The 2022 marketing plan approved earlier this week by the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotions Commission continues a strategy developed during the pandemic that relies primarily on digital advertising, instead of more traditional advertising that involved placing television ads in the main food markets.
Traditionally, these markets were based on travel times to Hot Springs from areas like Dallas, Shreveport, Louisiana, Springfield, Missouri and state markets such as Northwest Arkansas. A few years ago, Visit Hot Springs, the commission-run convention and visitor bureau, began branching out internally to “cast a wider net,” according to chief marketing officer Bill Solleder.
“So the net is just further,” Solleder said in an interview at The Sentinel-Record offices after the commission meeting. “Again, you know, I’ll say it a million times…we can turn New Orleans on or off whenever we want. We can turn Nashville on or off whenever we want.”
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The commission-run visitor center, which keeps track of which states visitors come from, also noted a change. “Of course, almost everything is from Texas. But we’re seeing more and more people coming from further afield,” Solleder said.
“And I think it’s working. Austin just did a really good article on their TV channel…about Hot Springs, you know, maybe it’s because we’re starting to take the message a little bit further,” did he declare.
“Production for TV is through the roof. Again, we can do something for TV that’s expensive; it’s expensive. And then…we don’t know what the message will be. So now we have made this spot and we may not be able to use it.”
CJRW, the Little Rock agency with which the commission contracts to place its advertising, will have a budget of $468,918 in 2022, which includes a new website that accounts for $85,000 of the budget; approximately $20,000 of this amount has already been paid.
Some of the other items in the CJRW budget include billboards, radio, and an annual holiday guide.
“Again, you’ll be watching the only broadcast item that has zero dollars on it because it’s free statewide,” through an Arkansas tourism cooperative program, he said.
In contrast, the internal marketing budget is $153,000. These costs include video and blog production, YouTube advertising, and an influencer campaign.
“Additional advertising programs,” totaling $277,100, include special events like the $65,000 St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the $100,000 Bass Fishing League Tournament, and the Hot Springs Baseball Weekend, at $50,000.
“Events, for us, are publicity,” Solleder said.
“It’s a lot less, I mean a lot less but so much more. Because we do this every day, there’s content coming out every day.”
Solleder, when asked about the perception that the ad was removed because less money is being spent on it, replies, “I’m saying we can spend our money wisely.”
“I believe the combination of all those things is a winner. We’re winning; it’s happening. But I believe this piece here, the internal budget, which is lower, includes so much more — I mean, we’re talking about content all the days where we work there we talk to people every day…that’s on top of more and more people being on these platforms that we talk about every day and then just general advertisements that appear, you know, digitally or on TV or whatever,” Solleder said.
“You know, the big question in TV is who’s watching? Where can we advertise? Hulu? You know, we’ve done a bit of Hulu. The only place I really see any real value in TV advertising may be the news. … I don’t have a TV. I have streaming services, and none of them have advertising on them. So where can I reach people? “
The proof of this success, according to Solleder, lies in the figures for last year and the current year.
In 2021, visits to the commission’s websites totaled 1,191,864 – 77% were new visitors.
The $664,993 reported by the commission in September on the 3% sales tax it levies on prepared meals and lodging in the town – considered the key measure of tourism in the spa town – beat the month from the previous September by 14.30%, or $83,196, the newspaper reported last month.
The $6,224,718 in sales tax collected in the first three quarters exceeded 2020 by 34.62%, or $1,600,717.
The first nine months of collection exceeded the first three quarters of 2019 before the pandemic by 14.44%, or $785,484, and the first three quarters of 2018 by 24.38%, or $1,220,208.
“It’s basically the same formula, although we gave a little more money to the internal budget, we actually, with the websites included, we gave CJRW more money this year than last year. So we’re not really cutting the budget at all, it’s actually more than last year as we move forward and try to navigate everything that’s in front of us,” he said.
“Again, we can change at a moment’s notice. We can add and we can take away.”
Key to the 2022 schedule will be its ability to pivot, and pivot quickly, especially if a variant of the virus arises that changes the landscape again, according to Solleder.
“We can keep messaging in-house and we can just keep changing it, and…it’s not as expensive as if we were going to the agency or a big production team. So that’s what is happening. Yeah, it’s crazy,” he said.
A key part of the 2022 plan is a reimagining of the commission-run hotsprings.org website. In addition to the stock information offered on meetings and conventions, attractions, restaurants and accommodations, the website will offer curated itineraries in 2022, based on their individual interests.
“In late 2019, early 2020, we had an issue with the hotsprings.org (website). Basically the bones of it are outdated. We have a security issue with it, so we had to quickly like CJRW had to come in, do a little bit of work just for kind of like Band-Aid together to make sure it was secure. And at that point, they were like ‘You need a new new new website. That been a while. It’s just an old platform,” he said.
“We’re really excited about this one, so we’re showing them select routes and giving them the ability to create their own routes.”
For example, someone coming for a day trip might click through a menu of choices ranging from Oaklawn to mountain biking or just dining out.
“Then we suggest itineraries for them that they can look at. Same for weekends and… down the line for seasonal trips. It’s something they can print out or download and keep and add to their phones while they plan their vacation,” he said.
“I think giving the user a chance to like seeing what there is to do, and we have a lot to do. I think that’s appealing. I think that will help attract people.”
Visitors can also customize their itinerary.
“What kind of traveler am I? Well, I can come with my girlfriend, so I’m a love bird, we’re going out to eat, so I’m a foodie. And I’m a naturalist.” will be a big problem, because it will be about being outdoors. So they click on those three things. The website then gives them an itinerary that they can look at and suggests things to do,” Solleder mentioned.
“What you can do is very similar to social is you can like things all over the website. And it will throw it on a route that you can save, and at the end you can differentiate them and narrow down or add your route as you go. A really cool interactive piece for the website,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to clarify that 77% represent new visitors to the website for the first time.