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The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

Managing Your Program: Rock City Marketing 101

When tourism professionals have an exciting product to sell, they want to shout it from the rooftops.

 That is what Garnet Carter, the man who started Rock City, a marvel of nature that features massive, ancient formations located atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee, decided to do. He hired Clark Byers, at the time a sign painter’s helper, to paint three simple words — See Rock City — on the sides and roofs of more than 900 barns in 19 states.

For more than three decades, beginning in the 1930s, Byers contacted farmers and told them he would paint their barn for free if he could include that message. And many of us who traveled the Southeast and Midwest as kids remember those words well. That sales approach, where no one wore a silk suit and came from a glitzy ad agency, made Rock City world famous.

Some of those painted barns are still with us today, and the “See Rock City” advertising campaign was and is considered marketing genius.


Words Can Reflect an Attitude

Carter and his marketing partner, Byers, realized the importance of advertising to their target audience: those families traveling the highways and byways of middle America. Travel planners at banks, chambers of commerce, and colleges and universities also must determine their target audience and get the word out about their exciting itineraries.

Karin Betzer, director of the Soy Travel Club for Soy Capitol Bank and Trust in Decatur, Illinois, takes advantage of advertising on the radio, on her bank’s website and on billboards placed in the lobby of her bank and in each of the bank’s branches. Her goal is to reach prospective travelers in her community.

“I also send cards out every month to our members,” Betzer said. “But, I’m concerned about the age of the people I’m sending them to. There are very few people under the age of 60 who respond, as they think they think they are too young to be on a motorcoach. We used to have at least 40 people for a trip to a Sunday theater matinee, and now we are lucky to have 25.”

Capturing an audience under the age of 60 for motorcoach travel takes innovative thinking, according to Kristy Omelianuk, assistant director of alumni benefits and business development at Rutgers University in New Jersey, whose prospective travelers are throughout the United States and the world.

“Our 2014 marketing efforts for our travel program rebranded our program,” said Omelianuk. “Instead of referring to our program as simply a Rutgers University Alumni Association travel program, we renamed it RUAA Adventures.

“We encourage people to have an adventure and let us take care of the rest. And the word adventures best describes the journeys that we take, attracting and inspiring the audience we hope for.”

Although most of RUAA Adventures, unlike Betzer’s travels, are international trips, they do include many land/motorcoach travels in those foreign and a few domestic destinations. Omelianuk feels confident that simply rebranding the name of her travel group helps encourage people of all ages to join the fun, even on a motorcoach.


Creating a Buzz

Mary Ann Gelven, director of the Advantage Club at Legends Bank in Linn, Missouri, faces similar dilemmas as Betzer when it comes to advertising, but she often employs a different approach.

“We are a small, rural Missouri town and have a very successful program,” said Gelven. “I reach out about our travels and all the activities of Advantage Club by quarterly newsletters, quarterly lunch-and-learn events and an annual party.

“But I think equally as important to our success are two additional ways we get the word out: First, we have a Facebook page for the bank, and pictures of our past travels are included. And second, our entire schedule of activities and travels for the entire year are on a large poster in our headquarters, each of our branches and on our website.

“The Facebook page really causes a buzz in our small community, and making that schedule available a year in advance allows people to consider their personal schedules long in advance.”

Omelianuk agrees. She advertises all RUAA Adventures for the year on its website and in its alumni magazine. She is also clever when it comes to the thousands of brochures that tour operators send to Rutgers alumni for individual trips.

“If the brochure is promoting and describing an upcoming Adventures journey to Peru, for example, we make sure that on the bottom of that brochure there is a postscript that states ‘Peru is just one of the many trips we are offering this year. Be sure to check out our website,’” she said. “Surely there are many who aren’t interested in that Peru trip for whatever reason, but there are probably other trips we are taking that they would like to take. This way, each marketing piece markets our program as a whole.

“Our communications team is very proud of the rebranding we’ve done and the success we have experienced.”


Facing the Facts

Though tried-and-true travel program advertising that includes newsletters and promotional group meetings might always be part of a travel planner’s sales plan, advertising travel programs through social media such as Facebook is imperative in 2015 and beyond. It seems the desired age groups travel planners are hoping to reach like Facebook more than ever.

According to the International Business Times, since 2011, “Facebook added 10.8 million adults in the 25-to-34 demographic, a growth of 32.6 percent. In the 35-to-54-year old demographic, Facebook experienced a 41.4 percent growth, adding 16.4 million users. The biggest growth came among adults over the age of 55. Facebook added 12.4 million users from this age range, a massive 80.4 percent growth.”

Like Carter and his barn painter, Byers, who traveled tens of thousands of miles and braved angry bulls, slippery roofs and lightning bolts to get the job done, travel planners today have their own obstacles in getting the word out about their products. And like these wise innovators who successfully brought millions of travelers to a previously obscure destination, they must use some creative imagination in deciding how to reach prospective customers.

“Financially, they were very generous, and all of our travelers were very satisfied with what they received back,” Schwartz said. “But they were disappointed, of course, on all the great sights that we had missed.

“I certainly learned a lot from this experience. In retrospect, our group became very friendly, and their attitude was great. We really got to know one another and had fun together, but if it had lasted another day or two — I don’t know,” she added with a chuckle.

“When I returned I had a great story to tell and experiences that I will never forget. My best memories will be of the great people I traveled with and the friends that we all made.”