How Social Media Saved Lake Arrowhead When City Ad Budgets Ran Dry

social media case studiesPicturesque Lake Arrowhead, just 90 miles east of Los Angeles, has long been a peaceful refuge for celebrities, film executives and families. More than 120 movie studios have filmed here and the area hosts several big-draw events every year.

Yet the lake community does NOT have a rock-star budget.

With a small percentage of county tax dollars, the Lake Arrowhead Communities Chamber of Commerce must support two visitor centers, multiple events and promotion for the area.

The community has long turned to print advertising to keep visitors coming. But everything changed in 2009.

Small businesses were folding and sponsors were pulling back support of major events.

“Toward the end of 2008, I realized that I would have no discretionary money for advertising in 2009,” said Leslie Saint McLellan, director of marketing and tourism. “Our county grant money would only allow us to continue on with our events and operate our visitor centers. I was just dumbfounded. What are we going to do? How are we going to manage?”

McLellan had heard of Twitter and Facebook, but the part-time marketing director just hadn’t found the time to look into them yet.

“I knew this was something I had to know, but this was the kick I needed,” she said.

With 2009 about to start, McLellan jumped head-first into researching social media and soon posted her first tweet. Now a year later, the community has completely replaced print advertising with social media and closed out 2009 with more lodge bookings than the year before.

Organization: Lake Arrowhead Communities Chamber of Commerce

Social Media Stats:

Twitter: @lachamber, 700 followers

Facebook: Lake Arrowhead Chamber, 317 friends

McLellan’s marketing blog

Results:

  • Lake Arrowhead competes with bigger-budget attractions with the help of social media.
  • Asking concert-goers to tweet generated 15,000 tweets in one weekend.
  • The lake grew year-over-year bookings despite losing its advertising budget.

Small Budget? You Can Still Compete

An unincorporated part of San Bernardino County, Lake Arrowhead receives a small grant each year based on county tax revenue—$133,000 in 2009. Nearby Big Bear Lake has a budget of over $1 million.

The Lake Arrowhead Communities Chamber runs lean, with McLellan working just 10 hours per week. Yet it must compete with everything else the region offers.

“While Lake Arrowhead has always been a tourist destination, it was very difficult for us to compete with the beach and the desert and everything else there is in Southern California,” she said.

In her position for nearly 20 years, McLellan recognized the value of the web in tourism marketing early on.

“In 1994 I convinced our board of directors that we needed a website and we ended up embracing destination marketing via the Internet in its early stages. All of a sudden we were able to compete much better with other areas that had substantial marketing budgets.”

Social media was the next frontier. McLellan started by opening Twitter and Facebook accounts. Though daunting, she jumped in, reading and experimenting with tweets and status updates.

When she lost her assistant due to budget cuts early in the year, she found an enthusiastic college student majoring in marketing in Los Angeles to research social media tools. He discovered HootSuite and TweetDeck to make social media simpler for McLellan.

With HootSuite, a Twitter client, McLellan consolidates tweeting to a few minutes first thing in the morning by pre-scheduling all tweets for different times during the day.

With analytics in HootSuite, she knows how many people clicked on links and where they are. When she learned that half of her click-throughs come from Europe, she started scheduling tweets to run during their daytime.

On TweetDeck, she catches all references to Lake Arrowhead and hashtag mentions. Her favorite tweeters (including @smexaminer) go into their own column for easy following.

One Weekend—15,000 Tweets

During the summer, thousands head up to Lake Arrowhead for Southern California’s largest free concert series. The Lake Arrowhead Summer Concert Series features more than 30 concerts from May to September.

Last summer, McLellan put Twitter to the test during the concerts. The emcee asked the audience to tweet about the concerts right there using a hashtag. After the busy July 4th weekend, she was astonished to track on TweetDeck over 15,000 tweets mentioning the concerts—just from one weekend.

Even more impressive, Lake Arrowhead didn’t have anywhere close to 15,000 followers. Today, followers number about 700—much higher than last summer. Concert-goers tweeted about the event and were retweeted. Moreover, the community’s residents and regulars tweet and retweet devotedly.

