Kimble-Huntley: Time to be ‘thinking differently and thinking big’ on tourism

PROVIDENCE – “Thinking big is going to be one of the things that is going to set us apart from other states” on tourism, said Anika Kimble-Huntley, the new chief marketing officer at R.I. Commerce Corp.

And part of thinking big in the nation’s smallest state also means thinking differently, says Kimble-Huntley, who’s been on the job since Sept. 7.  How differently?

She recently told Providence Business News in a wide-ranging Q&A interview that Rhode Islanders can expect a new tourism campaign to replace the successful “Fun-Sized” videos first launched in 2017.

But here’s the twist: She wants residents to help decide on the next statewide pitch to lure visitors because, she says, nobody knows the Ocean State better than they do.

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“There is an opportunity for us to do something that is user generated,” said Kimble-Huntley, who has more than 20 years of marketing experience, mostly outside the state. “What do the people of Rhode Island think Rhode Island is?”

• What should people know about you that will give them confidence in having you at the helm of the state’s marketing and tourism program?

I am a very collaborative person. My key points are collaboration, creativity and innovation. The reasons are, while I have been doing destination marketing and hospitality marketing for casinos and attractions for the past 20 years – doing it for the state is the same but on a bigger scale. I also recognize that there are brilliant people who have been here a very long time who know their business. And when you have a collective group of people like that, working together in collaboration, only great things can happen. That’s one reason why people should be very comfortable with me in this position.

The other reason is that I am a very forward-thinking person. So, while there are lots of short-term needs that we currently have, I also have my eye on the ball in terms of the long-term goals needed to make sure the state is in a successful place when it comes to visitation and tourism.

• The last tourism marketing campaign launched by the state was in 2017, with the “Fun-Sized” videos. Will “Fun-Sized” be brought back in 2022 or should we expect something new?

I think although we’re the smallest state in the union we have an opportunity to think big. Thinking big is going to be one of the things that is going to set us apart from other states. That means thinking differently and thinking big. In terms of branding, there is an opportunity for us to come up with options that people are comfortable with. I think it would be amazing to bring the communities together and ask the communities how they define Rhode Island. Nobody knows the brand of Rhode Island, or the feeling that Rhode Island can give to people through an experience the way that the community can.

In terms of a campaign, I think there is an opportunity for us to do something that is user generated. What do the people of Rhode Island think Rhode Island is?

• R.I. Commerce all but shut down marketing efforts to attract visitors from out of state last year, though many still came to Block Island and other beach destinations. In what ways has the pandemic hurt the state’s tourism most, and what needs to be done from the state’s end to repair the damage?

The marketing for the state did not stop. There was a shift in focus, in terms of who was targeted. The target market was really focused on the drive market, as people weren’t comfortable flying into Rhode Island, and a lot of international visitations had been completely wiped out. So, the focus was to retool and focus on the drive market.

In terms of what has happened to the state, in 2019 there were about 26 million visitors to the state. And then in 2020, that number went down to about 21 million. What has been hurt the most has been the tourism piece, because when there is a lack of visitation there is a trickle-down effect where there are less people in the hotels, less people visiting attractions – you have weddings canceled, and events that aren’t happening. It’s been hard overall in the United States period. So, I think in terms of challenges moving forward there are going to be concerns for COVID-19 and its variants. But our opportunity will be to continue to communicate our safety protocols and demonstrate to people through accountability how we’re keeping people safe in our communities.

Another challenge is business and international travel, which has been down. The piece we have an opportunity with, in terms of recovery, is creating a statewide destination marketing strategy and the launching of technology-based marketing solutions, to learn more about the visitors that are coming, and their preferences. I’m a big believer in database acquisition, because the more that we know about the people who are here, the more we can re-target them, and bring them back.

• The hospitality industry has been among the most devastated during the pandemic. Can tourism grow here with restaurants unsure if they can meet staffing needs? And is R.I. Commerce involved in coming up with a plan to nurse that industry back to health?

When you look at neighboring states, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and look at our tourism spending, it is down about 4% year-to-date October compared with 2019. Connecticut is down 10%, and Massachusetts is down 17%. So, our recovery is outpacing our [neighboring states]. Our high vaccination rate has really been a strength and continues to be a strength. We continue to communicate that, and I think that gives people the desire to come and visit the state.

Regarding the restaurants, food costs have gone up, staffing is an issue, inflation, and then there is the issue of a lack of business travel. I think that although the restaurants are seeing a hit, there is still opportunity. I’m very optimistic, and I know that restaurant industries are very resilient. But I do believe the travelers to the state will continue to contribute to that industry, because people can only be cooped up for so long. We saw that as soon as some of the COVID restrictions were lifted people started coming out of the woodwork from all our drive markets. So, there is opportunity for growth to continue.

