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Sea Caves create the perfect marketing storm
Photo: During the typically slow winter months in Northwestern Wisconsin, tourists flocked to Chequamegon Bay by the thousands to take a rare look at ice caves that many years are inaccessible. Word spread quickly through a variety of traditional and untraditional media.
On a dreary Wednesday afternoon in January, word trickled out that the Apostle Islands Mainland Sea Caves would be opening for the first time in five years. For South Shore residents, the news was expected.
Colder than usual temperatures often results in the Sea Caves being open. At the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce office, staff had graphics ready to go so they could quickly share the news with fans. Nobody could anticipate what happened next.
“On the afternoon of Jan. 15, I posted the graphic saying the Sea Caves are accessible,” said Bayfield Chamber of Commerce Marketing and Event Coordinator Kelley Linehan. “By 5 pm, it had 10,000 views. I watched it go to 15,000 then 20,000 then 55,000.”
Within 24 hours, the easily shareable graphic had been shared more than 1,000 times and had 85,000 impressions. While the sharable graphic spread like wildfire, it didn’t ultimately result in a massive visitor influx. But, it certainly planted the seed.
By the end of the first weekend the Sea Caves were open, in excess of 2,000 people had made the mile-long trek to see them. An explosion in cell phone cameras and social media made their experience easy to share. Take for example, Duluth Mayor Don Ness. He was just one of hundreds who shared a quick Sea Caves pic on his Facebook page. It garnered nearly 400 likes and various comments, including “How do I get there?”
Meanwhile, remember the polar vortex? As temperatures plummeted around the country, news outlets were scrambling for creative ways to cover the cold. The beauty of the Sea Caves, paired with the story of them not being open for five years, was the perfect hook. First it was local news. That quickly changed as regional outlets, such as the Twin Cities media, picked up on the story. Soon network and international news stations were sending reporters to do stand-ups among the majestic sheets of ice.
Behind the scenes, locals were scrambling to capitalize on this sudden burst of activity. Ehlers Grocery Store reopened on weekends. Local restaurants were doubling or tripling their staff to keep up with an endless tourist stream looking for food.
At Siskiwit Bay Lodge in Cornucopia, Bruce Von Riedel said business jumped about 60 percent over last year. While many guests were from the Midwest, others were first timers from farther away.
“We had a quite a few folks who wouldn’t have come if it hadn’t been for the media attention,” he said. “We had three parties from California who specifically flew in to see the Sea Caves and then left.”
Von Riedel also played host to a L.A. Times reporter who was picking up on yet another angle of the Sea Cave madness— Lake Superior was almost entirely frozen.
For the first time since 1979, more than 90 percent of the Great Lakes were frozen. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Superintendent Bob Krumenaker was busy sharing his thoughts on how climate change is changing the Sea Cave experience.
“Both NBC and ABC News nationally interviewed me for 10 to 15 minutes. In both cases, the one sound bite they chose to use was about me talking about climate change and how this is an endangered National Park experience,” he said.
It is impossible to know who or what played the largest role in the unprecedented spike in Sea Cave traffic, but the increased exposure resulted in a heightened awareness and interest in learning more about them.
aimClear, which is an internationally recognized agency for its integrated social, search, PR and display marketing, ran some stats. They found between December and March, there were 140 online news mentions in 2013, versus 1,292 news mentions in 2014. In addition, there were 738 videos in 2014 versus a mere 136 in 2013 during that same time period. In terms of Twitter, they found 25,560 tweets mentioned the sea caves during this three-month period, which equates to approximately 10 per hour.
Local web sites were experiencing huge spikes as well. Roger Peck of Superior Lighthouses manages the Town of Cornucopia’s site. He said page visits spiked 1,218 percent over last year with unique visitors reaching 56,000 versus 4,500 during 2013. Over at the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce website, Linehan said that prior to January 2014, the highest number of visitors in a single day was 3,771. After the caves opened, the Chamber was averaging 4,400 visitors per day with an all-time high on Feb. 16 with 7,323 visitors. And, even this author’s personal blog that averages several hundred views per month experienced over 3,000 visits to her first two posts about the Sea Caves.
What was ultimately driving the conversation? aimClear Account Executive Merry Morud said the number of traditional, credible media coverage combined with individuals sharing their experiences via mediums such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter created the perfect storm.
“There was a lot of coveted national coverage by large news outlets. A national news story in itself would drive more visitors to the Sea Caves than previous years,” Morud said. “Social media, in essence, is a news amplifier, and a medium where users can be a part of the story (whether it be commenting, sharing or posting original Sea Cave photos) while also allowing news stories to live beyond a typical news cycle.”
By President’s Day weekend, Sea Cave traffic was surpassing 10,000 people per day. By the time the Sea Caves closed on March 16, park officials estimate 138,292 people had visited. To put that in perspective, that’s 93 percent of total park visitors last year and 81 percent of the average annual visitation since 2000.
As the numbers kept growing, so did the economic impact. Bayfield County Tourism Director Mary Motiff said visitor spending averages about $100 per person. That equates to $13.8 million in direct visitor spending. What happens next is equally important.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see another spike like this. But, I do think when this all levels out, we’ll have a new level of normal. All of these people had a chance to see what a beautiful place this was and they plan on coming back,” she said. Linehan said the chamber is already hearing about an increase in lodging bookings for this fall.
“This is going to do amazing things for us. A lot of people are going to come back because they are now more interested in the area and in seeing the Sea Caves in the summer.”
Beth Probst is a freelance writer based in Iron River.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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