That a city like New York needs significant investment to sell itself to potential tourists speaks loudly of the pandemic’s crushing blow on the iconic destination. Government officials recognize the importance of tourism to the city's economic recovery. The role that its destination marketing organization will play is crucial.
From tourism capital turned Covid epicenter — it seemed almost impossible to reimagine a vibrant Big Apple buzzing with crowds after last year’s devastating images of plastic-wrapped bodies being loaded into mobile morgues. Or with the memory of quarantined residents cheering frontline workers every night from their rooftops and windows as the pandemic ravaged New York City.
But one year later, small signs of local life and recovery have begun emerging, including the return of domestic tourists, thanks to Covid vaccinations, warmer weather and an end to the state’s domestic travel quarantine since April 1.
This early optimism for New York City’s travel industry is now fueled even further with the news this week that the City of New York is allocating $30 million to its destination marketing organization, NYC & Company, for a marketing campaign aimed at speeding up the return of domestic and international tourists. It is the most ever allocated for a city tourism push.
In stark contrast to last year’s destination marketing revenue struggles, the funds originate from the Biden administration’s historic $1.3 trillion American Rescue Plan, which allocated to municipalities in addition to states, including $6.1 billion just for New York City.
“We’ve never had a marketing and advertising budget of this caliber, even after 9/11,” said Christopher Heywood, executive vice president of global communications at NYC & Company. “There’s a recognition of how important our tourism recovery will be for the future of New York.”
That’s also what sets this campaign investment apart, aside from the unprecedented shot in the arm — it comes from Mayor Bill De Blasio’s direct support and acknowledgment that tourism is a critical economic engine for New York City.
Prior to Covid, New York City’s tourism sector accounted for $6.7 billion in local tax revenue, providing 400,000 jobs as the 7th largest employer in the city.
“We knew that we had to invest to make that happen,” Mayor De Blasio said in a joint press conference with NYC & Company, referring to bringing back the city’s unique experiences, adding that when tourists come back, jobs will come back as well.
The upcoming $30 million New York City campaign, set to launch in June 2021, does not actually have a name yet — the details are being worked out going forward in what Heywood described as a fast moving development. “The ‘NYC Reawakens’ is more of a communications initiative, it’s more of a message that we are coming back, things are opening up.”
For now, the campaign will consist of television, digital, social media activations and working with talent, said NYC & Company’s Heywood.
“Usually in normal times, New York has 100 percent brand awareness, and we need to just elevate that even more during these times.”
A Timely Boost Ahead Of Fierce Tourism Competition
The year 2019 was a record for New York City tourism, with 66.6 million visitors and its 10th consecutive year of growth, according to NYC & Company’s 2020 annual report. For 2021, NYC & Company projects capturing at least 36.4 million visitors, of which 31.8 million domestic and 4.6 million international.
“Again we are hoping that we can accelerate that growth — programs like this marketing and advertising effort can help us do that,” Heywood said.
Being able to remain competitive will be even more critical this year in capturing domestic travelers as U.S. as well as reopening global destinations will compete for pent-up American travelers while aiming to recover pandemic tourism losses. That’s also part of the rationale behind the large campaign allocation.
“We have an uphill battle in the sense that there are so many destinations that are going to be fishing in the same pond,” said Heywood, mentioning Orlando and Los Angeles as examples of recent marketing efforts underway. “This is really going to allow us to expand heavily into the northeast region and go national.”
Urban destinations like New York City, for all their cultural appeal, will face the added challenge of restoring consumer confidence in new ways as travelers increasingly seek out beach, mountain and national park destinations with wide open spaces post-pandemic.
Adapting to a Post-Covid New York City
On the same day the new marketing campaign funding was announced, NYC & Company launched “Wish You Were Here,” an online initiative for New Yorkers to invite their friends and family to come back and visit them.
Targeting the rise in post-vaccine friends and family reunions is an opportunity for the city to showcase its new and reinvented spaces before larger crowds return, Heywood said. Those changes include the “Open Culture” program which allows businesses and events to seek permits to set up outside through October, the return of Shakespeare in the Park and the Tribeca Film Festival this summer, and new infrastructure projects, including the Moynihan Train Hall and the expanded Javits Center, among others. NYC & Company’s plan is also to encourage domestic travelers to stay longer, and push for more midweek stays.
A post-pandemic New York City era has also pushed the city’s tourism arm to “build back better” by doubling down on its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in tourism marketing. As part of that effort, NYC & Company recently hired senior director of multicultural content Rondel Holder to create The Black Experience in NYC showcase, with future efforts on the way for the city’s many multicultural groups and their businesses.
“It’s very exciting, there’s a lot of work to be done, we’re still coming out of this pandemic, but we’re on a very bright path coming out of a very dark tunnel,” Heywood said. “This idea that NYC is dead, that everyone is leaving New York and no one’s coming back — it is just not true.”
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Photo credit: Crowds are slowly returning to Central Park post-vaccine, as the city prepares to bring tourists back. Tom Lowry / Skift