Tourism experts: Selling millennials on Lake Tahoe key to region’s future | SierraSun.com

Tourism experts: Selling millennials on Lake Tahoe key to region’s future

Sebastian Foltz
sfoltz@tahoedailytribune.com

Kayakers paddle around Zephyr Cove. Speakers at South Lake Tahoe's recent Tourism Forum suggested the future success of Tahoe depends on authentic experiences and cultural offerings. With a growing millenial market, it will also be important to appeal to a changing tourism demographic.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Change or get left behind. It's a motto for business, for the tech sector and apparently also for tourism marketing.

In a seemingly ever-growing global travel industry, the status quo just isn't enough to keep pace. Simply put, people have more options than they used to with expanded world travel and affordable airfare.

For a state like California, which annually relies on roughly $120 billion in tourism revenue, it is an important consideration — especially when Lake Tahoe visitation is down overall, in part because of increasingly competitive neighboring markets closer to the Bay Area.

What adaptation means for the future of Lake Tahoe was among topics addressed at the annual Tourism Forum on April 26 at Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel, hosted by Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce and Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority.

"Consumers don't just wake up and come here," Visit California vice president of marketing Lynn Carpenter told an engaged audience of local business owners and travel-industry guests. "They need to be sold."

According to experts like Carpenter, the key to attracting travelers is now about "the experience," restaurants, activities and the culture; just showing pretty mountains in a commercial won't do it anymore.

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That's why the California tourism marketing group has switched focus toward individual stories and experiential accounts.

Social media and crowd-sourced websites like Yelp.com are also the new standard. Along with them, gearing more toward a growing tech-savy millennial demographic is the future.

Population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau say millennials (age 18-34) now number around 75 million in the U.S., recently passing baby boomers.

Visit California also reported that millennials visit California more than any other state; and when younger generations make travel decisions, they rely increasingly on word of mouth through social media.

"It's an experience world," said Carl Ribaudo, president of Strategic Marketing Consultants, at the forum. "You need to view the world through those eyes."

While a big lake and mountains are still a draw, they may no longer be enough for Tahoe.

"We're not the only game in town," he said of other areas expanding their recreation offerings. "The lake doesn't hedge our bets."

Ribaudo, whose company provides consultant services to destination areas like Tahoe, was among speakers at Tuesday's lunch.

He further explained that cultural offerings and infrastructure improvements are trending up, but still need improvement at Tahoe's South Shore.

He described recent projects like Lakeview Commons, the Bijou Bike Park and the expanded summer music offerings as steps in the right direction, along with the development of Heavenly Village back in 2002.

"It's not just the things you have in your destination. It's how authentic you are," he said. "Art and culture is absolutely essential to our competitiveness moving forward."

Fellow speaker and internet marketing expert Jason Broadwater, founder of RevenFlow marketing group, echoed Ribaudo's sentiments, empathizing the importance of a vibrant local community.

"I think the defining characteristic (of a destination) is authenticity," he said. "The environment you have in Heavenly Village is the environment I see in every downtown that is successful."

As part of catering to a changing travel population — not just millenials — the panel of speakers suggested some common traits with successful destinations, and they start with appealing to locals.

"We visit places we dream of living in," said B Gorman, Tahoe Chamber president. "That's what we're trying to do here."

Each of last week's presenters emphasized continuing pedestrian and bicycle-friendly improvements in the Tahoe region. Ribaudo suggested they are prominent features in all successful destinations and said Tahoe has had to play catch-up when it comes to the improvements.

And while there has been opposition, he said events — like SnowGlobe Music Festival — are also tremendous assets to the region.

"In my opinion (it's) the most important event we do," he said, describing the benefits of social-media sharing alone. "It targets those millennials. If we're not tapped into that market hard, we will not be competitive in 10 years."

No matter what the future holds, the panel agreed willingness to adapt continues to be key.

"No matter who the customer is, it's a much more diverse customer," Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority director Carol Chaplin said. "We need to keep our minds open."