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The Nevada Division of Tourism is finding that unique imagery of quirky travel destinations is driving big jumps in social media engagement.

— Greg Oates

As co-founder of the social media photo competition Reno InstaGrammys, Natalie Handler is used to toting a camera everywhere she goes.

But one of her latest projects was unusual: The camera wasn’t in her mobile phone; it was a 40-pound behemoth she hoisted onto her back.

The 15-lens camera designed to capture 360-degree images was part of the Google Trekker project, which collects Google Street View-style images for places cars can’t drive.

Handler was hauling it through the International Car Forest art installation near Goldfield as part of a partnership between Google and the Nevada Division of Tourism. Travel Nevada, the colloquial name for the division, was scheduled to announce the launch of the Trekker program March 22.

“I walked around and weaved in and out between all the cars to make sure I was hitting every nook and cranny,” Handler, 36, said.

The mission was a chance for Handler to do more of what she loves, exploring the dusty corners of Nevada and sharing them with others. It was also a modern update in the efforts to promote adventure travel throughout Nevada.

The Nevada Division of Tourism will post online unique footage generated by the Trekker at the car forest and about 20 other destinations and distribute the content to a social media audience that’s been steadily building for the past three years.

Since summer of 2013, when the division launched the “A world within, a state apart,” campaign, the Travel Nevada Instagram account has grown from 362 to about 15,500 followers.

On Facebook over the course of a recent month, Travel Nevada has reached more than 1.7 million people in the United States alone — almost all of them in the attractive 18-34 demographic, and many in the key markets of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Francisco and Salt Lake City.

Major tourism destinations such as Las Vegas and Reno have their own tourism authorities. That leaves Travel Nevada to focus on the rest of the state, which is where adventure tourism comes in.

Bethany Drysdale, director of public relations for the division, said the emphasis on blending adventure and social media has roots in the depths of the recession in 2011.

That’s when Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed Claudia Vecchio to lead the new Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs.

After his budget eliminated the former Department of Cultural Affairs, Sandoval created the new department, putting the Commission on Tourism, Division of Museums and History, Nevada Arts Council and Nevada Indian Commission under one roof.

Even after the change, however, challenges remained. The recession was in full swing and the governor and Legislature swept funds from departments throughout state government in order to preserve essential functions.

After peaking at more than $17 million in 2007, the operating budget, which is driven by room tax collections, bottomed out below $10 million in 2009.

Among the budget casualties was the adventure show “Nevada Passage.” The “Survivor”-style show featured athletes competing in races and other events throughout the state. It was sponsored by Land Rover and distributed as a 30-minute television program.

By 2013, the budget recovered to about $14.7 million. That’s also when the division unveiled the “Don’t Fence Me In” ads promoting adventure and featuring a version of the old cowboy song performed by the Las Vegas-based Killers.

“That is when we really started working everything together and creating social content that works with the campaign,” Drysdale said. “We’ve just gradually gotten better.”

The Appeal of Outdoors

Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, said compared to the depths of the recession, outdoors recreation, adventure and other quality-of-life factors are gaining significance when it comes to recruiting businesses.

That’s because when unemployment was high and business activity low, the region was focused on attracting distribution centers for large companies.

“In most cases, the decision-maker was not personally involved in the move so quality of life wasn’t as much of a factor,” Kazmierski said.

As the economy improved and the focus shifted to smaller companies that employ higher-skilled workers, outdoor recreation increased in significance, he said.

“If a decision-maker is involved, we have always brought the quality of life component,” he said. “They are deciding not just to put a company here; they are deciding to put their family here.”

For example, Cascade Designs, a Seattle-based manufacturer of outdoors gear and apparel, recently launched a manufacturing and distribution center in Reno that employs about 130 people.

Co-founder John Burroughs said that when making a decision about where to expand, outdoors recreation opportunities were a consideration along with tax rates and costs to do business.

The company also considered sites in Ogden, Utah, and Kent, Washington, before deciding on Reno.

“The only places we were looking at had those kind of advantages,” Burroughs said. “We wouldn’t do well in Kansas.”

In addition to moving a portion of Cascade Designs, Burroughs also moved his own home to Reno, at least part time.

He said the evaluation process for outdoor recreation was less precise than judging which community offered the best tax rates, for example, but there were some criteria.

“That is obviously pretty subjective, how many ski areas do they have nearby, how many climbing places,” he said. “Reno won on all points.”

Getting the Word Out

Part of spreading that message of Nevada’s outdoor offerings, to businesses and tourists, is the Trekker program’s blend of technology and social media appeal.

The car forest was one of about 20 remote or adventurous Nevada destinations the tourism division documented with the Google Trekker.

Others included the ghost town of Rhyolite, the Hickison Petroglyphs, Sand Mountain Recreation Area and Lake Tahoe State Park.

Sydney Martinez, who chose the sites and coordinated the project for Travel Nevada, said she tried to identify places that fit with the spirit of adventure the division wants to promote, as opposed to just picking the most popular places. The idea, she said, was to use the Trekker program to draw people deeper into remote parts of the state.

“There is more to Nevada than just a sea of sagebrush,” Martinez said. “Nevada has a lot of really cool history that gets swept under the rug.”

Getting more eyeballs focused on Nevada’s adventure tourism opportunities is just part of the battle, though.

The next step involves getting people to actually venture farther into the state for hiking, mountain biking and other adventures.

Small towns in Nevada are few and far between and many don’t have the infrastructure to attract younger visitors who enjoy adventure and action sports.

In Caliente in Lincoln County, city, county, Bureau of Land Management and Nevada State Parks officials have been working for years to develop a mountain bike trail system.

Recently the local, state and federal entities each received grants to push the project close to fruition.

But the fact it’s been on the table since at least 2012 and is only now coming together shows the amount of time and work it takes to diversify tourism in small towns.

“The historic uses predominantly have been motorized, much of the culture and economy is based on OHV races,” said Jon Prescott, a BLM research associate working on the Caliente project. “There hasn’t been that much attention paid to mountain biking and hiking.”

Stana Hurlburt, who prior to becoming mayor of Caliente helped develop mountain bike trails in Boulder City, said creating new tourism opportunities is critical for parts of Nevada beyond Reno and Las Vegas.

“We need an economic engine here bad,” she said. “We just need more tourism.”

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Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com

This article was written by Benjamin Spillman from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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