SBJ/June 22 - 28, 1998/No Topic Name

Virginia's marketing strategy targets sports lovers

This year, the state of Virginia's official tourism slogan, "Virginia is for Lovers," will be plastered all over sporting events — from harness racing to golf tournaments to hot-air balloon racing.

The Virginia Tourism Corp. will shell out $750,000 on sports marketing, including title sponsorships of a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at the Richmond International Raceway and the Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association race at the Norfolk Naval Air Station, said Patrick McMahon, Virginia Tourism CEO.

"All the events have some form of national television coverage that allows us to promote Virginia travel products and build awareness around our slogan," McMahon said. Virginia Tourism has been building its sports sponsorship budget since 1993, when it sponsored a NASCAR car in the Busch Series for $400,000.

McMahon is eyeing even pricier, more prestigious sponsorships, including the X Games.

Virginia's foray into sports sponsorships is being watched closely by tourism agency officials in other states, said Patty Hubbard, vice president of the National Councils of the Travel Industry Association of America, which represents state tourism directors.

State tourism boards have traditionally spent marketing dollars on advertisements in travel magazines, but some are looking into sports sponsorships, Hubbard said.

"The world is a very competitive place, and [tourism directors] are looking at every opportunity to create awareness of their destination or brand," Hubbard said.

Steve Markuson, director of tourism for the Minnesota Office of Tourism, said: "If we get a significant budget increase in the next legislative session, we would take a hard look at sports marketing in general." He is considering sponsoring a NASCAR car or truck that would carry the slogan "Explore Minnesota, Take Home a Story."

This year, South Carolina has its name, silhouette and palmetto tree logo on the hood of a NASCAR Busch Series car, said Mokey McGowan, senior director of marketing for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. But South Carolina didn't spend a penny on the $1.5 million sponsorship.

The department found partners, including SCANA, the state's main utility, to pick up the tab, McGowan said. South Carolina prohibits its tourism agency from spending money on sports sponsorships.

Tourism directors who delve into sports sponsorships run the risk of negative scrutiny from the public because tourism boards are funded by legislative grants and tax dollars.

But McMahon said he paid for research to find out if Virginia's sports sponsorships reach the right audience.

McMahon said a sponsorship analysis organization found that for the two years Virginia sponsored a NASCAR car for $800,000, the state slogan received national television coverage that would have cost $3.5 million to buy.

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