“On Thursday of each week, we started tweeting about the concerts coming up that weekend,” she said. “It’s almost like we have an extra little army of people out there with second homeowners and concert-goers who talk about Lake Arrowhead and that gets our name out. Somebody will pick up something about Lake Arrowhead somewhere and it just grows and grows.”

She’s also impressed by the longevity of a tweet. Early on, they used hashtags for everything. A hashtag for the annual spring Lake Arrowhead Film Festival “was a saving grace.”

“For about a month after the event, it kept on living through the hashtag,” she said. “Before [Twitter], the day after, you’re done.”

Knowing that, this year they plan a contest with prizes for the most quality tweets with the film festival hashtag (#laff). In letters to filmmakers, she let all participating film folks know about the contest, encouraging them to join in.

Lake Arrowhead Film Festival Promo Trailer from David Dibble on Vimeo.

Lake Arrowhead uses Facebook to post videos and photos for events.

Bookings Grow Without Ad Budget

A year ago, newbie social media marketer McLellan would never have expected to be teaching others how to use these new tools. She has even started her own blog—Just A Small Town Girl —to help others who are marketing with little or no budget.

The impact of social media surprised her, and the Chamber board. In 2009, the Chamber spent $500 on advertising, down from $15,000 the year before. Twitter and Facebook alone filled the gap.

“Social media was like winning the lottery,” she said. “It took the place of seven months of advertising in a national magazine as well as print media in general for us.”

Most importantly, 2009 topped the year before, and 2010 is already ahead of this time last year.

“I’m in total awe that this actually worked, when I think of the fall of 2008 when we were panicked. I have to give the board of directors credit for saying, ‘Go ahead and try this.’ It was such a leap of faith but it certainly paid off for us.”

McLellan’s Lessons Learned1. Jump in.McLellan had zero social media experience, but she learned fast. “Social media is so positive you really should just jump in. No-one’s going to crucify you if you do something wrong.”

2. It’s like a small town.

The longtime resident of Lake Arrowhead found social media not unlike her small town, with many willing to offer guidance. “Just ask,” she says.

3. Don’t fret about details.

“Don’t get mired down in the details,” she says. At first, she worried about how to use hashtags, but realized it’s more important to just post regularly.

4. Find an energetic intern.

A marketing major does research on social media tools and strategies for McLellan, who does all actual postings. The intern learns in the process.

Have you used social media to promote an event or destination? If so, share your experience and tips below.

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About the Author, Casey Hibbard

Casey Hibbard is Social Media Examiner's case study writer. She is also president of Compelling Cases Inc. and author of Stories That Sell: Turn Satisfied Customers into Your Most Powerful Sales & Marketing Asset. Other posts by »




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  • http://www.writerscreativestudio.com Lou Belcher

    Great post and a good one to point to make people into social media believers. Thanks!

  • http://dinodogan.com/ Dino Dogan

    SME posts are amazing on average but this post raises the bar…esp since I didnt expect much based on the title and the theme…the lessons here are quite universal and the real-life example really drives the point home.

    I like the paragraph “When she learned that half of her click-throughs come from Europe, she started scheduling tweets to run during their daytime.”

    I think thats something twitter residents often forget. Its been an ongoing discussion on one of my posts if the good folks visiting SME care to check out..I promise not to disappoint.
    http://dogandogs.com/how-to-get-retweets-dog-trainer-20

    The” lessons learned summary” is something I totally endorse..just jump in, get it out there, be kind and get help…dont fret the details…it rings true in imho.

  • http://www.jillianshaw.com/ jilliansmitty

    Great inspiration for small biz owners, non-profits with no budget! I’m totally sharing this with my readers :)

  • http://www.insidethewebb.com/ Inside the Webb

    Such an inspirational story. Social media truly is changing the world around us!

  • caseyhibbard

    Dino,

    Thanks so much for your comments! Leslie was incredibly energetic and passionate about this, so their story was easy to tell.

    Hopefully it inspires other small fish to jump in.

    Casey

  • caseyhibbard

    Great to hear! Thanks Jillian.

  • http://dinodogan.com/ Dino Dogan

    I think it will…great job Casey

  • http://phylliskhare.com/ Phyllis Khare

    Great story – and such a wealth of detail. Thank you for putting this one together. I especially liked the bit about how they figured out their audience was in Europe and scheduled their tweets in hootsuite for the best time for them.

