I recently spent a week in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. It wasn’t my first trip to the Land of Enchantment, and it occurred to me that a look at what it must be like to do public relations in the tourism field, particularly for Sante Fe, might make a good blog entry.
And here it is…
Steve Lewis is the public relations liaison for the Sante Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau (http://santafe.org), a position he’s held for 19 years. Not a native, he came to Sante Fe with his wife in 1989. A former TV journalist in Cincinnati and Denver, Lewis “fell into” doing PR for the ski industry before coming to work for the City of Sante Fe.
Q: What was it like making the transition from journalism to PR?
A: Working in journalism, we always had a way of looking down on the flacks of the world, but I found it great. Obviously, my background in news and journalism was really helpful—being able to identify a story and to communicate that story, to empathize with people on short deadlines, what the nuts and bolts of a piece may be so you can give a journalist what they need on a short timeline. I have to say it was very serendipitous the way things worked out for me—to promote skiing, which is a sport I love, and Sante Fe, which is a town I love. It was a very easy transition.
Q: What would you say are the challenges of doing PR in the tourism industry?
A: With tourism, there are so many “moving parts” to promoting a destination. You’re not just promoting a “thing,” but a large number of things. So when you think about promoting a destination, you’re talking about the way that place looks, what the weather is like, what the people are like, how is the place perceived—there’s a lot that goes in to that promotion, and that’s a good thing–you’ve got a lot of material there. The challenges as regards leisure travel include people’s discretionary income—we are affected, as everyone is, by the economy, people spending on hard goods they really need.
We are challenged by budgetary constraints within city and state, getting funding for promotion. Tourism is the second largest industry in the State of New Mexico, but we’re always pushing to get the money we need to fuel that promotion. Plus, in New Mexico, more than in many other places in the U.S., we face a huge challenge in the apparent geographically limited knowledge people have in the states of America. I was thinking the other day that as we have “Mexico” in our name, a lot of people think that you have to have a passport or need shots or money exchange to come here. I get those calls every month, people thinking they need a visa…I was wondering if Montana had been called “New Canada,” would people have the same challenge, thinking they need to cross the border somehow.
That is honestly a significant challenge, and specific to Sante Fe and New Mexico. People have the misconception that Sante Fe is like an Arizona city—hot, dusty, sandy, full of cactus. We’re actually at the base of the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Our climate, is more influenced by the mountains than by a nearby desert.
But in general, promoting tourism, we are very fortunate in that we are appealing on a number of different levels. We have a high degree of return visitors, people who really like Sante Fe and when we travel for leisure purposes, we want to go back to places we really like. Sante Fe is one of those places. Sante Fe is typecast as a trendy place; I like to say it’s been trendy for 400 years—we just had our 400th anniversary last year.
Q: What are some of the recent projects you’ve worked on regards Sante Fe tourism?
A; The 400th was a multi-year campaign; we were working on it as much in 2008 as in 2010, and despite the lack of funding, we received international coverage for at least two years about the anniversary, which kind of coincided happily with a recovery in the economy so after the slide we all saw in visitation, not just in Sante Fe but in travel in general, in 2009, we were very happy to see things come back in a robust way in 2010. I like to think the anniversary promotion played a part in that. Anecdotally, in calls and inquiries people made, they were aware of the anniversary and interested in traveling here because of it—it was a nice project and felt like a success.
I’m now working on something for next month. Sante Fe in winter is the slowest time of year; it’s very much a seasonal destination, as spring through October is our high season. This time of year, January and February, things are always very slow, and that is difficult for all the businesses in town. They have to put their earnings away during the good months to tide them over during the slow months. So the project we’re working on is the Sante Fe Winter Fiesta, 10 days of events from February 18th to the 27th. It’s an initiative to start bringing people back to Sante Fe in winter.
We’re a ski destination so we get our fair share of winter sports enthusiasts, but there again, it is very weather dependent and we happen to be in a dry cycle this year, so we’re not seeing as many folks as we normally do in a snowy winter, but there are also things we promote, in addition to winter sports, like culture, history, art, the rest of the outdoor experience. We want people to come and take advantage of the savings in winter in Sante Fe, something we are compounding by having an ongoing event that brings people back to Sante Fe on a regular basis, especially in winter when we need it the most.
Q: What do you see as Sante Fe’s strengths? What makes it a big attraction?
A: The thing I like about the city the most is its beauty. It’s a beautiful location, and that’s supported by visitor surveys—it’s always one of the top three things people say they like about Sante Fe. It’s a natural setting, at the base of the Rocky Mountains. We have all four seasons, but they are temperate…it’s a beautiful, beautiful place. After that, Sante Fe has a certain authenticity about it. It maintains a look and feel, as in the historic district of Sante Fe. There’s a genuine kind of experience when people visit. Yes, it’s an artistic, a historic, a food destination, but it’s a real friendly place. It’s amazing, the number of nice and interesting people here, so the quality of interaction you can have is very high. Sante Fe is a very welcoming place and that helps me in my job, but that’s pretty much the case with people I talk to about the city, it’s what people pick up on.
Q: What’s next, what’s on the horizon tourism-wise for Sante Fe?
A: Our mean age of visitor is mid-50s…(Sante Fe) is an active place, and we are looking to make that interesting to a younger traveler. In the past it’s been, “Sante Fe is more for your grandparents,” we’ve heard that, so we want to convince young people that there is something here for them as well. We aren’t a particularly “night life” kind of place, though we do have our night life, but it’s not as diverse as you might find in a larger city.
One of our target markets is Austin—Austin is an incredible town for young people. We have things that Austin doesn’t, and Austin has things that make their young residents happy, so we want to cross over to that younger market and talk to them about the things that Sante Fe does have. One of the things we push more diligently is our outdoor resources—there’s an incredible amount of public land here where you can do almost everything outdoors that doesn’t require an ocean. So for a younger person who might be interested in art, in becoming a collector, to learn about Native American or Hispanic culture, there’s much to experience and that’s what we are pushing.
We have a film festival here, an independent film festival that’s in its second year. That’s more of a niche sort of event that appeals to a younger audience, for sure. Any kind of organized event like that will have appeal, and that’s exactly what the Winter Fiesta is all about. We have 10 days of concerts; it’s definitely aimed at a younger audience and we’re promoting it through social media.