Back in late February, we chronicled the saga of how Ithaca, New York, travel marketers won worldwide publicity by urging potential visitors to go to sunny Key West instead of coming to frigid Ithaca.
The brutal subzero winter temperatures and constant snows in upstate New York had just gotten to be too much, and the local Convention & Visitor’s Bureau website blared, “We surrender!” Visitors were urged to return in warmer weather to enjoy Ithaca’s waterfalls, wineries, gorges and cultural attractions.
After that story went viral, the seemingly counter-intuitive result was hundreds of thousands of VisitIthaca website hits and countless phone callers and online chatters wanting to know more about Ithaca — home to Cornell University and, indeed, a great place to visit when you aren’t in imminent danger of contracting frostbite. (I should point out, though, that for many skiers and ice hockey players, the conditions were perfectly fine.)
The Florida Keys also got a lot of extra attention, with their own phones and websites racking up huge numbers.
It all seemed like a spur-of-the-moment joke that turned to unexpected genius on the part of Ithaca C&VB director Bruce Stoff and his staff.
Now, it turns out, it had all been planned long in advance — and the marketing genius behind it has become all the more apparent.
According to a Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce update that appeared in the Ithaca Journal, the “impromptu” tongue-in-cheek “surrender” had been in the planning stages for at least two years and had been researched for another six before that.
“The CVB weighed lodging statistics, the local events calendar, regional weather forecasts and holiday news cycles before launching the campaign,” the Chamber of Commerce article revealed. “It chose the Keys because the target geography led to millions of Northeasterners who winter in Florida and are free to visit Ithaca at other times.” (Often called snowbirds, these seasonal transplants include many baby boomers.)
The whole thing might have happened a year ago except that some of the elements weren’t perfect. “The campaign was ready for the ‘Polar Vortex’ of 2014,” the Chamber report said, “but the right combination of calendar and weather failed to materialize.” But, the report continued, “The variables aligned on Presidents Weekend this February and the project went viral as hoped. Ithaca became the number-one trending topic on Facebook and a top-10 trending news story nationally.”
Among the more than 400 media outlets that covered the story were NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NPR, and The Weather Channel, adding up to an audience of more than 55 million people.
There was plenty of online coverage, too, including blogs and news sites with possible impressions reaching 591 million. The advertising was worth an estimated $3.8 million.
The VisitIthaca site received so much traffic that it crashed, with more than 150,000 visitors compared to 3,000 for an average similar time period. Plans are to follow up with those visitors — as well as Florida snowbirds — urging them, when they’re ready, to come to Ithaca and the Finger Lakes region (Ithaca is situated at the southern tip of Lake Cayuga, one of the distinctive finger-shaped lakes).
And what was the Ithaca CV&B’s total investment (not counting staff time to handle all the media interviews)? $400.
That may result in the best return on investment in the history of travel marketing.
So, one of these days, watch for my upcoming headline, “Don’t Read This Blog Post.” I trust you’ll know what I really mean.