Señor Salsa is the new mascot for the culinary tour in Graham County. The campaign began two years ago after locals attended the Arizona Governor’s Conference on Tourism. A state grant helped pay to develop the tour idea and also to brand the Salsa Trail with its mascot.
Señor Salsa appears on the pages of a glossy guide that opens to a map of 13 of southeastern Arizona’s best Mexican restaurants, a chile farm and tortilla factory. He also appears on a t-shirt that proclaims, “I survived the Salsa Trail,” and on a new Web site (www.salsatrail.com). He’s doing exactly what he was branded to do — attract attention.
The exposure is expected to bring visitors by way of the Old West Highway to Graham County and its partnering counties — Greenlee and Cochise — to do more than just sample salsa at rural Arizona diners. Locals want tourists to stay overnight at the B&Bs, tour the mine in Morenci, bathe in the nearby hot springs, take the drive up Mount Graham, visit the Rex Allen Museum in Willcox, and otherwise take part in the outdoor recreational lifestyle this farming, ranching and mining region offers.
The Salsa Trail is one tiny taste of a strategic plan developed more than 10 years ago by the Arizona Office of Tourism (AOT) that encourages regional partnerships between tourist organizations all over Arizona. Called Teamwork for Effective Arizona Marketing (TEAM), it is a matching grant program that benefits urban, rural and tribal tourist organizations.
Competing for billions
With opportunity to reach more than the 30 million visitors who came last year to Arizona to spend nearly $19 billion, the pay-off to the state itself is huge. That kind of spending brings nearly $3 billion in tax dollars to Arizona. With those amounts, the AOT cannot afford to let competing states, such as California, Nevada or Colorado, home in on Arizona tourism territory. The TEAM grant program helps create new ideas and addresses the financial needs of communities that wouldn’t otherwise be able to market themselves effectively in-state, out-of-state or abroad.
“[TEAM] provides the resources communities may need to promote themselves,” says Mike Leyva, director of tourism & development for AOT. The funds can be used to create a new product, develop an advertising campaign, expand marketing efforts, update a Web site, host media tours, or conduct research to track visitor demographics.
38-page application tests commitment
The application process is time-consuming. At 38 pages, the application itself requires a marketing plan already in place and, because the dollars requested are matching funds, the applicant must also note how many dollars will be invested in the plan by the individual organization or partnership.
The application also asks where those dollars will come from, because they cannot come from other state grant programs. The answers to the questions on the application, says Jackie Mieler, AOT’s director of media relations and communications, shows the evaluation team how committed the applicant is to the marketing plan. Commitment is “the key to the program’s success,” she says.
Applicants must also be able to show why they are targeting certain demographics.
The AOT makes the process easier by providing research, training, education and technical assistance. To be eligible, applicants also attend a TEAM workshop where AOT employees teach how to write an effective grant application and also how to develop a marketing plan..
This summer, the TEAM grant provided 47 communities, regional tourism partnerships, tribal entities and statewide associations that meet the requirements access to more than $1.5 million in matching funds for fiscal year 2008. But not all applicants received funding. AOT actually received 53 applications this year. Those that did not provide a marketing plan, have the matching dollars, or were requesting funds for projects unrelated to tourism, were denied the grant.
AOT thinks of the grant as a reward for good planning, says Leyva, who is on the evaluation team.
“We want to make sure the communities are thinking strategically,” he says.
Successfully blazing the Trail
Graham County received more than $50,000 to beef up its marketing plans for the Salsa Trail. In fiscal year 2007, the same county received a similar amount to introduce the tour by developing the brochure.
That plan seems to be working; Graham County Chamber of Commerce Director Sheldon Miller has already distributed more than 15,000 brochures and the t-shirts are selling. However, Miller is quick to point out that construction of a new copper mine in Safford, which created a population and building boom, may have played a role.
“We’re getting bombarded with information requests; it’s so hard to tell why,” he says, unsure of the reaction to what is a uniquely Arizona attraction.
“Resorts have pushed their culinary efforts, but no one has done what we have, as far as I know,” says Miller, “It’s the first time [the Arizona Office of Tourism] got excited about us down here.”
And he knows his office couldn’t have developed the Salsa Trail without the state’s matching funds and technical assistance.
“We thought it was an absolutely fantastic idea,” says Mieler.
“They once complained, ‘All we have to eat is Mexican food,’ but they turned that into a positive…and now they can keep building on it,” she says of the state’s encouragement that Graham County continue to capitalize on its assets.
“We were thrilled that they took the initiative…Cuisine is very popular right now, and visitors are really looking for authenticity,” says Leyva, “You can buy a bottle of Pace, but wouldn’t you rather have El Charro’s brand?” El Charro is one of the restaurants on the Salsa Trail route.
While the TEAM grant provides access to additional marketing funds not otherwise available, particularly in rural communities, the grant also encourages participants to develop partnerships with surrounding communities so they can qualify for more funds. Individual entities qualify for up to $40,000, while partnerships qualify for up to $130,000.
The White Mountains Partnership, which includes nine different communities in eastern Arizona, including the White Mountains Apache Tribe and also the towns of Springerville, Pinetop-Lakeside, and St. Johns, was awarded $128,700 to develop a better marketing plan. Members will also attend trade shows and initiate a public relations campaign.
The lowest amount to be distributed this year went to Sunland Visitor Center in Ajo, which was able to match a grant worth less than $2,000 to print brochures.
The maximum amount — $130,000 — was awarded to the Prescott Area Coalition for Tourism (PACT) for the fourth consecutive year.
“They put in a lot of time and effort into their proposal,” Mieler says.
The coalition includes the city of Prescott, the towns of Prescott Valley and Chino Valley, the Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe, and the Yavapai Heritage Foundation. Susan Schepman, who handles their publicity and completes the grant applications every year, says partnering provides a way
for smaller communities to leverage smaller budgets successfully.
Success off the Trail
An example of that success, Schepman says, can be found by tracing the advertising campaign she ran in National Geographic Traveler last year. The ad was expensive and only 1/6th the size of a full page, but it generated 650 leads from the reader response cards. She also tracks what she calls “heads and beds,” or lodging taxes. “In the last two years, we’re up 20 percent,” she says. This year, she will revamp the PACT Web site.
The Verde Valley Tourism Council also received a TEAM grant this year. With their $38,610, and after they apply a matching amount, the towns of Sedona, Cottonwood, Camp Verde and also the new members, Jerome and Clarkdale, will spend the money on developing a regional brand.
“There’s a real movement toward collaboration and partnership,” says Jennifer Wesselhoff, president and chief executive officer of the Sedona Chamber of Commerce.
“Before, we were positioning ourselves as just a day trip, but we’re realizing we can market ourselves better together than on our own,” she says, explaining their new mission: to attract the overnight guests who can visit not just Sedona but the entire Verde Valley.
State program gives tourism partnerships a helping hand