The Eastern Regional Tourism District is offering grants of up to $25,000 to help regions expand their marketing budget and draw in more tourists.
If a campaign is chosen, the district will contribute double the funds raised by the campaign for up to $5,000. They will then match up to $15,000 of additional funds raised, with a cap of $25,000.
The district has so far awarded two grants of $25,000 each to the campaigns Think Mystic and Wide Open.
Chris Regan, manager at Olde Mistick Village and chairman of the marketing committee, said that the district wanted to support programs that focus on building up tourism in a region, rather than advertising a single business or group. He said the goal was to get people in a community to work together to promote the area.
The district has set aside $180,000 of the $400,000 it receives yearly from the Connecticut Office of Tourism to use for these grants. After a campaign applies for the grant and the marketing committee and the board of the Eastern Regional Tourism District approve the project, the state has to approve any creative or marketing campaign.
Randy Fiveash, director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism, said that in a normal year, the tourism industry is worth $15 billion, employing 123,000 people and contributing $2.2 billion to the state and local governments.
Fiveash — who said he knows there has been a decrease in tourism from last year, although he’s not sure by how much — said the tourism industry has probably been the worst affected by COVID
Regan said that, in spite of COVID, the Mystic area has done well during the summer. He attributes this to people who want to get away from New York City and Boston, and see the area as a safe place to go.
Regan, who is also one of the partners in the Think Mystic campaign, said that the goal was to make sure that tourists who come to the area are aware of the different activities that Mystic has to offer.
“We don’t want people to spend one or two days here,” he said. “We want three, four, five days here.”
Think Mystic is a partnership between Mystic Seaport Museum, the Mystic Aquarium and Olde Mistick Village. Olde Mistick Village contributed $25,000 toward the campaign, and the Mystic Seaport Museum and the Mystic Aquarium contributed the use of the website. Regan said he is trying to convince other towns in the area to donate to the campaign.
Regan said Think Mystic is focused on increasing the area’s digital presence. The funding would go toward redesigning the Mystic.org website and sponsoring Channel 8 for the holiday season, which would include a traffic camera and weather camera advertising Think Mystic. He said that Think Mystic had hired the New London-based marketing firm Quinn and Hary to design their campaign.
The other grant recipient, Wide Open, is sponsored by the Last Green Valley Heritage Corridor, which represents 26 of the 41 towns in the Eastern Regional Tourism District.
“We’re the green spot in the middle of urban sprawl,” said Francesca Kefalas, assistant director of The Last Green Valley, Inc.
The Last Green Valley Heritage Corridor hosts two major yearly events: Spring Outdoors and Walktober, where she said people come from around the world to hike, paddle, visit farms and walk the local trails.
Kefalas said that Walktober, which is celebrating its 30th year, would look different this year because of COVID. Normally, she said, they have over 200 walks, and last year they had over 95,000 participants. This year, they are doing 136 walks, 30 of which will be virtual. She said she didn’t expect the same number of people to participate.
But Kefalas said that trail usage in general had been up recently, and that more people were coming in from surrounding states.
“People want to be outside and having experiences right now,” said Kefalas.
According to Kefalas, the grant money would help The Last Green Valley with their marketing budget, which she said was small — $30,000 per year. The organization has contributed $25,800 to the campaign. The grant will go toward placing advertising in the New London Day and other newspapers as well as advertising on social media. The organization already distributes information to customers advertising local activities and businesses.
“What we want to do is to boost the local economy and keep doing what we’re doing to make the region special,” said Kefalas.
Other ideas for potential recipients of the grant include the Airline Trail, Greater Norwich and the Waterfront Community.
Regan said he wants the marketing partnership to become a yearly program. “This is only going to grow,” he said.
Applications for the 2020 grants will be accepted until October 31. There is an option to extend the program through the holidays.