  • mmccomber

    I hate to be a wet blanket but it’s altogether possible that LA’s previous marketing efforts were completely ineffective and their “year over increase” in bookings due to their new efforts might have been statistically random. They’ll only know for sure if they have a data collection system (however modest) and measure things using the usual methods of marketing analysis. If I were on the board and I asked the question, “What’s the ROI on your Twitter and other SM efforts”, what kind of answer would I get? It’s laudable to try SM but how do you “know” to continue and in what fashion? Thrashing about is hardly a strategy. As a last question, how did that website turn out? (of course, the question is meant to be deeper than it seems)

  • http://twitter.com/kalalea Mark Gehrke

    I appreciate all the great examples in this story.

  • http://twitter.com/charlielaugh Charlie Laughtland

    Our agency used to work with Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa so I really enjoyed the insight you provided. It’s encouraging to see what a little creativity can do.

  • andrewhealy

    Great to hear but they should have their Facebook page set up as a Business and not as a Person (profile) as this is a breach of Fb’s terms and conditions and can (and will) be shut down by Fb with no notice. I know from first hand experience. They need a Plan B before their Fb presence is wiped out. Don’t delay and DON’T SET UP THEIR BUSINESS PAGE UNDER THE EXISTING PROFILE

  • http://waltgoshert.com/free-lead-generation-report/ Walt Goshert

    Casey, Superb post and Case Study.
    Lots of lessons here for small biz, non-profits…heck, anyone trying to market on a limited budget.
    1. Get a Digital Native on board. A sharp, motivated intern to figure out what you don’t know about social media… Even better!
    2. Use the free online tools like HootSuite.
    3. Pay attention to what the activity is telling you and make adjustments. The Europe thing…
    4. Tie into an Event and have others… prospects and clients… do the heavy lifting of telling your story and spreading the word..

    These tools are FREE. Facebook, Twitter, HootSuite. A passionate, energetic intern.
    Why wouldn’t you do this… Today?

    P.S.— @mmcomber Valid questions… however, based upon personal experience working with CofC and Country Club Boards filled with local biz owners, (usually with ego agendas) it’s amazing how often the tough questions never get asked. Just sayin’. Oh yeah, I also kinda wonder why if the Chamber jumped on the Internet bandwagon right outta the gate in ’94…and it worked… why were they even burning bucks on print?
    Grant money… smoke ‘em while ya got ‘em.

  • Jenni Wright

    I’m interested in the comment “For about a month after the event, it kept on living through the hashtag”. I’m on Twitter (of course) but a novice there. Can someone help me with what the hashtag is about, or does? Thank you.

  • http://leslie@justasmalltowngirl.us Leslie McLellan

    Thanks so much Andrew – as we discussed via FB that is on our list to do immediately…and guess what? It is now done!! Thanks again for your comments!!

  • http://leslie@justasmalltowngirl.us Leslie McLellan

    Thanks so much for your comment and I’m glad I have the opportunity to reply ~ due to being funded by San Bernardino County, I have tracked the effectiveness of every bit of advertising we have done over the past 18 years. We must account to the county for every dollar we spend on marketing and our ROI is proven via the transient occupancy tax (TOT) collected annually. Our national magazine advertising campaign was fabulous, but social media (in 2009) beat it. Our funding is based on the TOT collected by the county. Our funding has been growing steadily each and every year based on the amount of overnight visitors our area receives. To make this really simple, this year our funding (based on 2009 TOT collected) was more than the previous year, which had been a great year for us. In 2009 the only method of advertising we could do was social media. Our board (21 members) as well as the county looks at everything down to the penny. So we are convinced that social media, at least for our resort community is a real winner. Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to address this!!

  • http://leslie@justasmalltowngirl.us Leslie McLellan

    HI Walt,

    I responded to @mmcomber so I hope that answers your questions. I think it is great when you can have a diversified marketing program encompassing a variety of media outlets. We’ve done everything from movie theater advertising to billboards to print to cable TV and radio to what-have-you over the years, in addtion to internet marketing. When push came to shove and we had no other choice, I think it is fabulous that our board embraced (again) something they knew very little about and it was such a success for us. Our grant money is bases on the TOT collected from our community – which goes to the county as Lake Arrowhead is not a city but an unincorporated area so we do not get to keep those tax dollars. I do hope our success does help other non-profits and small businesses – if we can do it, anyone can!!

