With the Loss of Vermont Life, how does Vermont sell itself?

by Mike Dunphy

“The way you become a resident of Vermont,” says Wendy Knight, Commissioner of the Department of Tourism and Marketing, “in a lot of ways, is you are a tourist first.”

And certainly the State of Vermont has shown intense interest in the past year to making this so. Keen to attract young people to move to the state, Governor Phil Scott and Knight announced the Stay-to-Stay initiative in March 2018, which aims to convert tourists into full-time residents by giving them the opportunity to relax, network with business leaders, and tour Vermont communities with real-estate experts to learn more about relocating to Vermont.

However, with the cessation of publication after 72 years of Vermont Life magazine, announced in May,  Vermont lost perhaps its best-known bait for the hook. Emotionally, this caused no small amount of teeth-gnashing in both long-time readers and supporters. “Personally I was disappointed,” said Lisa Chase, Ph.D., director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center, “because I think Vermont Life has done an incredible job for many years in telling the story of Vermont to people from out of state and to Vermonters as well.”

Former state lawmaker and the president and CEO of Height of Land Publications, Adam Howard, who made a bid earlier in the year to take over Vermont Life, was more blunt, telling Vermont Public Radio, “I really think it came down to expediency. They didn’t have the capability to understand the asset they had or how to manage it, and so they just decided to kill it, and to me, that’s a crime.”

The Vermont Life Economic Impact Study, released in 2015 and based on a reader survey, seemed to confirm the value of keeping Vermont Life alive. It reported that 67 percent of those surveyed claimed to have bought a Vermont product, visited a Vermont store, or used a Vermont service as a result of something they read or saw in Vermont Life. Fifty-six percent tried a new restaurant; forty four percent planned a vacation or staycation; and six percent bought real estate. The direct impact from something seen in Vermont Life, factoring only dining, lodging, real estate services, calendar sales, and associated taxes, translated into $33.5 million annually. 

However, as with so many other print publications around the world, the social “value” of a publication inevitably must surrender to the business reality, which in Vermont Life’s case amounted to a $3.5 million monkey on its back and shaky ground underfoot thanks to declining ad sales and subscribers. The problem was not helped when Vermont politicians, the governor included, publicly questioned the continuation of the magazine.

“Uncertainty in business begets more uncertainty,” points out Michael Schirling, Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, “so because [advertisers] didn’t know what was going to happen with the magazine, that exacerbated the situation.” While ad sales were up 16 percent from FY16 to FY17, they began to decline with the Autumn 2017 issue, when the legislature was discussing Vermont Life, and continued downward over the next several issues with the press coverage and state’s RFP process. By the time the decision was made to retain Vermont Life, ad sales had dropped 39 percent year over year for the Spring 2018 issue, and 46 percent for the Summer 2018 issue.

“We started to get additional feedback from advertisers that said,” Schirling recounts, “‘not only are we gone but we’ve now allocated our advertising dollars that used to come to you to other things’ . . . so the projection was that by July we’d be back to deficit spending.”

Knight adds another important legal influence on the decision. “Part of the reason is that the legislature last year passed legislation that said we cannot operate Vermont Life in a deficit. With little to no wiggle room, it became much harder to save the magazine. “It’s very hard to turn around a sinking ship in the matter of a couple months,” Knight explains, “It takes time to do that.”

But the time ran out.

With the loss of Vermont Life, questions inevitably rise about how Vermont can effectively promote itself going forward and achieve the department’s and government’s aims. A glance at the budget does not inspire confidence, because Vermont has the second lowest tourism budget in the country (after Delaware), at just three million dollars—a tiny amount compared with the large budgets of neighboring states: New York spends $50 million; New Hampshire, $8 million, and Maine $15 million.

“We have limited funding, just in general,” explains Knight. “Healthcare, transportation, and education get the lion’s share of the state budget.” But it may also be because of the lack of value the legislature “that largely doesn’t understand, believe in, or fund marketing,” places on tourism marketing. This is a view shared by Chase.  “I think for a long time Vermont tourism has been operating on a shoestring. If we could do more statewide for tourism, it would benefit many small businesses throughout the state. One of the benefits of tourism compared with other businesses is that it is across the entire state. Investing in tourism is an investment in the Vermont economy. I think the investment probably is undervalued.”

The shoestring is forcing the Department of Tourism to get creative. “Most of our tourism promotion is digital advertising, email marketing, social media, and PR,” explains Knight. Digital marketing is particularly front and center, Schirling explains. “It’s the digital presence that is really the 21-century marketing mechanism for tourism in Vermont, not that the print publications aren’t great, and they are surprisingly well read given the decline in print readership over the years, but digital platforms are the cornerstone of the three million dollars we spend on tourism.”

Social media—especially YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—is also taking a lead role. “We instituted a social media influencer program last summer,” Knight explains, that’s increased the number of followers we have on Instagram by 65 percent.” While Vermont Life’s digital assets, social networking channels included, will remain owned by the state, and final decisions have yet to be finalized, it looks like they’ll be folded into the department’s main commercial website, VermontVacation.com.

Beyond that are the Vermont Vacation summer and winter guides, published in partnership with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce in printed and e-guide format and available for free. The website also hosts a Vermont Stay & Play Directory, an online vacation planning tool featuring the largest searchable database of Vermont lodging, dining, events, attractions, recreation, and shopping. A consumer newsletter also goes to 120,000 subscribers, often drawn from names gathered at trade shows and the like.

“I think we get a lot of return on that three million dollar investment,” Schirling explains. “Would we like to spend more in tourism marketing, recruiting workforce, and telling Vermont stories? Absolutely.”

Two key recent hires should also add a boost. Earlier in June Sara DeFilippi became the sales manager for international and domestic tourism, after serving nearly seven years as assistant director for partner relations at St. John’s University in New York City. She will be representing the state at trade festivals such as the International Tourism Show in Montreal; the American Bus Association in Charlotte, North Carolina;  and the AAA Travel Marketplace in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Timothy Simard, formerly Publications Manager at Vermont College of Fine Art (and member of The Bridge board) has become Director of Communications at the Department of Tourism.

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