State and local officials want to ensure the dream marketing scenario that is the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate at Centre College will pay dividends well beyond the windfall of quick cash spent by visitors for the event.
Following the debate in 2000, the state calculated direct tourism impact for Danville of about $650,000, which includes money spent on hotel stays and meals but not infrastructure improvements. The direct impact to the state was estimated at about $1.5 million, with a total impact of about $2.4 million when future expenditures of that money were factored in.
“We think it could actually be much higher this time simply because of the larger number of credentialed media,” said Mike Mangeot, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism, who was at Centre on Tuesday for a meeting with college brass.
School officials expect as many as 3,000 journalists and crew members to attend this year’s debate and as many as 78 million viewers — more than double the number who tuned in last time — could be watching from home.
“We took the approach of not just making this a travel and tourism opportunity, but also a chance for the nation and the world to see all the positive things happening with economic development in the state,” Mangeot said. “The direct expenditure is fantastic, but how can we also use that to tell a positive story about the state.”
Mangeot said his staff isn’t just promoting bourbon and horses — the ponies will be running at Keeneland — as bait for downtime dollars.
Mangeot’s office also is providing detailed information about the workforce of more than 9,000 people who help distill Kentucky’s signature drink, the markets opening up for bourbon in places like Asia, and the scope and importance of the horse industry.
While it’s important to help the political heavyweights enjoy their stay, Mangeot said much of the focus is on a massive pool of journalists with myriad ways to tell stories that were lacking in 2000. During the last debate, blogs were not vying for eyeballs and credibility alongside traditional print and television reports. Social media, and the smart phones that have made them so ubiquitous, were years away.
The state has started twice-weekly email “blasts” that include information about the state and potential story ideas to a list of 4,000 political journalists. Mangeot said television and web producers also are being supplied with high-definition B-roll — background footage for news segments.
Marketers evaluate the effectiveness of their message not only by looking at the reach of paid advertising, but also what is known as earned media. In the past, that could include anything from word of mouth to a positive mention in a news story, but now it could be a place in a Twitter feed.
Mangeot said the earned media exposure from the last debate was valued at about $5 million, but he believes that number will increase significantly. This time, the number of foreign media are expected to open up new international audiences as well.
Jennifer Kirchner, director of the Danville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said hotels in both Boyle and Mercer counties are booked solid for the debate and have been for a while. However, she concurred with Mangeot about the importance of seizing the chance to get the message out about the community and state instead of only concentrating on the heads-in-beds for one weekend.
“Economic development has been my guiding light,” Kirchner said about her approach.
Kirchner said Danville and Boyle County will get some prominent space to provide information and story ideas in promotional notebooks given out to all of the media members. Guests, including those who attend the Governor’s Media Reception the night before the debate, will get brochures and cards telling them places to dine. Some local businesses, such as Karmel Kreations, have agreed to provide samples.
Kirchner said the debate already has been a plus for local businesses.
An unexpected influx of people and transient dollars also resulted from recent push to get volunteers to staff hospitality tables at local hotels and work the Debate Festival on Centre’s campus the day of the debate. Kirchner said a call for volunteers brought in help from all over the state, with many of the people planning to stay in the area.
While her focus would usually be strictly on those coming from outside the county, Kirchner said she is also hoping to generate some excitement among locals. She said the fact many local schools, as well as Centre, are on fall break could allow kids and their parents to get out and about.
“The goal is to have Main Street as busy as possible,” Kirchner said. “We want everyone to get out, be involved and feel the energy of this.”
Kirchner said she has been in contact with Centre about getting some assistance calculating the debate’s impact on the local economy.
Julie Nelson, co-owner of Maple Tree Gallery on Main Street, hopes the revival of downtown as a place to eat, socialize and shop will bring in more business than what she has heard was generated in 2000. She is optimistic a combination of fall break and ample lag time between the first presidential debate Oct. 3 in Denver and the debate at Centre will mean more people coming to town earlier. In 2000, there were only two days between the first presidential debate and the vice-presidential debate at Centre.
“I am hoping people will be coming in ready to explore Danville and see everything we have to offer,” Nelson said. “Everybody is getting very excited.”
Guests for the event aren’t the only ones pumping money into the economy. Danville City Engineer Earl Coffey said much of the work being done to spruce up downtown and other areas would have been done eventually, but the debate necessitated a large volume of work such as trimming trees, painting and making street repairs.
Because there was so much work, Coffey said the thousands the city is spending is going to local contractors. While the paint jobs fade, economic developers say the distinction of Centre and Danville being the smallest college and town, respectively, to host a national debate can be a long-lasting trump card for them when they are dealing with business prospects.
Jody Lassiter, president and chief executive officer of the Danville Boyle County Economic Development Partnership, said the success of the 2000 debate is a calling card that will only be more effective in years to come. He talks about it with commercial and industrial prospects and said it gets a positive response whether he is talking to someone from the United States or abroad.
“It sets a city of our size apart,” Lassiter said. “It demonstrates we have the resources and the ability to pull off something of this magnitude. It shows a national and really a global audience what we are willing and able to do to make something big happen.”
Lassiter added, “There’s no debating the point” to Danville’s slogan “It’s better here,” on written and email correspondences soon after the announcement was made. Lassiter said the power of hearing moderator Martha Raddatz say some version of “coming to you live from the campus of Centre College in Danville, Ky.” is a unique branding opportunity other towns of comparable size can’t match. It’s a singular distinction the state also has emphasized on its website and as a tie-in to its “There’s only one Kentucky” promotions.
“We have to look at how we leverage this,” Mangeot said. “There’s only one vice-presidential debate, and it’s being held here in Kentucky at Centre College in Danville.”