  • http://leslie@justasmalltowngirl.us Leslie McLellan

    What a wonderful article Casey! You told our story so well and you were absolutely terrific to work with. A huge thank you goes out to you from Lake Arrowhead!!

  • mmccomber

    Of course your SM ROI would in theory “beat” your print campaign, your SM budget was probably near infintesimal in comparison (one good thing, don’t have to worry about too much financial accounting there!). What I’m referring to is knowing for a fact who/why/etc that those people in Europe came to LA for your events and stayed at those establishments which collected that TOT. I don’t think TOT will tell you much qualititative marketing information (maybe I’m wrong), only how many and when (and there are so, so many other questions!). Do your establishments help you in gathering qualitative data? Hopefully your board won’t be swayed that now that your SM campaigns are so “successful” that you’ll NEVER get that print campaign reinstated becuase you didn’t “need” it. That website might even be seen as a “suspect” expenditure if the board isn’t thoroughly provided with meaningful data, “fabulous” nothwithstanding. PS: I liked that video spot, who were all the players? I seem to have recognized a few of them vaguely.

  • mmccomber

    …and may it work with them well in the future, Charlie! Maybe you can help Leslie with the analysis piece. Nobody ever likes to do that part, but agencies do that….so well.

  • mmccomber

    Well said. So much for the services of the neophyte marketer from Los Angeles.

  • mmccomber

    Walt: If you can cultivate ONE smart person on the board, you can get those “translation” services put in place for free! Your “why” question is well placed. The exact answer is known by Charlie (no, I’m not an employee or shill), backed up by the numbers. The DIY mentality is good to a point, then that’s how “Holmes on Homes” makes his money! best to shoot at your own programs before those other “yocals” drill you themselves! That way you don’t have to worry if they mean well or not!

  • mmccomber

    Not to send you elsewhere, but I just read an article on this same website that explained that whole thing, in fact I think it was “Mari” who has a video that will get you started (I don’t work for this website, either). I’m still trying to absorb HOW the hashtag can help (in detail, not in general). I just googled MARI HASHTAG VIDEO and went right to it! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAHitI26MmE. I kept thinking how she needed a more symmetrical background (like the background the President gets when he speaks, a blue curtain with a logo on it; hers smacked of “on the run from the law making pirate videos in my hotel room”, despite the good content it had in it. Heh heh.

  • http://leslie@justasmalltowngirl.us Leslie McLellan

    I love your questions! We are a very small resort destination so everyone (all lodging, retail and attraction businesses) help us collect data so we have a pretty good handle on what goes on. The bottom line to marketing our destination is that we look forward to the day when we can go back to an integrated marketing program, but in the meantime, we are thrilled that social media worked out so well for us. Again, I do want to reiterate that we track absolutely everything we put dollars toward so we are confident about social media’s effect on our community. The actors that you see in our film festival trailer are Chris McDonald, Ernie Hudson, June Lockhart – they are all part of our community too!

  • http://waltgoshert.com/free-lead-generation-report/ Walt Goshert

    Hi Leslie,
    It’s refreshing to hear marketing success stories… especially bootstrap approaches that other business and non-profits can use.
    I agree… diversified Media plays make sense IF they are Market and Message matches that will generate acceptable ROI. Unfortunately, my experience (did some work years back with Summit County,CO when tourism budgets got slashed from state funding) is too much money gets burned on Media for small town “political” reasons. Now, I have no clue about LA’s players, don’t know you, or how things get done there… and have NO desire to get in the middle of any kinda pissing match here.
    My point is simple. In the New Economy to compete… small business, non-profit, tourism boards… as a marketing pro, you gotta ask the tough questions. Good thing you can answer those questions with low-cost or free social media marketing tools.

  • http://leslie@justasmalltowngirl.us Leslie McLellan

    Thank you so much Walt!!

