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Tourism: A college marketing goldmine

Capitalize on town-gown relations for higher ed marketing success
University Business, January 2016
Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at the University of Kentucky, and a former tourism commissioner.
Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at the University of Kentucky, and a former tourism commissioner.

College towns across the country may be sitting on an economic and tourism marketing gold mine in the form of their local institution’s “tourist attractions.”

Consider the thousands of people who go to a school’s concerts, theatrical performances, athletic events, museums, planetarium shows, camps and conferences—not to mention those visiting for homecoming, family weekends and daily admissions visits.

A steady flow of college town “tourists” directly benefits the local economy with dollars spent on dining, shopping, entertainment and hotels.

Tourism is big business. According to the U.S. Travel Association, spending by domestic and international travelers grew 4.7 percent to $928 billion in 2014. Of this, $791 billion was spent by domestic travelers.

In cities and towns that host one of the nation’s 4,000-plus public and private institutions, civic and university officials should try to capture a share of this bustling tourism market.

Collaboration

How might your institution and the community’s tourism office capitalize on your college to drive tourism? Consider these ideas:

  • First and foremost, realize you need one another. Regular dialogue is essential and is the most important planning component when determining joint aspirations.
  • Formalize a relationship between your institution and the tourism office. Your public relations and marketing offices can provide campus brochures, maps, event schedules and photos for display.
  • Explore other college towns for creative ideas that might be relevant to your community.
  • Become involved in the planning and preparation process for university-sponsored events that will impact the community’s restaurant, retail, transportation and lodging industries, along with nearby tourist attractions.
  • Create a kiosk in the tourism office featuring institutional memorabilia and information. Visitors often look to the tourism office for information regarding the local college or university. It is best to be prepared when you roll out the welcome mat.
  • Develop and conduct a historic community tour that includes your campus. This is a great way to bridge town-gown relations, and perhaps involve college retirees interested in volunteering their time and love of their institution.
  • Work with the tourism office to establish student internships for public relations, communications and hospitality majors.
  • Seek co-branding opportunities that promote both the tourism office and the college. Streetlight banners are a terrific way to brand yourself as a college town.
  • Engage local restaurants and lodging facilities. They can become some of your best and most effective town-gown advocates if they know what is happening on campus and in town.
  • Familiarize civic and campus leaders with the community. Never assume they know key points of campus and community interest.
  • Invite outsiders to evaluate your tourism efforts. A “secret shopper” could provide your tourism office with critical information.
  • Develop print and electronic versions of your community’s visitors guide, and include important campus information.
  • The tourism office and university public relations should conduct an annual review of your strategy. Prune what’s not working, and develop ideas that will generate interest in the town and campus.

Community foundation

In his 2014 book, Town & Gown: From Conflict to Cooperation (Municipal World Inc., 2014), author Michael Fox wrote: “Quality of life and economic prosperity are the foundation of strong communities, and places that are home to universities and colleges have a significant edge on attracting.”

This attraction can significantly influence a college town’s ability to recruit business and research. With cooperation, dialogue, planning and execution, your college town’s tourism program will help make your institution—and its host town—a desired destination.

Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at the University of Kentucky. A former tourism commission member, he may be contacted @marcwhitt.

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