Tahoe businesses focus on marketing | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe businesses focus on marketing

Susan Wood

Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Workers update the signage on the Harrah's billboard at the bottom of Highway 50 in Carson City on Wednesday.

With diminishing marketing funds and a highly competitive U.S. tourism arena, South Shore businesses have learned how to hunker down – especially since marketing studies show people are hit with at least 7,000 messages a day.

The business climate has turned serious now that the Tourism Promotion Business Improvement District disbanded in part because of an anti-tax sentiment and a recommendation from city leaders to cut off its subsidy to the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, which markets California’s South Shore.

Some examples of how businesses compete to survive are subtle. Others are straightforward. Many seem textbook, while a few represent what Alpen Sierra Coffee Co. owner Christian Waskiewicz refers to as “innovate or die.” He’s run the Stateline-area coffeehouse for 15 years, and he competes with six Starbucks in town.

Rude Brothers has taken its sample bagels to the road. Massage therapist Marla Gayle Saunders will take her table and chair to offer a sampling of the service at the Tahoe Winter Expo Friday at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe.

“It builds on the business. Not everybody wants a massage next week,” she said.

Harrah’s has kept billboards at Highway 50 near Carson City to promote shows at the lake. The LTVA will launch its winter print campaign Sunday in the Los Angeles area. And California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will show Texans the wonder of skiing Tahoe’s Heavenly slopes in the state’s tourism commission television commercials.

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From the small to large, many businesses agree the key to success is being creative and providing excellent service at the very least. Some advocate pooling their resources as the LTVA has with the casino corridor interests of the Tahoe Douglas Visitors Authority, which kicks in 40 percent of the funds for the $2.3 million tourism agency.

The efforts casinos use are multi-faceted. Harrah’s taps into advertising, sales, public relations and electronic marketing to get its message across.

“You have to cut through the clutter to compete. There’s information overload. You do what you do to have your product noticed,” spokesman John Packer said, advocating a collective effort. That’s why its sales manager, Steve Lowe, has joined a South Shore consortium of sales people in the casino corridor in efforts to draw visitors from other destination areas.

Harrah’s contributes to LTVA’s Blue World campaign designed to build brand image. It also uses its massive database to tap into direct marketing techniques and reach its loyal customers.

Camp Richardson Resort does the same thing. But marketer Missy Springer said without the product, no amount of marketing will help.

“It’s not necessarily the amount of money you spend on an individual business. It’s what makes your product unique,” she said.

Either way, she advises businesses with a limited income try to develop a Web site.

Eric Eymann of the Station House Inn and Lew Mar Nel’s restaurant agreed.

“You have a better shot as a franchise for that name recognition,” he said. “That’s why advertising is so important.”

Eymann, the president of the South Lake Tahoe Lodging Association who served on the BID, believes it’s unfortunate the town doesn’t have the resources to compete at a level of say Las Vegas’ $85 million in the coffers. But he’s also convinced the city should have a specific role as a “collection agency” for marketing efforts.

“I don’t want them to tell us what to do,” he said of local business operators.

Mayor Kathay Lovell, who worked in marketing at Caesars Tahoe and Verizon Wireless, also thinks the city’s role in promotion should be limited.

“I don’t think it’s government’s role,” she said. In recent years, the city has reduced subsidies to the two marketing arms on the South Shore, the LTVA and South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce.

Serving on the subcommittee for the budget that passed Tuesday, Lovell said she compared this city’s 1.2 percent marketing allocation to Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. None goes over 2 percent.

She stressed the importance of customer service to compete with the likes of places like Las Vegas. Lovell finds it disappointing that when the Lake Tahoe Community College sponsors its guest service academy, no one or only a few people show up.

“This is the only way business is going to survive. Not every business grasps that,” she said. “I think what we learned in the BID process is that a lot of small businesses don’t feel connected with how the LTVA helps them,” she said.

LTVA will stay on course with its print campaign. After that, the board will decide how to proceed.

As for the chamber, Executive Director Duane Wallace said he expects the visitors center to remain with reduced hours and look seriously at merging with the Tahoe Douglas Chamber of Commerce.

He also believes the area has a customer service problem. He proposes the city work on its infrastructure. This would include the Highway 50 improvements such as lighting. The city hopes to address the subject when it explores a business improvement district along the major thoroughfare.

“It’s kind of shocking how dark it is,” he said.

The other idea for a lodging-sponsored business improvement district to fund marketing struck Stateline public relations magnet Phil Weidinger as an excellent proposal to keep the LTVA in business.

“No one entity can do it all. We have to work smarter,” he said, adding the area and individual businesses must invest in the future. “We can’t relax. Everybody must pitch in.”

Above all, this means getting out a company’s most distinguishable feature and selling it. Marketing encompasses more than advertising – but also public relations and sales.

“We need to look at what we offer the consumer and (promote it) in a different way,” he said. Weidinger’s business cards read “the lights are on and people are thinking.”