  • http://waltgoshert.com/free-lead-generation-report/ Walt Goshert

    Funny how SMART biz owners on Chamber and Country Club Boards are often times so stupid about marketing. Typically, it’s not how they would do things in their own businesses. I just now returned from a local, small town Chamber meeting where my CPA brother (and Treasurer of the Chamber) asked me to present a marketing overview and ideas of using social media. They asked me of course to volunteer my time to help. I suggested they do exactly what Leslie did- hire a smart, energetic, passionate digital native Summer Intern instead, and politely declined to offer my time. Too much brain damage. Does that make me a bad citizen?

  • http://www.ablogaboutnothing.com ABaN

    This is definitely a reminder of how potent social media can be, but how many of us have the opportunity to get in front of a crowd of thousands at a concert and ask everyone to tweet what we want to say?

  • http://leslie@justasmalltowngirl.us Leslie McLellan

    Thank you for bringing up the concerts! Thousands come up throughout the summer to see one or two of the 40 free concerts we offer. Our venue holds about 1200 people seated on the grass and at picnic tables. I wouldn’t want you to think we were some really big venue ~ but by having free concerts and other events we have certainly found a wonderful tourism niche. At this time we know that tourists are looking for inexpensive things to do and by tweeting and Facebooking about our free events and asking our visitors to help us – that turned out to be a very powerful combination.

  • http://www.myzerr.com/ Slade @ Myzerr

    A great example of how effective Social Media can be. I’m also aware of communities in Phoenix that are using social media to offer rewards to local community members. An exciting new era.

  • http://startups.com/ juliacassidy

    Wow! Nice story, kind of touching in fact. It is amazing to see how social media sites can give people the opportunity to grow in the business world without the need for a large capital. That gives equal opportunities of success and growth for all of the people out there with an original idea and with the willingness to work on it.
    Great article.

  • http://www.internetmarketingservice.co.uk A Samuel

    Victory for the little guy, always good to hear. Casey you told the story so well ;)

  • http://www.allbusiness.com/sales/customer-service/10783-1.html Glenn

    I like the fact that this post is actionable, not theory. We need more examples of life at the tactical level. As someone trying to get a handle on how to engage people through social media, this was very helpful. I linked to it in my blog.

    Thanks.

  • http://impactpontiac.blogspot.com Kanette

    This was very useful. I live in Pontiac, MI which is also a small urban community and I’m trying to learn more about how to draw positive attention to the community.

  • http://www.ubervu.com Alexandra

    What I find interesting and exciting is that Leslie actually thought about ways in which her experience could help other people and started blogging all about it. Kudos for that! And best of luck from now on!

  • http://leslie@justasmalltowngirl.us Leslie McLellan

    Thank you for your kind comments Alexandra! How nice of you to take time to post!!

  • http://www.sterlingpayment.com Ed Whittle

    Great post. New to twitter. Trying to help businesses grow. Thanks for the ideas.

  • JoanneSteele

    Thanks for all the detail about how you worked with social media. Just posted a reassuring post today at my blog, http://ruraltourismmarketing.com, to rural tourism services providers who are still resisting social media. I will have an easy day tomorrow since you covered the how-to’s and results so well! I’ll be simply linking to this wonderful post, giving Lake Arrowhead a standing ovation for the great work!

  • http://leslie@justasmalltowngirl.us Leslie McLellan

    Wow! Thank you Joanne!! I hope we meet sometime at a CTTC event. I was on the Rural Mkt. Cmt. in the mid ’90′s – California’s Rural Tourism program has come a long way since then and I see you have played a great part in that ~ Kudos!!!

  • http://www.niwot.com Heather Morgan

    Thank you for this great article! I work with a small town in Colorado their social media & marketing, and it’s great to read these success stories. We are going to try out hash tags at our next big event. Loved the tip on HootSuite. I have had good luck integrating Twitter with Facbook in new ways like Selective Tweets, making our FB page updates easier too.

  • drd4u

    Casey we’re doing a study on rural social media – we’d consider it an enormous favor if you hear of small communities that are located distant to metropolitan areas, please ask them to holler our way?
    drd1201@gmail.com or twitter http://twitter.com/drd4u thanks love the story and the work you do.

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  • http://hipcider.com/ tdhurst

     Will one of their Facebook friends please tell them to create a page instead of a profile? They might lose their hard work.

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