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Trail Marketing 2.0

oltmanns Blog January 4, 2011

Seven strategies for making your trail a ‘go-to’ destination in 2011

According to American Trails, there are 60,000 miles of trails for hiking and biking in every state in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Clearly, the trail use movement is one of this country’s fastest-growing recreational pursuits, with millions of Americans taking to the 1,000 trails across this country, and that number is growing each year.

In communities everywhere, trail builders are discovering the significant recreational and economic asset that trails represent and are reclaiming rights of way to clear the path for trailblazing. So once a trail is at or near completion, how do you help users to find it…and use it?

That was one of the big questions posed at the Western Pennsylvania Trails Symposium near Pittsburgh in October. A variety of strategies – ranging from the most personal and direct to the most technologically advance – were shared and examined for their effectiveness in putting people on trails. Here’s what they learned.

• Know your audience. It sounds trite, but its true that understanding why the people take to the trails is valuable in understanding how to market to them. It will come as no surprise that most trail users are there for recreation, while many others are there for health and fitness. Most are “day-trippers,” but a growing number of “overnighters” are making trails engines of local economic opportunity for small businesses. Fortunately, many other trails have done this kind of research and have made it available free online.

• Engage third parties, especially travel and tourism agencies. Most regional tourism professionals will admit that they have not yet fully recognized trails as a significant asset to their portfolio. But they’re catching on fast. Oftentimes, it takes persistence and maybe even a little nagging to get them to experience your trail, but that’s where you’ll make believers out of them. Then, once you’ve made converts of them, provide them with all the information you have—trail maps, brochures, photography, bumper stickers, etc. Their job is to promote the region and attract visitors, so having plenty of information that’s helpful to the media at their disposal will help ensure that your trail becomes an exciting part of their sales kit.

• Get “gatekeepers” out on your trail. Your local chamber of commerce, media, business leaders, mayor, town council members, economic development officials…get all of them out on your trail. There’s no substitute for that first-hand experience and trails all across America have found that word-of-mouth marketing is the single most effective method of building a regular base of trail users. Its not sexy, and it takes time for this kind of marketing to bear fruit, but it works like nothing else does.

• Hold events on the trail. Its not uncommon for a well-run 10K race, fun run or walk-a-thon to attract hundreds of participants. All you need are some enthusiastic volunteers and a t-shirt vendor and you’re in business. Imagine 500 new visitors to your trail, each of whom leaves with a good experience and tells two people about it. You just added 1500 trail fans that you never would have been able to reach otherwise. Do it right and watch interest and participation grow each year.

• Engage local businesses for trail-user deals. It’s a fact. Trails are economic development engines for local businesses. The Great Allegheny Passage that connects Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with Washington, D.C. generates $40 million in economic activity for local businesses along the trail, and has created another $7.5 million in new job wages. So encourage local businesses in your trail town to offer discounts to trail users, showing them how they can increase their sales by branding themselves as “trail friendly.” Get your informational flyers or brochures out into the community…give an ample supply to area businesses that trail users might frequent. Print discount cards or wrist bands for trail users to show when they patronize these businesses. Circulate coupons for great deals on lodging, restaurants, and other locally-sold goods and services. You’ll discover what other trails have discovered…that day-trip trail users spend an average of $13 per day, but overnight users spend well over $100 per day. Not a bad boost to small businesses in your trail town.

• Get creative. Remember that the name of the game is to attract people to your trail by any means possible. Hold a photo contest and entice amateur shutterbugs to capture the beauty of your trail. Put the entrees on your web site (see below) or announce the winners to the local newspaper. Reach out to local garden clubs, scout troops, school groups, senior centers, and other groups to offer the trail as an idea for a day-trip. It broadens your outreach to those who don’t fit the traditional trail user profile and further extends the word-of-mouth “multiplier effect.”

• Create a web presence. Developing a web site was once an expensive undertaking. But now it’s very affordable using any of the available software platforms available for this purpose. Now your trail can–and should–be accessible to millions of users on the web. Though the largest segment of the trail user population are adults 40 and over, the web is the most powerful tool available for providing the information prospective users are looking for to get them to your trail. Include trail maps, photos, directions to access points, links to nearby businesses, and any other information about your trail you can.

• Use mobile device technology. About half of all Americans have a cell phone (I know, it just seems like 100%). Moveover, according to Forrester Research, 17% of Americans today have a smartphone, and Nielsen predicts that 50% of us will have them by the end of 2011, overtaking cell phones. And 16% of adults are using mobile media as active conduits of content and information either for fun or personal productivity. It makes sense then, that mobile applications–such as cell phones, smartphones, iPads, iPods, etc.–are a great way to draw users to your trail…and keep them there.

On any smartphone, Blackberry or Droid device, new trail applications are coming online that allow users to locate a trail with GPS technology, identify nearby lodging and other amenities, and other helpful information aimed at attracting people to your trail and its local businesses.