We happened to visit Sedona, Arizona last month and, as is our wont, decided to stop in for a visit with the local tourism bureau. While the CEO, Jennifer Wesselhoff, was out of town, we visited with Sachiko Sado, director of tourism development. What we found was a small but mighty team of highly motivated marketers passionate about the destination they love. During the interview, Sado touched upon the thorny issue of “over-tourism,” which has been a hot topic in parts of Europe, but not a top-of-mind issue among U.S. destinations—until now. Following are excerpts from our interview with Sado.
INBOUND: How did your travel career begin?
Sado: As a Japanese student at Northern Arizona University (in Flagstaff) 17 years ago, I applied for an internship with the Sedona Chamber of Commerce’s Jennifer Wesselhoff, who was then involved in a junior marketing role, who was then communications and public relations manager, and is now the president and CEO of the chamber and tourism bureau.
INBOUND: How did you end up staying 17 years?
Sado: I met Arizona’s Japanese representative, Osamu Hoshino, who was conducting a media tour in Sedona that year, which included a writer, a photographer, and a Japanese celebrity from Cosmopolitan Japan, who wrote a very positive article about the surprising uniqueness of the red rock vistas—which are not found elsewhere—as well as the destination’s spiritual appeal and location between Phoenix and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. At the time, Cosmopolitan was one of the magazines that influenced other Japan journalists and opinion leaders and I began using the article as way to convince the Japanese trade to include Sedona in its programs.
INBOUND: Who is the target audience today?
Sado: Internationally, our top three targets are the UK, German speaking Europe and Japan. Our sweet spot is a traveler who appreciates outdoor adventure and sustainability. In the past year or so Sedona has developed an “over-tourism” problem with an abundance of day trippers traveling between the Grand Canyon and Phoenix coming to Sedona during our primary seasons clogging traffic and (causing) complaints from locals who find themselves in lines for restaurants, and streets clogged with traffic.
But, since tourism is Sedona’s main industry, we needed find a way to address this so we decided we had to evolve from a Destination “Marketing” agency to a Destination “Management” chamber that focuses on marketing only during low seasons and investing in areas that will disperse tourists to a wider array of attractions away from the center of downtown.
INBOUND: How do you do that?
Sado: In 2014, our CEO Jennifer Wesselhoff worked with the Sedona lodging industry to increase the hotel tax that enabled us to achieve formula funding. This increased our public funding from $500,000 to $2.1 million in three years and allowed us to attend more trade events and market more aggressively. As Sedona’s hotel ADR and occupancy grew, so did our budget.
But to manage the flow of tourism, we decided in 2018-19 that we would freeze our marketing budget at the same level as the prior year and use the additional funds only to drive tourism during our summer and winter need periods. We also refocused our marketing efforts to the trade and have chosen the three target markets based on their propensity for multiple overnight stays with midweek arrivals. We would rather have 100 visitors staying three nights than 300 visitors for one night.
Additionally, to help mitigate the traffic issue, we purchased a property in Uptown Sedona where we were able to add additional parking and invested in wayfinding signage and we followed up with “Walk Sedona” initiative.
INBOUND: What else?
Sado: In order to disperse visitors from the popular areas where we see concentration of visitors, we developed Sedona Secret 7 (www.SedonaSecret7.com) that introduces seven locations under seven categories —Hiking, biking, star gazing, vista for sunrise and sunsets, arts & culture, spiritual, and picnicking, which we hope will disperse travelers and will offer local experiences for them. The Chamber & Tourism Bureau gives back part of its public funding for “Sedona in Motion” which was developed by the City of Sedona to mitigate traffic congestion.
INBOUND’s Conclusion: The fact that Ms. Wesselhoff was able to retain tourism marketing staff for 17 years was an example of an instance in which the destination, the leadership and the staff all were able to grow into their roles at a similar pace.