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