Celebrities will never be Edmonton’s cheerleaders

There’s no such thing as bad publicity – isn’t that how the saying goes? That might have been a good maxim in the past, but I’m not so sure that Travel Alberta and EEDC would agree with it in the current social media-laden world. Both agencies have taken a virtual beating over the last week for their decision to spend $20,000 to bring former “Bachelorette” star Ashley Hebert and her fiancé J.P. Rosenbaum to Edmonton. The couple was flown in from New York, stayed at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald, visited the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Old Strathcona Farmers Market, and the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, and ate at Joey’s. They seemed to have a good time, judging by their tweets, and both Travel Alberta and EEDC have been defending the expense. But questioning whether or not the trip was worth it for us is just one of the many questions that Edmontonians have been asking.

Perhaps the first question is: why Ashley and J.P.? The answer is demographics. Despite having eight seasons under its belt, “The Bachelorette” remains an incredibly successful show for ABC. And significantly, it performs very well in the all-important 18-34 demographic. In fact, the show is #1 in its timeslot for that demographic. Reaching potential visitors in the 18-34 age group is an important target for Travel Alberta and EEDC. Those are the folks that have the disposable income and ability to visit, and they’re also the group that might want to move here to work or to start a family.

Another question that comes to mind is, what do we get in return? Travel Alberta and EEDC will tell you that the return on investment comes in the form of media coverage. Incredibly, they think that we’ve earned at least $250,000 in media coverage. I suspect that figure is based predominately on the number of page views a website gets. Well let me tell you, I could put up a website with photos of the trip and spend a couple of hundred dollars and within hours I’d have hundreds of thousands of page views, but they’d all be completely worthless. Take a look at the coverage that EEDC has been highlighting. Here’s the “coverage” that appeared on CBSNews:

cbsnews

How is that photo supposed to make anyone want to visit Edmonton? Or how about this article or this blog post. Would anyone seriously look at that and say, you know, I want to visit Edmonton! I know that you have to stay top-of-mind if you want to be considered, but it feels like we’re deluding ourselves here. I think the most valuable exposure we got from this trip was the tweets from Ashley and J.P. themselves, yet that doesn’t appear to have been factored into that $250,000 number.

Let’s assume that bringing Ashley & J.P. was a good investment because of the target demographic we want to reach and the media coverage that we received as a result. Did the itinerary align with that? The couple stayed at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald. Aside from the fact that the hotel doesn’t seem to match the couple’s style, it’s probably not the first place a 25-year-old visitor might consider. Why not have them stay at The Matrix or The Metterra hotels? The folks at Hotel Mac are fantastic, and I’m sure they took great care of Ashley and J.P., but it doesn’t seem like the right choice. I certainly can’t complain about the activities – the Fringe, the AGA, and the OSFM are all excellent stops (though I would have preferred to see them at the City Market Downtown). Sending the couple to Joey’s for dinner, however, was shocking to me. Travel Alberta talks a good game about culinary tourism, but this makes me question everything about their efforts on that front. You fly them all the way to Edmonton to eat at a chain? I know that independent restaurants can sometimes be trickier to work with, but if you’re not going to do it right don’t do it at all. You know which restaurant is not on Dine Alberta’s list of those that serve local food? Joey’s.

Could Travel Alberta and EEDC have taken a different approach? If you’ve seen “The Bachelorette” (judge me if you must but I have) you’ll know that the show is really more of an extended travel commercial than an emotional quest for true love. The bachelorette and her potential suitors fly all over the world to attractive, romantic destinations. Beaches, mountains, and busy cobblestone streets are all common sights. If reaching viewers of “The Bachelorette” is important, why not work to have Edmonton and Alberta featured as one of the destinations on the show itself? At least that way we’d be able to showcase our natural beauty and probably one or two interesting activities too. Maybe Travel Alberta and EEDC have tried to make that happen, I’m not sure, but it does seem like the return would have been greater.

I really hope that Travel Alberta and EEDC both review this experiment and learn from it. We need creative and innovative approaches to attracting tourism and investment to Edmonton, but that still has to align with strategic objectives. I would hate to see the individuals responsible for this reprimanded – instead I hope they are recognized for their initiative but educated about the importance of providing context. The uproar over this relatively minor $20,000 expense could have been almost completely avoided. And while it’s great to see Travel Alberta and EEDC working together on something, it seems to me that a few more discussions about shared objectives should have taken place first.

Ultimately, I don’t think we should ever count on celebrities to be Edmonton’s cheerleaders. Sure they might tweet something about how much they loved Edmonton, but at the end of the day that has very little impact, and there’s no guarantee that media coverage will result. The connection between bringing celebrities to Edmonton and the increased tourism and economic activity that may result seems tenuous at best. Instead of focusing on a few celebrities here and there, let’s focus on the 1.2 million people that already have a strong connection to Edmonton. Let’s provide Edmontonians themselves with the confidence, tools, and common language to tell others just how great Edmonton is and why they should come here to live, work, or play.

I’d spend $20,000 on that, wouldn’t you?