Live nearby? Big cities want your vacation business

Kansas City on sale? Positively no June nights like Chicago's? Once you've seen Cleveland, you won't want to leave? It is all part of an intensive, largely new, summer advertising campaign by many of America's major cities. The aim is to convince potential tourists in nearby states who cannot afford a trip to Tahiti or even New York City that a choice, if long overlooked, vacation spot lies only a tank of gasoline away.

The cities, which long have been active in courting convention traffic and new business and industry, are taking their cue for the new pitch to tourists from the success of such state campaigns as "I Love New York" and "Virginia is for Lovers" -- and from the state of the economy.

Air fares are up 30 percent over last year. And while gas is available, the price of a tankful and the often-limited station hours have prompted many Americans to rethink their vacation plans.

A survey made two months ago by the US Travel Data Center indicates that only 42 percent of the US population plans to take a vacation trip over the next six months, compared with 51 percent last year.

One reason cities are competing so hard for tourists is that many have come by more tax funds to spend on ads:

"I think the Midwest and some of these other cities are just catching up to the big resort centers, such as Las Vegas and Miami Beach, which have always spent a lot on advertising," explains Charles Rixse, president of the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus.

The city promotion ads usually run in newspapers and on radio stations within a 300- to 600-mile radius. And, while the ads project a distinctly glossy image of city attractions, the message is basically one of economy, proximity, and variety. There is no promise to duplicate the scenery of the Catskills or Colorado Springs.

"We're frankly saying we're a compromise," says Joe Kramer, director of marketing at the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City. "We're trying to appeal to and intercept the family that might have gone to New Orleans or Florida in years past."

Kansas City's new campaign, which drew a response from 5,000 potential tourists right after the first ad appeared in May, features discount coupons and lures Americans from Des Moines to Tulsa with the line that the bargain city is only "a hop, skip, and a jump away."

A few of the larger cities have been reaching out for tourists longer and have learned from the experience. St. Louis tourism officials, who have been running regional ads for more than a decade and have just finished the traditional spring blitz on a "St. Louis is a fun place" theme, know from surveys that families are the prime outside visitors and that ads must accordingly be pitched to family activities.

Chicago, where the tourist ad campaign is only two or three years old, is making a decided switch this year from the general to the specific-event ad.

"In the past, Chicago has been promoted as a great place to visit," says Wayne Dunham of the city's Convention and Tourism Bureau. "Many who read out ads agreed, but they came by only after seeing the Kansas City Royals play or the Shakespeare Festival somewhere else. . . Of surveys found that the ads weren't the third that were getting them here and that the city needed something more to see."

Current Chicago ads stress such events as June weekends on Navy Pier, with free evening music, and the July 4 celebration, featuring a Grand Park concert complete with firing cannon and "taste of Chicago" sampling of restaurant specialties along Michigan Avenue.

Cleveland, in its new tourist ad campaign, which gets under way July 7, will stress rediscovery of assets many living nearby may have taken for granted. On the theme: "Come and see it -- you won't want to leave it." Potential visitors to Cleveland are reminded that the city has one of the nation's three marine parks, one of four National Aeronautics and Space Administration tourist centers , and a unique pipeline history museum.

One strong side benefit of much of the advertising, officials admit, is a boost in local pride.

Indeed, a new "Explore Milwaukee -- be a tourist in our hometown" campaign pitched to local residents is under way in that city by means of newspaper, radio, and billboard ads. The city already has had one "button" day when residents could buy for $1 a button admitting them free for the day to any of the city's tourist attractions.

"It was a cold, miserable day, but we didn't get one adverse comment," says Glenn Neesely of the city's convention and visitors bureau. Indeed, it was no successful that the city is planning a second rediscovery weekend July 12.

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