Kimble-Huntley sees tourism opportunity in ‘customizable experiences’

PROVIDENCE – Anika Kimble-Huntley, chief marketing officer at R.I. Commerce Corp., sees signs of a tourism bounce back in the Ocean State despite ongoing challenges in the capital city.

Among the positives, she says, is that inflation at least so far has not kept visitors away.

“People are tired of staying indoors, and I don’t think people will stop traveling but will probably shift where they spend their dollars,” she told Providence Business News.

In her first year on the job, she’s extended the “drive market” the state has been focusing on during the pandemic to the Washington, D.C., area and partnered with R.I. Airport Corp. to better reach fly markets such as Denver and Nashville. She also has plans to target the Midwest.

- Advertisement -

Kimble-Huntley also hopes to begin rolling out soon a plan first announced in December to involve the public in developing a new user-generated tourism campaign for the state. 

• We’re halfway through the summer tourism season. How is Rhode Island faring? Can you share data comparing this time in recent years and before the pandemic?

Prior to the pandemic in 2019, we had visitation of about 26.2 million people and generated $843 million in state and local taxes. After the pandemic, tourism dropped to about 21 million [people] and local taxes fell to around $597 million. The trickle-down effect is devastating when we don’t have tourism. We all need to understand how important tourism is to Rhode Island’s economy, especially because of the size of the state. 

One thing that I am excited about is that we are beginning to see a bounce back. Hotel occupancy is up 8% this year compared to 2021, and February tax revenue is trending at 0.1% above fiscal year 2020, which is the last recorded pre-COVID performance.

There are still some opportunities for improvement in Providence, which struggled because the convention business was wiped out. Big concerts and sporting events weren’t happening, which affected Providence more than other areas of the state. 

The Providence College men’s basketball team had a great season while conventions,  sporting events and entertainment have returned. This will have a huge impact, especially on hotel occupancy rates. 

Another big thing to note is the announcement of the Army-Navy Game, which will take place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., in Dec. 2023. This is historic for New England. We expect 3,000 midshipmen in Providence when the Providence Convention Center serves as the host for Navy, and that’s not including their friends and families. We will establish an Army-Navy committee to discuss how we can amplify this huge event that will be a game changer. 

• You told us in December that you planned to collaborate with residents on deciding the next statewide pitch to increase tourism. Has that already happened? What did that process look like, and how did residents answer your question: “What do the people of Rhode Island think Rhode Island is?”

Shortly after I started, we had to go through an RFP process to identify a new tourism agency. It took time to develop a marketing initiative, and we are now working with The Zimmerman Agency. 

Some steps that need to be taken are coming up with concepts and how I plan to involve the public; there will be different messaging through surveys and focus groups to obtain feedback. It’s still a work in progress, but this is something I would love to have out there soon because it’s essential. 

ANIKA KIMBLE-HUNTLEY chief marketing officer at R.I. Commerce Corp., is expanding marketing efforts beyond New England while at the same time encouraging Rhode islanders to “stay and play.” / COURTESY R.I. COMMERCE CORP.

Since becoming chief marketing officer, what have you learned about tourism in Rhode Island? What changes have you made or are considering, if any, to how the state tries to grow this important industry?

We’re blessed to live in a state where you can have such varying experiences in like a day and a half, and there aren’t many places where you can do that. You can go to Providence and enjoy the nightlife or a sporting event or if you want a day at the beach or go biking and hiking, you can go to Block Island. 

It’s essential that we remember our history because the historical aspect of Rhode Island is a big deal. It’s something that I am committed to marketing more. 

We continue to grow tourism by advertising awareness, focusing on the fantastic amenities the state has to offer. It’s not all about going to a state and checking things out but more about customizable experiences. 

We are fortunate to receive grants to expand our marketing reach. We are now on billboards, streaming radio and streaming and cable TV. 

• Are you still seeing lingering effects from the pandemic, including hiring challenges and runaway inflation?

The hospitality industry, particularly hotels, was hit hard regarding staffing. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association has done a great job spreading the message regarding employment opportunities. They recently had a PSA about being kind to your waitstaff. 

Is there a resolution to that? That’s probably the $100 million question. I don’t think we, or anyone else in the country, have figured that out yet. The only thing that we can do is be creative. I’ve seen this with some of my colleagues across the country. They offer sign-on and referral bonuses based on how long you’ve been employed. 

Regarding tourism and the effect inflation has had, I don’t think it has significantly impacted travel. People are tired of staying indoors, and I don’t think people will stop traveling but will probably shift where they spend their dollars. Maybe they will make small changes like not going to a coffee shop five times a week and putting more money into a trip.

• What are you trying to do to increase air travel to the Ocean State? Is the current focus still on visitors within driving distance?

I’ve extended our drive market to include Washington, D.C, Maryland, and Virginia, so there will be a bit of overlap between our drive and flight market.

In addition to our drive market, we partnered with the R.I Airport Corp. They’ve done a fantastic job expanding direct flights into Providence. We’re now marketing in Denver, Norfolk, Va., Pittsburgh, and Nashville. 

Future marketing initiatives, which I can’t announce just yet, will target some major Midwest cities and further down south. 

• You’ve mentioned being a believer in database acquisition: What have you learned about the people who visit Rhode Island? What do they come for, and how do you propose we expand on that?

We’re finding common themes that many visitors to the state love culture. They want to see our beautiful art museums or great restaurants. The same visitors who come for the culture are the same that come for nightlife, as well as sporting events. 

One remarkable thing is that Rhode island doesn’t have many chain restaurants, so you get a sense of the local ownership. People remember that and are looking to come back to their favorite restaurants. 

And then there is a whole other luxury traveling. Because so many International flights were canceled, you had a core group of people looking for luxury who came to Rhode Island to experience the mansions or the Ocean House.  

There are also other opportunities to bring in tourists, such as ethnic-specific campaigns that we haven’t yet targeted through marketing efforts. However, it’s an area with significant growth potential. 

• Is anything new in the works for fall and winter tourism?

The great thing about tourism is that events can extend your tourist season. So think of events [such as] WaterFire, which is one-of-a-kind and is a draw. It brings a lot of authenticity to the state, allowing people to embrace culture and artistry. 

The biggest thing is that we want to create lasting memories.

Our regions have set up our event calendars so that there are hundreds of events year-round, and they can be found on

In terms of staple events for fall, there’s the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Zoo, The Newport International Boat Show, and The Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races & Taiwan Day Festival in Pawtucket. Of course, the holiday lights are at the Zoo and Polar Express Station in Woonsocket.

Another tourist draw is birding, which is a pretty big thing! In September, there will be a birding weekend on Block Island. 

South Country Tourism will host its first Atlantis RIsing International Sand Sculpture Competition on Columbus Day Weekend on Misquamicuit. There’s much excitement around that event. 

• Do you want to leave us any final thoughts regarding tourism in Rhode Island? 

I always want to say to Rhode Islanders: Stay and play in Rhode Island because everything you could ever want to do, you can do here. 

My second message is: Always be an ambassador of Rhode Island. Uplift the state and encourage friends and family to come to visit if they haven’t already!



  1. Great things are happening in the RI Tourism Market! Thank you for your guidance, Anika. You’ve already heard some of my input on our imaging and I look forward to elaborating and collaborating!