Columbia OKs new branding campaign

COLUMBIA -- It's official. Columbia is "Famously Hot."

The Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism on Tuesday endorsed the region's new tag, as well as the brand "The New Southern Hot Spot."

The phrases will be used in a series of ads in trade journals aimed at meeting and convention planners as soon as September.

"What attracts (planners) might not necessarily attract local people," said Bob Livingston, one of two Lexington County members on the nine-member board. "But I think this is going to be great for the Midlands of South Carolina."

The brand will replace "Riverbanks Region: Where Friendliness Flows," which travel professionals viewed as vague and ineffective.

If the budget allows, ads also could be purchased in mainstream publications such as Southern Living to attract leisure travelers, said Kelly Barbrey, vice president of sales and marketing for the city's convention and visitors bureau.

Meeting planners "are our target audience," she said. "But we want to put together a comprehensive media plan."

To pay for the campaign and other sales efforts, the bureau has asked hotels to voluntarily institute a destination marketing fee: $1 added to daily room rates to support the bureau.

For each $2 raised by the fee, the state department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism will kick in another $1.

The tourism authority's president and CEO, Ric Luber who also oversees the visitors bureau said he hopes the fee will generate up to $750,000 annually.

The money would be added to the bureau's $1.4 million budget, which is mostly funded by the city of Columbia, Richland and Lexington counties and other municipalities.

That budget is lower than Columbia's main competitors for convention and meeting business.

For example:

• Birmingham, Ala.: $7.2 million

• Charleston: $7 million

• Asheville, N.C.: $6 million

• Richmond, Va.: $3.9 million

• Raleigh, N.C.: $3.5 million

• Greenville: $1.8 million

One of the challenges is that local governments also fund the state-established Capital City/Lake Murray Country tourism agency to the tune of $1.2 million last year.

Only 19 of the area's 123 hotels have signed on to the program so far: 11 percent of the properties.

However, most are the larger downtown hotels, such as the Hilton in the Vista and the new Sheraton on Main Street. They represent 30 percent of the area's approximately 10, 500 hotel rooms.

Tony Tam, manager of the Hilton and the Hampton Inn on Gervais Street, said he is participating because the tourism bureau "just doesn't have enough dollars to be on the playing field with some of the cities we compete with. It's a no-brainer."

Also, another 2,500 or so rooms are planned in the area in the next 18 months, according to the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.

In addition to print ads for trade journals, Lora Prill of Columbia's ADCO advertising agency, which developed the brand with the help of community partners, said "hot" can be used in direct marketing as well hats, T-shirts, buttons, etc.

"We want to see (partners) deliver it personally as well as through media," she said.

The ADCO agency and tourism authority hope other attractions such as Riverbanks Zoo and EdVenture Children's Museum as well as entities such as the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties adopt the phrases and incorporate them into their marketing campaigns.

"We're going to be actively cross-pollinating this," ADCO president Lanier Jones said.