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Profile: Marci Ross
Packaged attractions promote longer stays, tourism official says

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The Tourism Office – recognizing the collective marketing potential for such attractions and destinations – packaged them together into tourism products. "We've developed these products using themes," Ross says. "And, by creating these tours and other products, we're giving travelers a reason to stay longer."

Ross mentions the Star-Spangled Banner and Captain John Smith Chesapeake national historic trails, Chesapeake Bay Gateway Network, and the Maryland Byways Program as other product examples.

She also refers to the newly published second edition of The Underground Railroad: Maryland's Network to Freedom map guide – a collection of 41 sites related to the efforts of Harriet Tubman and others who coordinated the escape of slaves from Maryland prior to emancipation. The initial edition of Maryland's guide in 2005 had 33 sites.

The guide includes such places as Sotterley Plantation in Southern Maryland and the Dorchester County Courthouse on the Eastern Shore, as well as the Shore's Frederick Douglass Driving Tour of Talbot County and Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

"Maryland was the first state to have a statewide National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom map guide," Ross says. The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, run by the National Park Service, is national in scope.

Tubman Park in Works

With plans under way to create a Harriet Tubman national park on the Eastern Shore, Tubman-related products are drawing attention, she says. This has opened the potential for alternative funding sources – corporate sponsorships, for instance – in addition to public sources to develop and promote the products.

"Marci has developed a unique role within the framework of state tourism agencies – by becoming entrepreneurial in taking advantage of non-traditional sources for a tourism office and filling product gaps," says Bill Pencek, Maryland's director of Cultural and Heritage Tourism.

"We have great products," Ross says. "And, we know what the consumer is looking for. Still, we rely on our partners." She notes that it's the partners who operate the attractions and programs. "They are the stewards and the storytellers."

Ross has another major focus: Maryland's 11 Welcome Centers. She has broad responsibility for the centers, including the management of capital projects. A current project that has her attention is the "complete overhaul of the rest areas and campuses of the I-70 (East and West) centers." The centers closed last spring and are expected to re-open in December.

During fiscal year 2008, the restroom doors at these two centers "opened and shut 3 million times," she says. "That's 1.5 million people, which is a conservative estimate when you consider how often more than one person goes in or leaves each time the door opens."

Outdoor exhibits

However, the actual Welcome Centers served 207,000 visitors, Ross says – about one of every seven travelers who used the restrooms. To boost that number, the new I-70s will each have a series of outdoor exhibits along an inlaid black granite pathway that starts near the restrooms and leads to the centers. The exhibits – mounted onto granite pedestals – include maps and information related to outdoor recreation, Civil War sites and other heritage-tourism attractions.

The product development and Welcome Center aspects of her job consume about 90 percent of Ross' time. An annual grants program that the Tourism Office administers garners the remaining 10 percent. The grants go to destination marketing organizations (DMOs) – mainly, county tourism offices – to help supplement their marketing, she says. "I help every DMO capitalize on the program."

DMOs compete for funding by showing how they use their marketing dollars. "It's an effective way to build marketing productivity with our DMO colleagues," she says. "They have to match the funds we grant them."

In FY 2008, for every $1 invested by the Maryland Development Tourism Board (the entity that oversees the Tourism Office), the DMOs spent $3.93 – about a 4:1 ratio, Ross says. The $1.5 million in the grants program supplemented the $5.9 million that the DMOs used for marketing.