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Marketing Alexandria for the Holidays

2005 program is designed to sell the city near and far.

Alas poor Alex, we knew him well. Just not for very long. Whereas many Scottish terriers are around for as long as 15 years, Alex didn't make it to his first anniversary.

Alex, the black Scottish terrier, both live and stuffed, was Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association's holiday symbol in 2004. His entrance on the scene heralded the concept of promoting the city's Scottish heritage. He was to become the annual symbol of that heritage to compliment the annual "Scottish Walk" festivities.

That was last year. This year, with a new marketing firm, association has decided that Alex, although not entirely out of the picture, will have a far less prominent role. He has been unceremoniously replaced by a small young, blond girl in a red, hooded coat peering into a shop window filled with toys.

Titled, "The Gift Is Being Here," Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association's holiday event calendar urges recipients to "Shop, Dine and Celebrate on America's Historic Main Streets." By using the plural "streets" the inference is that visitors and residents should not only enjoy Old Town this holiday season but also all segments of Alexandria.

"While our marketing campaign concentrates on Old Town's King Street, we are selling the entire city. The more people we get into Old Town, the more we can encourage them to shop other neighborhoods as well," said Jo Anne Mitchell, president and CEO, Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association.

"WE STARTED off this year's campaign by holding five different meetings with 20 or 30 people at each meeting, representing businesses from throughout the city, to find out what they wanted in a marketing campaign. This is how we came up with this," she said.

When asked about the demise of Alex as the centerpiece, Mitchell gave two reasons. "There were some in other areas of the city that complained last year that the Scottish heritage did not necessarily apply to them." And two, "Alexandria's Scottish heritage is not necessarily known in our other marketing areas."

This latter rationale was buttressed by Mark Abrials, CEO, Abrials & Partners, the upper King Street advertising, marketing and public relations firm retained by ACVA to develop the 2005 holiday marketing campaign. "We wanted to create something that would have a little more Americana appeal," he said.

"We wanted to make it a family destination. Something that would communicate both history and vibrancy," Abrials said.

"We really wanted to do something this year that would help ‘brand’ Alexandria as a place to come to for a variety of reasons — not just a place to shop. We are hoping people come to visit, dine and celebrate in general," Abrials explained.

ONCE AGAIN this year Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association's holiday campaign is being financed by a $125,000 appropriation from city coffers. That money is in place of free parking for holiday shoppers that was offered in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

"We switched the money from subsidized parking to the marketing campaign at the request of ACVA. We cannot afford both. However, we will be providing free parking for the First Night New Year's Eve events," said Mark Jinks, assistant city manager, Fiscal and Financial Affairs.

"Following the switch from the free parking last year we got very positive feedback from the business community on the marketing campaign. And there is a great deal of parking in the Old Town area, both city-run and commercial," he said.

Free parking during the holiday season was instituted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when tourism slumped. It was estimated that parking during the holiday season, including metered, city-operated garages and expired meter tickets, produced an estimated $125,000 in revenue. That was the amount allocated last year and this year to ACVA's holiday marketing program.

Following the 2004 holiday season, most merchants asked to evaluate the marketing plan as a substitute for free parking were unable to compare the two because they were not able to identify actual results of the marketing effort as compared to normal shopper visits.

The one element several merchants focused on was the adverse impact of shoppers receiving parking tickets for expired meters. As one merchant stated in the 2004 after holiday survey, "When a customer gets back to their car and finds a ticket it usually means they'll do the rest of their shopping at the malls."

As verified by the city, most of the parking revenue generated over the holiday period arrived at the $125,000 budget item generated by parking tickets. But, as Jinks noted, the city provides a map on its Website and via a flyer showing all municipal parking areas, both garages and lots, in the Old Town core.

They are identified as to their location and when they are available: 1. Days, evenings and weekends; 2. Evenings and weekends only; and 3. Days only. The map also directs visitors to Metrorail, Metrobus and DASH.

Various parking facilities in Old Town can also be found on Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association's interactive map on its Web site, thefunsideofthepotomac.com or by going directly to the parking facility map at mapalexandriava.com, said Laura Overstreet, vice president, ACVA Communications.

Central to Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association's marketing of the "2005 City-Wide Holiday Program" is media exposure not only throughout the Washington metropolitan area but also in markets ranging from Philadelphia, Pa., to Richmond. This encompasses both written and electronic media and consumes more than $89,000 of the $125,000 budget.

OTHER OUTREACH highlights of the campaign include a direct mailer to 39,000 homes in the mid-Atlantic/D.C. metro region; transit advertising on Metrobuses in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties and Northwest D.C.; an e-mail blast on Nov. 15 to more than 20,000 addresses in ACVA's database; and a New York Times Great Getaway blast on Nov. 30 to more than 300,000 e-mail addresses.

This will be combined with holiday decorations that include seven professionally decorated trees placed throughout Old Town and Del Ray; entertainment that includes strolling carolers, Santa, elves, mimes, jugglers and other performers in Old Town, Del Ray and the West End on weekends throughout the holiday season; and a decorating contest for both residences and businesses.

Coupon books, being mailed this month, will contain vouchers valid throughout December with participating businesses, hotels and restaurants citywide. A separate restaurant coupon book will be mailed in January with vouchers valid through March.

Designed to "create a fun holiday ambiance and make shoppers feel welcome in Alexandria," ACVA's holiday decorating contest is divided into a nominating phase from Nov. 25 to Dec. 12 and a voting phase from Dec. 16 to 26. Details for each, and instructions on how to participate, can be found on FunSide.com home page.

Prizes will be awarded to the top-three businesses and residences based on the number of votes received. Prize amounts for each category and level are first, $100; second, $75; and third, $50. Winning businesses and residences must allow photos to be taken and used in 2006 promotional materials, according to ACVA.