For a small town, Hopkinsville, Kentucky has some big-time lessons on how to plan and host a mass tourism event that will only happen once. The town is still figuring out how to use the positive PR to its advantage and how it can convince some of the eclipse chasers to come back.
Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a small town of about 33,000, isn’t typically on most travelers’ bucket lists or even radars. But for a few days last month, the town was the center of the universe when it found itself with what officials believe was more than 100,000 visitors seeking the path of totality of a total solar eclipse.
Dubbed “Eclipseville” by Visit Hopkinsville, the town’s tourism board, the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 only lasted two minutes and forty seconds. But town and tourism officials had been planning for the rare celestial event for nearly a decade.
Planning for an event with a magnitude of the eclipse – the first to cross the entire continental United States since 1918 and the first visible from the U.S. since 1979 – wasn’t something the town was accustomed to. It wasn’t until the tourism board received an email on June 1, 2007, from a vendor who wanted to be involved with eclipse festivities that it discovered it would be the town closest to the greatest extent of the eclipse.
From that email the ball began rolling, said Cheryl Cook, executive director of Visit Hopkinsville. “I told them we didn’t work 10 years out, we work five years out,” said Cook. “But when I started researching and saw what a big event it would be, I knew we had to plan early.”
“I brought it up at every board meeting, every meeting with the mayor,” she said. “They listened, but it didn’t quite catch on yet. Since this was the first one we’ve had in so long, once it did catch on it started rolling like a bowling ball. We started having meetings with attraction people and hotel people. We also met with restaurant people but found that they’re harder to get to a meeting.”
But post-eclipse, perhaps one of the tourism board’s biggest challenges is determining how to capitalize on all the publicity it got from the event — and how to market that success for years to come.
Many of the visitors who camped out, booked hotel rooms, and ate in the town’s restaurants will never return. And since it’s unlikely that another total solar eclipse will occur perfectly above the town, the conversation shifts to how Hopkinsville can apply what it learned to its annual festivals and large events.
Cook said the town is still tallying the economic impact and the total number of visitors for the event; she projected between 150,000 and 200,000 would show up.
“I could never afford all the PR we got for free,” said Cook. “We need to keep it in the back of our minds to somehow use the community in the advertising going forward.”
Reflecting on the eclipse itself and the decade-long preparation leading up to it, Cook shared some takeaways with Skift on what she learned that any destination large or small should note if they host a once-in-a-lifetime, mass tourism event:
Stretch Even Tiny BudgetS
“We had close to $60,000 to $70,000 total carved out for the eclipse from the [convention and visitors bureau] budget over the past 10 years,” said Cook. “In September 2015, our mayor hired an eclipse coordinator who had a lot of experience in large events. The coordinator didn’t have much of a budget, but she worked closely together with the CVB. That’s also around the time we started meeting with Homeland Security and other agencies to make sure we’d have a safe event. We launched eclipseville.com around that time too, which was entirely dedicated to the event and had all the planning resources.”
But, she said, the entire bureau couldn’t spend all its time on the event — which made the eclipse coordinator especially helpful.
“We couldn’t just drop planning and marketing for our other events for this eclipse,” Cook said. “There are only a few people on our staff to begin with, and we had five staff on hand for the eclipse. To help raise funding, we started selling t-shirts four years ago online and that helped get the word out.”
There wasn’t a need for a lot of advertising, but in the ads it did run, the bureau subtly kept the event top of mind.
“We did run ads, and you’d see the eclipse logo in many of them — even though the eclipse wasn’t the topic of the ad,” Cook said. “We also have a brand new visitor center which opened one week before the eclipse. We weren’t building it specifically because of the eclipse, but once we realized the significance of the event we wanted to open it in time.”
Make Sure Visitors Know the Best Way to Book
“We didn’t want to overcharge, but also didn’t want to undercharge for hotel rates,” Cook said. “The eclipse chasers said three times the normal rate would be fine.”
With only six hotels in Hopkinsville — 600 rooms combined — hoteliers put a three-night minimum into place. More hotels were located eight miles away.
“There were still rooms available closer to the day of,” Cook said. “We knew early on that there would probably still be rooms available until the day of, you just had to call the local number of the hotel. Some people were calling the corporate number and weren’t getting through to the right property at first. It’s also an issue of people wanting to book years in advance, which some did. Most hotel systems don’t let you book more than a year out. I’ve already heard that some people are trying to book rooms in Paducah, Kentucky for the next solar eclipse that will pass through there in 2024.”
Involve Residents With Tourism Board Efforts
“We let people pay a fee to get on our website with their listing and the rates weren’t outrageous like they were on other sites,” said Cook. “We were planning to do this anyway — and didn’t do it specifically because of sites like Airbnb — but we didn’t want visitors to get ripped off.” [Editor’s Note: The average rate for an Airbnb rental in Hopkinsville the weekend of August 19-21 was $261 per night, while the average hotel rate was $425 per night.]
Said Cook: “Some listings on our site were in line with hotels, some were reasonable, others were pricey.”
Lower Prices Equal Happy Visitors
“We brought in eclipse chasers, or people who have been to multiple eclipse events in the past, on what to expect and pick their brains on what we should charge,” said Cook. “One thing they said is that you can never have enough eclipse glasses.”
Food prices were also not artificially inflated; bottled water, Cook said, was $1.
“People were pleased that we weren’t jacking our prices way up,” she said. “At most big events, you always pay a premium for things like bottled water but we chose not to do that.”
Expect Early Arrivals
“One of the biggest things I learned from this is that it’s not all about that weekend,” said Cook. “I can’t even tell you how many people came up a week before and a month before. They checked out the town so they knew where to go and some spent the night here while they did that. They wanted to make sure they knew exactly where they’d be watching the eclipse and whether that was a good viewing spot. So we got more than just the weekend economics.”
She said the town also put on more than 17 different events around the eclipse, and most were free.
“Our annual Kelly Little Green Men Days Festival, which celebrates the iconic 1955 UFO sighting in Hopkinsville known as the Kelly Green Men Case, was also going on last month,” Cook said. “Coincidentally, that UFO sighting also occurred on August 21 and there was a lot of chatter about the symbolism of that and the eclipse falling on the same date. Solar eclipses are new for us, but celebrating other space events are not.”
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Photo credit: Hopkinsville, Kentucky was the point of greatest eclipse during the total solar eclipse that spanned the U.S. on August 21. Pictured are eclipse watchers wearing eclipse glasses during the event. NASA Marshall Photo Archive / Flickr