By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
All roads would lead to Southwestern Illinois under a contemplated marketing campaign that would highlight two of the best-known highways in these parts — Route 66 and the Great River Road.
State and local tourism officials are exploring ways to promote two of the region’s greatest assets now that the Alton Regional Convention Bureau territory is widening to take in Edwardsville and Macoupin County.
The local CVB was certified to take in Edwardsville back in July. It will officially expand north into Macoupin County sometime in the coming year. Until now, it had encompassed northern Madison County and Jersey and Calhoun counties.
The director of the Illinois Office of Tourism sees the move as a natural meshing of the interests of the wider region.
“This is kind of where the Mother Road meets the River Road,” Cory Jobe said, of U.S. Route 66, the storied highway that runs from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., passing through Macoupin and Madison counties along the way.
“Route 66 is state tourism’s most popular international selling point by far,” he said. “We all think it’s been used and reused, but people still want that ‘real America.’ There is still that love affair with this route.”
Jobe believes the state has the most authentic Route 66 roadside attractions of any state. It is a national scenic byway, one of seven that includes the Great River Road between Alton and Grafton in Illinois. And it is hugely popular with the European and Asian markets.
Jobe said he’ll be in good position to help the greater Alton area market the attractions. His agency promotes in 14 national markets and five international markets. China and Mexico are next on the list.
The Alton CVB is pursuing a grant, partnering with the state on a strategy that could start to come together in the next few months, although it might be a while before the particulars are in place, said Brett Stawar, president of the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“There’s going to be a rebrand, we’re going to hit a reset on this organization in the next couple of years. We just picked up Macoupin County, so now we have Macoupin, most of Madison and Jersey and Calhoun counties. Our primarily focus is going to be the Mother Road and the River Road and where they meet. Nowhere else in the country do you have such a great thing. You’ve got a World Heritage Site at Monks Mound, you’ve got the largest state park in Illinois to the north (Pere Marquette). You’ve got the 66 traveler experiences coming through Livingston, Staunton and Edwardsville. And you’ve got history. You can tie in Lincoln.”
The state has two outside marketing agencies to handle PR efforts around the world. Ninety percent of travel is still booked through a traditional travel service or tour operator, Jobe said.
It all translates to dollars for Illinois — and the local economy.
“I’m on the national board of the U.S. Travel Association. We just issued a new report, “America’s Unsung Hero of Job Creation.” The travel and tourism industry is the seventh-largest employer in the country,” he said.
Some 20,000 tourism jobs were created in Illinois in just the past two years. Tourism is the third-largest industry in the state, Jobe said, stressing that it is not just a Chicago phenomenon.
Jobe said he was born in Chicago, but spent many years in Southeastern Illinois and Springfield, so he knows differences and uniqueness around the state.
Of the 110 million domestic visitors to the state in 2016, 87 percent were here for leisure. The visitor expenditure is about a 50-50 split between Chicago/Cook County and Downstate. Hotel revenues tend more to the Chicago area, more like 60/40 split.
“We’re a revenue generator for the state,” Jobe said. He cites research showing an overall return of 9 to 1 on money spent on overall marketing.
“For every dollar spent on digital it ranged between $12 and $18 returned. Hotel revenues were $30 million in return alone. We spent about $350,000 in digital,” he said.
The state office recently partnered with a company to track what Jobe calls “a true return” on investment.
The state launched three campaigns last year, one on overall branding, another called Illinois Made and a third targeting the LGBTQ community, which is a fast-growing segment of the tourism economy.
The State Office of Tourism is funded by 33.3 percent of the state’s overall bed-tax collection. By statute the office passes along grants to the 40 CVBs in the state.
Fluctuations to revenue caused by the Illinois government’s inability to pass a budget for two years left tourism offices reeling. That lack of certainty kept Illinois from doing the marketing it had planned. He called the recent budget problems “a moving target.”
“The revenue opportunities are great, but when we’re not in market, we lose market share, so in 2016, when we didn’t have a budget, Illinois tourism dropped two notches, to Ohio and Michigan,” Jobe said. “We grew visitors but we were below the national average.”
Illinois was No. 8 in the nation in 2016 in tourism.
“We did increase our overnight stays; those grew faster than the national average. About 3 percent,” he said.
Still, not having a consistent marketing message has impacts, he said, “and it’s hard to recover those visitor numbers that you’ve lost.”
Jobe pointed out that even when the economy is bad, people still travel, but they stay closer to home, which can still be lucrative for state business.
Meetings, conventions and sports tournaments are all a boost to multiple room-night stays.
Among the 14 Midwest cities in which the state targets marketing are places including Indianapolis, Louisville, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Nashville and others. The strategy is “heavily invested” in the millennial and GenX families with kids.
“Keep in mind we’re at the top of the funnel and we leave it a lot to our local CVBs to look at their market,” Jobe said.
The state focuses on five interest areas, what it calls personas, to promote. They are City Break (meaning Chicago), Outdoor Adventures, LBGTQ, History and Road Trips.
“We work very hard on cultivating those personas. We’ve never done in that in the past. It was always a shotgun approach.”
Pressures on the budget got rid of duplicate programs.
Jobe, who was appointed three years ago in March, was at the Illinois Comptroller’s Office for five years before that.
The annual budget for his office has varied widely in recently years because of the deficit and the legislative holdup. This year it should be about $72 million. “This could be our lowest marketing budget ever.”
Stawar said his office spends a lot of time analyzing statistics about visitors and related social media posts to get in touch with marketing and strategies.
Part of the strategy in Macoupin is to pull its Route 66 communities together. Macoupin County had never been part of a CVB before, he said. It offers such highlights as Beaver Dam State Park and the historic Carlinville “Million Dollar Courthouse.”
Regardless of how they shift their marketing, Stawar said the current focuses will still be a part of it all.
“‘The Meeting of the Great Rivers’ is never going to go away,” he said. “It’s always going to be an emphasis for us.”
In recent weeks, the CVB has been reaching out to places like Glen Carbon, Hamel, Grantfork and Livingston.
“Travelers don’t see (CVB) boundaries,” Jobe said. “You have all these great things happening under the umbrella of Route 66 and the River Road, and how they brand that will be up to their board.”
It will be up to the local CVB to tie the rest of the areas in the appropriate campaign, he said.
“You stay in Edwardsville, go to a show and have dinner and the next day you can drive to Grafton, rent a cabin at Pere Marquette and then go to Alton. This is not just a weekend destination, it’s a weeklong destination,” Jobe said.