Tourism leaders hope to continue growing what’s often cited as Tuolumne County’s top industry by targeting more international travelers this year, in addition to a number of other new strategies aimed at buoying the local economy through the slower off-season months.
The Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau announced plans for 2018 that include partnering with a marketing agency in the United Kingdom, commissioning a professional survey to gather more data on tourism and its impact, hiring additional staff, and using virtual-reality technology to help promote the area.
“Tourism numbers continue to increase year over year, but there are definitely times when we’d like to see more visitors,” said Lisa Mayo, the bureau’s executive director.
Visit California, the state Travel and Tourism Commission, reported last May that travel spending in Tuolumne County was $230 million for all of 2016, an increase of $9 million over the previous year.
The total amount spent by visitors in 2016 was also equivalent to just over three times the size of the county’s General Fund, which pays for most core services such as law enforcement, fire protection and administration.
However, tourism typically dips in the months after the peak season in summer.
International travelers are key because they provide a base of visitors who travel in those off-season times to take advantage of better rates and availability for airfare and lodging, Mayo said.
The bureau plans to produce a condensed version of its annual Vacation Planner for the first time in multiple languages other than English, including French, German, Spanish, and Mandarin.
Mayo said the idea came to her when she took a van of Chinese tourists last year to Columbia State Historic Park and gave them a translated version of a press release describing the county’s past as a location for many Hollywood films, especially Westerns.
“Pictures do a lot, don’t get me wrong, but being being able read about where we’re located, accessibility to airports, our seasons … all of that stuff is important,” Mayo said.
The greatest number of international travelers who stop by the bureau’s Chinese Camp visitor center hail from the UK and Ireland, Mayo said, which is why the bureau is partnering this year with the UK-based Black Diamond marketing agency.
In addition, Mayo said the bureau felt it was a good time to partner with the UK agency to capitalize on recently added direct flights from London to Oakland International Airport.
“Collaborating with Black Diamond will help the TCVB to focus in the right cities within the UK and Ireland, including working with key media and tour operators to increase visitation to Tuolumne County.
Mayo said the Chinese Camp center is typically where the bureau gets the best data because that’s where most visitors stop on their way to Yosemite National Park and other areas south of Sonora.
“For us it’s harder to get a lot of data because, obviously, not everybody coming to visit here goes to the visitor center,” Mayo said.
The bureau hopes to get more data this year with the help of an assessment called DestinationNEXT, a tool created by the marketing association Destinations International that’s intended to help provide a better picture of the state of tourism, gauge local support for the industry, and ultimately determine ways to boost visitation.
Starting in February, the bureau will work with Destinations International on customizing the survey that will be distributed to local leaders, residents, businesses, and outside organizations such as Gold Country Visitors Association, High Sierra Visitors Center, San Francisco Travel and Visit California.
“DestinationNEXT will provide a roadmap for how we can increase those numbers,” Mayo said.
Mayo said creating programs and messaging that focus on parts of the county beyond the typical favorites of tourists, such as Yosemite National Park, should help boost visitation when there’s plenty of empty hotel rooms.
One way the bureau plans to do that is through use of virtual-reality technology that can be brought to tourism trade shows to give people there a better idea of what else the county has to offer.
The bureau is commissioning 360-degree photography of locations like Columbia State Historic Park and Pinecrest that can then be used to create the illusion that someone is actually there while wearing VR goggles.
“It takes promoting to a whole different place,” Mayo said.
The bureau has also hired Katie Kirkland to serve as its communications and tourism manager, who will be handling public relations in state and beyond.
Kirkland, a Tuolumne County native, previously worked in marketing for Black Oak Casino Resort and was a manager for Club Med. She earned a master’s degree in communications management from the University of Denver last year.
In addition, the bureau has dedicated $75,000 of its $800,000 marketing budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year to a new sponsorship program in which groups hosting a tourism-generating event in the county can apply for up to $2,500 in matching funds for marketing purposes.
Mayo said the groups will have to explain how the funds will be used to promote the event and boost tourism. The bureau’s Board of Directors will approve the applications. There will also be a follow-up meeting to see how the event went.
“We’re trying to do it as matching funds, so there’s buy-in on both sides,” Mayo said. “It helps us if an event can tell us where people going to it were coming from, too.”
The bureau is a nonprofit association funded through a 25-percent portion of the county’s and City of Sonora’s transient occupancy tax, or TOT. Both the city’s and county’s TOT is 10-percent per stay for hotels and other short-term lodging businesses.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.