There is a lot of federal funding that is coming to small businesses, and I think that will have a great impact on making sure they can keep their doors open.

• How well has statewide tourism bounced back?

Statewide tourism bounced back a lot more than any of us really expected, and that is based on the trending numbers regarding spending. I think that is based on a few things: visitation – three Newport mansions that are open have seen about the same visitation rates to-date that they had in 2019; weddings – so many were postponed during the pandemic and now are coming back; and leisure travel – we are seeing an increase in that market. So, I think there are a lot of elements that are going to bring people back even more in full force to the state.

• Is there more your office can do with Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport operators to promote the state’s attractions?

Yes. They are one of our partners. Some of the discussions we’re having with them is what can we do to make sure we are promoting direct flights into Rhode Island. Iftikhar Ahmad [CEO and president of the Rhode Island Airport Corp.] and his team have done some great work with Breeze Airways. And there is opportunity for us to support that work even further by going into those actual markets where these direct flights are taking place and incentivize people to get on the plane and come here. So, there is a lot of work that we can do and will be doing in the future.

• You recently toured the state and met with the leaders of the six tourism regions. What did you learn from the regions’ leaders?

I learned a lot of great things from them. I learned about the leaders; I learned what their needs are; and how we can ensure we are pooling all of our resources together to elevate and amplify the state and bring people here.

My biggest takeaway was making sure that all their needs are being met, and R.I. Commerce Corp. is always considered to be a strategic thought partner for them. I think we have an opportunity to do a lot of innovative things with the regions. One thing we identified is that there is a need to really think about and ideate signature events that focus on the off-season. That could mean taking an event that has been successful during the season and winterizing it.

• How do you see the state and regional tourism districts working together to bring tourism back to pre-pandemic levels, and do you expect that to happen by next summer?

The variants put such a wrench into everything we are doing that it is really hard to predict if we’ll reach pre-pandemic levels by next summer. I think that people in the U.S. are learning to live with this virus. And Rhode Island is very resilient, and the state has learned to be flexible and adapt and continue to move forward.

One example came out of my visit to Newport when I spoke with Evan Smith [CEO of Discover Newport] and his team. We spoke about how great hotel week was and the thought of turning it into hotel month. On Black Friday we launched hotel month, where we partnered with over 30 hotels statewide to offer discounts of up to 40% off beginning Jan. 1 through the end of the month. So, the goal is to bolster tourism and hotel occupancy during the off-season, but also through that collaboration a great idea was born and implemented immediately.

We will create signature events. In my experience that is always a big driver of people, when you create something, and you’re known for it, people continuously come back for it. So, we will create more of those types of events, and work with the regions to do that. And we will partner with [RIAC] to promote flights coming into Rhode Island, as well as find ways to bring back international travel. It’s all about making sure that we are leveraging and packaging Rhode Island’s diverse collection of arts, culture, history, cuisine and education, and creating all of these unique experiences for visitors.

• What are your thoughts for leveraging federal aid to support or address marketing and tourism needs in the state?

There is a lot of short-term needs that we have to balance and make sure we’re not overriding our long-term goals. And our long-term objective is to attract visitors to the state year-round, and at the same time create and sustain high-quality jobs, support small businesses, and continue to make Rhode Island a great place to work, live, study and have great experiences. Our goal with federal aid has been divided into four areas: paid advertising in partnership with the regions, working with the regions to develop new attractions and destination events, upgrading technology and the state’s tourism website, and doing a strategic analysis on accessibility in the state, meaning moving people around the state – being able to get to Newport seamlessly or being able to get to South County seamlessly.

• What role do you see the business community playing in aiding the state’s tourism efforts?

The business community is an essential piece of everything that we do, because it’s the business community that is such a huge part of our economy. I think there is an opportunity for a local business that typically has its meetings in Las Vegas, and I am from Las Vegas, but they will be OK with it, to have their meetings here. Help our convention business; help our meeting space, because we are taking all of these things outside of our economy when we really need to keep them here at home. We have so many beautiful places to do these things. The same goes for making sure that businesses in the state are supporting each other. If you can change a contract from out-of-state to in-state, think about it.

One thing Rhode Islanders can do is continue to tell family and friends to come and visit our state, because there is nothing like referrals and word-of-mouth, and the sharing of experiences, that will help us grow. Our residents are our biggest ambassadors, and if every person can share with people they know how great the state is, and some of the amazing experiences they can have here, from each part of the state, I think that would only continue to help us.

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman

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