dollars to put into the initiative solely. That means we’re working with MOTT and partnering with the GSCVB and the Mohawk Trail Assoc., too.”

He went on to note that this collaboration, especially on the local level, is important in calling attention to Western Mass. as a destination.

“Boston and New England in general are already recognized by international travelers, but the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley are not on their radar yet,” he said.

Western Ideas

Still, there are several existing facets of the region that are well-suited for further development in order to attract the international tourism market. The most recent and perhaps notable of these is Bradley Airport’s recently added direct flight from the Hartford/Springfield corridor to Amsterdam.

“It’s not just Amsterdam,” said Wydra. “That airport is a major hub, with connections to 84 different cities.”

That direct access to Western Mass. is a huge benefit for the region, and adds one more option for European travelers, who can already fly into Boston’s Logan Airport. But there are other strengths as well, including that existing general understanding overseas of the diversity of New England.

“Europeans in general love New England,” said Smith. “They know it, and they understand its history. Their sense of discovery is big. By and large, once they come once, they come back.”

Smith noted that, of all U.S. destinations, California, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and New England are the first four attractions Europeans will consider, based in part on name recognition.

“Plus, New York City and Boston are generally the first entry points for Europeans, so geographically, we have an advantage there,” he said.

To keep them coming back to Western Mass. specifically, the GSCVB and the Berkshire Tourism Council have put a number of initiatives in motion, designed to build on existing strengths and take advantage of that one big weakness — the U.S. dollar.

A considerable amount of preparation is necessary; Wydra said the GSCVB has already translated ‘lure pieces’ featuring the Pioneer Valley into Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish, and German.

The same information is available in multiple languages on the GSCVB’s Web site, valleyvisitor.com, as are sample itineraries for all types of travelers.

Beyond that, Wydra and Smith agreed that a deeper understanding of international travelers is a large part of the puzzle. To that end, the GSCVB is taking steps to better-prepare members of the convention and visitors bureau for welcoming international travelers, particularly Europeans.

“It’s important for people to know how to greet European travelers,” Wydra said. “We’re talking to various market segments about customs and communication, and offering profiles of travelers from different countries. For instance, Germans tend to be very punctual, so it’s doubly important to ensure that events don’t begin late.”

There are other European habits to understand; most, for instance, use a travel agent or tour operator to help plan their initial visit, whereas Americans are more likely to use Web-based travel-planning tools.

“The leap across the pond necessitates using someone who knows what they’re doing for Europeans,” Smith explained. “Because of that, we see a lot of larger to mid-sized groups of travelers taking their first tour around, and we need to be ready to welcome them as soon as they step off the plane. Often, a first impression sets the tone for the entire trip, so we’re working to ensure that those first lines of hospitality — the concierges, help desks, and maitre d’s — are properly trained.”

Once they’ve arrived, both the GSCVB and the Berkshire Tourism Council have a number of day trips from which travelers can choose, based on their specific interests. These include outdoor activities, fine dining, historic-tourism opportunities, and cultural destinations that define Western Mass., but there’s one major activity that nearly all Europeans seem to be interested in lately.

“Europeans like to get an overall flavor for an area by doing many different things,” Smith said. “But bar none, the main component in these trips is shopping.”

As part of the materials used to woo European travelers to Western Mass., the GSCVB presents a list of popular items and the difference in cost between the U.S. to Europe to really drive that difference home. A pair of Levi’s, for example, is £45 in London and the equivalent of about £20 in Massachusetts. Nike tennis shoes are three times more expensive in Europe in the current economic climate, and Ralph Lauren bath towels are the equivalent of a paltry £5 to £8 here, whereas they’re about £15 in the U.K.

Making Inroads

There are several reasons why international audiences are integral to Western Mass. and the Commonwealth as a whole in terms of travel and tourism. The most basic and yet most important of these is that international travelers tend to stay at their destination longer, and therefore spend more money. The strong Euro is only helping to boost that trend.

That said, it will still be some time before these efforts can be evaluated in terms of economic impact, but Smith said that, in the Berkshires and beyond, this is an important building year in moving Massachusetts to the next level as an international tourist destination.

“The tough part is that we’re just starting, so it’s going to be difficult to really gauge,” said Smith. “It will take about three years to see measurable results. But we’re investing dollars in this initiative, and tracking is going to be extremely important. This year is going to be one of taking the plunge.”

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