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Ohio’s New Tourism Executive Is Searching for the State’s ‘Cool’

Jan 11, 2014 2:00 pm

Skift Take

With a new agency and a budget devoted to tourism, Ohio has a better shot at telling its story to outsiders. But it’s going to have to be an interesting story to get people thinking about Ohio.

— Jason Clampet

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A former marketing executive for Bob Evans Farms who has been tapped to be Ohio’s tourism director is looking beyond farm fresh for what makes Ohio cool.

Mary Cusick, 58, worked for the Ohio-based restaurant chain owner for more than 30 years. Now as head of TourismOhio, she is charged with working alongside an advisory board of tourism and travel industry leaders to develop a marketing strategy for the state and help boost the number of visitors here.

“I want to be able to give Ohioans every reason in the world to stay here, visit Ohio and really experience Ohio,” Cusick said during a recent interview with The Associated Press.

A 2012 law created the TourismOhio office and established a new funding model for its budget. Its marketing dollars are based on sales-tax revenue growth experienced by travel and tourism businesses. The office is in its first year of the new funding model and has $10 million.

Cusick stepped into her role in early December. She plans to work on a spending plan for the marketing money with the advisory panel, which met for the first time several weeks ago. Cusick said one of her main priorities in the new year is building a brand for the state.

“I’m not sure what people think when they think of Ohio,” said Cusick, who was chief marketing officer for Bob Evans Farms Inc. until January 2011.

The state’s tourism agency has had success with its promotional campaign — “Too Much Fun For Just One Day” — but Ohio lacks a slogan or tagline, she said.

“We have to look around the world and understand what makes us unique and distinctive,” Cusick said. “The best way to build a brand is to be authentic.”

Ohio saw 188 million visitors in 2012, an increase of 5 percent from 2011, according to the latest figures from the state. Most visitors lived within 300 miles of their destination.

State lawmakers and the governor’s administration have been looking at ways to improve Ohio’s image and market it as a tourist destination. They see the industry as key to Ohio’s economic development.

Gov. John Kasich has said Ohio has an image problem to overcome.

“How do you tell people about what we have?” Kasich told reporters last month. “The cool factor matters.”

The governor also has turned to Les Wexner, the founder and chairman of L Brands Inc., to help tell the state’s story. The Columbus-based company, formerly known as Limited Brands, owns Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.

“When people get on an airplane and they move to Ohio, they never leave,” Kasich told a gathering of business leaders at a mid-December event. “It’s getting them here to understand what we have.”

Cusick said she looks forward to highlighting Ohio’s faces, spaces and places — from historical figures and luxury spas to amusement parks and Hocking Hills State Park.

“I think, really, people would be surprised at the quality and the level at which they can experience Ohio,” she said.

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