Last summer, when gas prices hit jaw-dropping record highs, many tourism and convention bureaus and sports festival organizers scrambled to take proactive steps to attract budget-conscious travelers. Hotels offered free $25 gas cards and extra night stays for the same price. Some events offered a "buy one, get one free admission" to lure visitors.
With an eye on the nation's job market and unemployment at the highest levels in recent years, this year savvy festival and sports events organizers will need to be even more aggressive in seeking out partnerships and special promotions to keep visitors coming to local and regional events.
"We have found that the sports travel business is not recession proof, but if we can find ways to make these trips more affordable and value-driven, we know sports families will continue to travel to regional competitions," notes Dave Beachnau, executive director of Detroit Sports, part of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We are working with hotels and restaurants to provide the best value we can get so our families will continue to travel."
Many of the sporting events Beachnau works with rotate locations from year-to-year. Last year, despite high gas prices, 13,000 young athletes and their families traveled to Metro Detroit to compete in the AAU Junior Olympic Games. "In recent years, that figure hasn't changed much," he added. "But we found that families want more value for their money. They want to spend less on hotels and meals and they want incentives to help them offset the costs. As an example, we saw more people staying at economy and value-added hotel properties, like those that offer complimentary breakfast, in an effort to save money. They are still traveling, but are more frugal in their spending patterns."
AAA surveys support Beachnau's view. Virtually all of AAA's travel surveys in 2008 showed small declines in summer and holiday travel, due to gas prices and economic issues. Those who did travel expressed greater interest in stretching their tourism and travel dollars. More AAA members showed their AAA card for discounts on hotels, car rentals and restaurants. More travelers took advantage of AAA's new free-to-the public Internet Trip Tik Travel planner - which at the click of a mouse provides a fuel-pricing service and the ability to look at room rates and hotels to select less expensive lodging.
As a friend of the traveler, AAA has tracked gas prices and tourism trends for decades. No surprise - when economic times are good, travel goes up. When times are financially more challenging, the number of travelers generally decreases. While many travelers will downsize their travel plans, AAA notes that organizations that work together in partnerships to promote travel and tourism traditionally fare better.
Sue Bila, executive director of the 858-member Michigan Festivals and Events Association, says her members are working to be more creative in 2009 to help attract more festival-goers. "The hotels are more interested than ever in partnering with a festival or special event, even hotels which historically didn't need or want a partner are now working with local festivals to try to attract travelers. We've been working with musical and entertainment groups to find more affordable options which will be of interest, but more within people's price range. Everyone involved in tourism knows this will be a more challenging year than last year - but if we create a unique package more affordable for a family, with a valuable deal on hotels and meals, it will better serve all of us."
Last year, AAA travel surveys underscored the impact of high gas prices on travel - more people said they would travel closer to home, take fewer trips, and reduce the number of vacation days they enjoyed. With some collaborative and creative thinking this year, those who plan sporting events and festivals should be able to come up with some solutions which will encourage travel despite the economic downturn.
For its part, AAA has teamed with domestic and international travel industry leaders to offer special savings on an unprecedented set of travel experiences. The effort is intended to boost the number of Americans traveling this year and spur an increase in overall economic activity in the process.
"At AAA's request, many of the world's leading travel providers have come forward with outstanding special promotional discounts, extras and upgrades to help get American moving again," said Amy Nicholas, managing director of Tour, Cruise and Product Development for AAA. "World-class cruise lines, tour operators, hoteliers, theme parks and other special destinations are working with AAA in bringing consumers the widest-possible menu of incredible travel opportunities over the next few months. We are positive new and experienced travelers will like what they see," she said.
An estimated $700billion is spent on travel annually and the travel industry directly or indirectly employs 7.5 million Americans. It contributes hundreds of billions of dollars of global trade and enriches our collective understanding and appreciation of other people and places. And AAA surveys have long shown that whatever shape the economy is in, people still want to enjoy recreational and travel opportunities with their family and friends. The more affordable the offering, the more likely it will be a "hit."
For more information about AAA and its suite of services (including travel, insurance, financial and automotive-related services) visit www.AAA.com.