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Rebranding a nice fit in Berks as tourism numbers rise

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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
The Kutztown Folk Festival, which is now underway, is the oldest continuously operated folk life festival in America.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO The Kutztown Folk Festival, which is now underway, is the oldest continuously operated folk life festival in America.

Berks County’s Americana brand is succeeding in luring visitors and filling hotel rooms, say observers with a stake in the game.

“Pennsylvania’s Americana Region,” adopted in October 2016, was chosen to encompass the wide variety of interests and activities in the Reading region.

“I think it’s a nice fit for all the different things that are offered in the area,” said Steve Sharadin, director of the Kutztown Folk Festival.

The brand has done very well in its first year-and-a-half, said Crystal Seitz, president of Pennsylvania’s American Region, formerly the Greater Reading Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Visitors have shared with us that they love the new brand and believe that it represents our area well,” Seitz said. “Locals have said the same thing.”

The bureau’s research showed that older visitors were attracted to the culture and heritage sites that Reading is known for, while younger people sought different activities, including outdoor recreation and “foodie culture” in the surrounding Berks communities.

The branding as Pennsylvania’s Americana Region provides a comfortable, homespun, Americana experience that includes arts, culture, history, festivals, outdoor recreation, all spread throughout a beautiful countryside, according to Seitz.

OUTPACING STATEWIDE NUMBERS

In the heart of Reading, Craig Poole said the region’s new brand is catching on.

“Like most rebranding, it will take time to filter into the local community and the traveling consumers,” said Poole, president and chief operating officer of the 209-room DoubleTree by Hilton Reading Hotel, which opened in December 2016.

He cited figures that show good news.

In Berks, increases in hotel revenue and demand for rooms have outpaced state figures since “Americana” became official. In January through April 2018, hotel revenue in Berks was 12 percent higher than the same period in 2017, according to a report from London-based STR, a global data and analytics specialist. Revenue was 24.4 percent higher than the same period in 2015.

In Pennsylvania, hotel revenue for January through April 2018 was 10.4 percent higher than the same period in 2017, and 17.4 percent higher for the same period in 2015, according to STR.

EXTENDING THEIR STAY

Poole said the hotel is seeing more people on what he called “tournacations” – sporting teams visiting to play in tournaments and, while here, extending their stay to visit local attractions.

Many visitors come from northern New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Delaware, Poole said.

And they come for Americana culture, he said: “American rock and roll, jazz, blues, Christian bands and country and western are the venues that attract the largest audiences.

“We are experiencing a significant increase in traffic when the Santander Arena offers Americana music and shows,” he said of the venue in downtown Reading.

OPTIMIZED SEARCHING

One challenge, Seitz said, was been maintaining awareness while switching to the new brand, along with a new website and internet address.

When the bureau announced the new brand, Sharadin wanted to ensure people searching for things to do in the Reading area would find the bureau’s new website.

From the point of view of prospective tourists, he searched for terms such as “Berks activities,” and was happy to find they led him to the right spot.

57M DIGITAL IMPRESSIONS

Sharadin has seen more visitors on the Kutztown Folk Festival’s website but can’t be sure the visitor bureau’s website is driving that increase.

The original rebrand-awareness campaign included strong efforts using email, Google search optimization, Facebook posts and digital banner ads in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Seitz said.

It was successful, with more than 57 million digital impressions of the new brand and more than 55,000 visits to the new site, Seitz said.

Might the Americana brand clash with an alternative identity for the Reading region that includes mountain biking, jazz, fine art, music and theater, ethnic food and cultural diversity?

“I guess it depends on someone’s perspective of ‘Americana,’ ” Sharadin said. “It could include all those things.”

MORE FUNDING SOUGHT

Sharadin and Poole said more funding for promotions would bring more tourism.

Poole said the visitors bureau is “severely underfunded,” leading to a lack of other tourism-promotion efforts.

“Increase the funding, and tourism will increase,” Poole said.

Pennsylvania is behind other states in promoting tourism, Sharadin said, citing the “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign.

STAGNANT BUDGET

The visitors bureau gets 19 percent of the county hotel tax, with 79 percent going to the Berks County Convention Center Authority and 2 percent retained for administration.

The bureau’s budget has not changed for the 2018-19 fiscal year, Seitz said.

The visitors bureau received about $507,000 from the hotel tax in 2017, up from about $466,000 in 2016 and about $425,000 in 2015.

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