(The following is a result of INBOUND‘s editor taking up the suggestion that he pay a visit to Elizabeth, New Jersey, which is 20-25 minutes from downtown Manhattan and which, two years ago, began a modest effort to define and raise its profile, promote its tourism product and grow the number of visitors it receives each year. In addition to a three-day visit to the city, our editor also interviewed, by phone and e-mail, the three people who run the city’s DMO, which is funded by a one percent occupancy tax on its major hotels.)
Why Elizabeth? Citing the absence of any New Jersey state sales tax on clothing and shoes, Gordon Haas, president and CEO of the Elizabeth, N.J. Chamber of Commerce, told INBOUND that travelers headed toward New York should “spend $200 a night for a hotel rather than paying $500 for a hotel room in Manhattan, and have $300 to shop with,” adding, “if people can experience twice as much and stay just 20 minutes away, it only makes sense for us to market it that way.” The not-so-subtle suggestion is that visitors to New York City could stay at one of Elizabeth’s nine hotels—all within free shuttle distance of Newark’s Liberty International Airport and/or 20-25 minutes via public transportation from Penn Station in mid-town Manhattan—and could shop at places such as the Mills at Jersey Gardens, a shopping mall with nearly 100 outlet stores selling mostly upscale labels.
(While the 60 percent price difference suggested above might be a bit high, it is possible. A quick price comparison on any OTA will show a sampling of properties in Elizabeth listed at rates from 30 to 40 percent lower—and sometimes more—than hotels in Manhattan.)
Virtually “across the street” from Jersey Gardens is the largest IKEA store in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state region. Obviously, many visitors—most of them from New Jersey or the tri-state region, already get the message about shopping. Jersey Gardens draws 18 million visitors a year, compared to the 4.5 million who visit the Statue of Liberty, which is also in New Jersey (a fact just about anyone from the state will underscore by aggressively pointing an index finger at you as they tell you, in order to make sure you get the point.)
Haas, also the force behind the creation two years ago of the Elizabeth DMO, knows that he and the two-person team at the DMO (Jennifer Costa is director, Lauren Ferrigno is marketing coordinator) have work to do to take better advantage of the city’s location and its accessibility in order to make it a more visited destination on its own.
“Outside the Gateways” vs. “Inside their Shadows”: One of the movements that the Elizabeth DMO hopes to take advantage of is Brand USA’s goal of moving more international visitors to visit U.S. destinations “beyond the gateways” by promoting places and attractions in itineraries that may begin or end in places such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and Chicago, but go through states and cities that, traditionally, been a part of the itineraries and packages that international tour operators sell in their home countries.
Cities such as Topeka, Kansas (pop. 126,805) and Hartford, Connecticut (pop. 123,2430–both state capitals—find themselves a part of itineraries for both U.S. and international operators. Why, then, is Elizabeth, which is about the same size as Topeka and Hartford (pop. 128,640) still working to be part of these itineraries?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that, while Elizabeth is really close to New York City, it is so close that it is in its shadow—almost literally. And a sizable part of Newark’s international airport is actually within Elizabeth’s borders. As such, it is a challenge to define yourself in someone else’s shadow.
How They are Approaching the Challenge: The current effort is not the first time that Haas was behind an attempt to bring visitors to Elizabeth. More than a dozen years ago, he was the force behind the launch of the “Shop and Play at 13-A” campaign. For those unlettered in the argot of New Jersey, an expression such as “13-A” is how New Jerseyans identify where they’re from in relationship to the exits along the New Jersey Turnpike. Those who reside in New Brunswick or Middlesex County, for instance, will tell you they live off Exit 9. In the case of Elizabeth, it is 13-A.
Well, the “13-A” campaign, which was aimed mostly at New Jersey residents, didn’t gain traction. But Haas, who is quite the determined and methodical creature—a one-time college professor, he has a PhD in Anatomy—was not deterred. Still believing that the city could benefit more than it was from the scores of thousands of people taking buses to Jersey Gardens, he got support for both the Elizabeth DMO and a 1% occupancy tax to fund it.
The mission of the DMO? “Simple. Put heads in beds,” Haas told INBOUND. After recruiting a two-person staff, the organization began its outreach, seeking partnerships and attending trade shows.
In addition to events within New Jersey, the Elizabeth DMO is partnering in any way they can with Brand USA as well as associations like the US Travel, SYTA, ABA, the Hispanic Motorcoach Association, and NTA. INBOUND first encountered Ferrigno at IPW last June in Washington DC, and crossed paths with Costa last week at the new Connect Travel Marketplace in Orlando.
While on the trade show circuit Costa and Ferrigno do the usual, and then some. They point to the destination’s number of hotel rooms—more than 2,500—and properties (16), as well as the motorcoach companies that serve, or could serve, the area.
Haas, Costa and Ferrigno realize that it will take more networking and more face-to-face meetings with operators before tours and tourists make the connection that Elizabeth can host international travelers—especially operators who are looking to cut costs for clients who want to visit New York City but would not mind staying at a hotel that’s 20-25 minutes away from Penn Station.
Meanwhile, the Elizabeth team are still working at compiling the numbers of packages already in place that include Elizabeth, the operators who sell Elizabeth to their clients, or an accurate estimate of exactly how many travelers visit Elizabeth each year and what they are doing—such numbers will help the organization going forward as they fine tune their marketing strategy.
The Product? Vintage New Jersey¹, Vintage USA: The city is compact and densely populated. In fact, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the USA, and Elizabeth is the state’s fourth-largest city. It’s not a challenge to get around Elizabeth quickly. (The width of many of its streets could present a challenge for the traditional tour bus, however, and it might be better suited for the DMO to promote products that use smaller vehicles such as the Mercedes Sprinter for smaller groups.)
As for its people, Elizabeth is a Petri dish of America’s ethnic and racial diversity. Among its residents, there are 30 languages spoken by people representing 50 countries. It is likely that most passengers on every single busload of overseas visitors that visits Jersey Gardens will hear their native language spoken in the Mall at Jersey Gardens. The people in the mall, both shoppers and employees, comprise a multicultural festival.
Places to eat? One restaurant site we reviewed had more than 300 restaurants listed for Elizabeth, with a dizzying number of cuisine choices listed. While not revealing our preference, INBOUND can point out that, among the favorites of visitors is Manolo’s Restaurant, a Spanish/Mediterranean fusion eatery where the first episode of the popular TV show, The Sopranos, was filmed!
About its historic and cultural attractions: They are many, many in number—too many to detail here. One can only imagine, however, how many there must be for a city that goes back to the mid 1600s. As one stops off at any number of sights, monuments, parks or museums, one will probably intersect with the path once trod by Alexander Hamilton, who once lived in Elizabeth.
Perhaps what best qualifies Haas, Costa and Ferrigno is that all three are authentically New Jersey and, for the most part, authentically Elizabeth. While not born in the city, both Haas and Costa are long-time residents, while Ferrigno is a “third generation Elizabethian.”
While Haas is looking to retire within the next five years, Costa and Ferrigno will likely be at the Elizabeth DMO for some time. And both are eager to hear ideas and suggestions on how they can better package and promote their city. Contact them at:
¹ Full Disclosure: INBOUND’s editor spent a number of years attending Drew University in Madison, New Jersey as both an undergraduate and graduate student, was a radio and newspaper reporter in northern New Jersey and once served as press secretary to a Congresswoman from the state. He really likes New Jersey.