By Bill Marx
“Boston is adrift in the brave new competition among big American cities vying for tourist dollars.” Maureen Dezell, WBUR
Maureen made that charge back in July 2006 in an article that turned out to be one of the last posts on the late WBUR Arts Online. Now that the quote, along with a link to the piece, is part of an invitation to an Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston workshop on April 23 where, for $50, attendees can listen to experts talk about ways that we can “create for Boston and Massachusetts what Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have successfully done” to encourage cultural tourism. The latest news out of Philadelphia is that Boston has its work cut out for it — Philly is surging ahead.
It is about time Boston realized it had to catch up. As Maureen suggests in her piece, cities around the country are becoming more aggressive, innovative, and determined about getting the word out about the arts than The Athens of America. The assumption among many here is that Boston’s historical monuments, museums, and walks do the selling for us — but that kind of comforting snobbery wears thin given that other urban centers around the country are using the internet and innovative partnerships with businesses to reach out to tourists around the world.
I am skeptical but hopeful about the workshop, the third in a series sponsored by American Express, the City of Boston Office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. It would be useful to have some sort of measure of how effective the organization is. For example, there’s scant information on the Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston’s website regarding how it plans to increase public tourism. What has been done besides tossing workshops and fund raisers over the past couple of years?
Also, how committed is the city to making the necessary changes? At the time Maureen’s piece was posted, Julie Burns, Director of Boston Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events, was in a state of denial.
City officials don’t see a widening cultural tourism gap. “Philadelphia is doing a fantastic job marketing the city,” Julie Burns, director of Boston’s Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events, acknowledged in an interview. “But they have a different model than we do [a partnership of public, private and philanthropic interests]. They have more access to capital. They have more money.”
I posted a piece at the same time that compared Philadelphia’s Philyfunguide with the page on the City of Boston’s website dedicated to arts and tourism. Back in 2006, Burns assured me that the city’s website was being redesigned. When that was finished, the anemic arts calender would be beefed up. But the page, forlorn as ever, remains an embarrassment. And there is a price to be paid:
The PhillyFunGuide stats are impressive: since May of 2005, over 100,000 unique visitors have gone to the nonprofit site each month, generating around 750,000 page views. Why is it so popular? The site is not only the most comprehensive events calendar in the region: it is an interactive service and research tool that focuses on arts and culture. PhillyFunGuide sends out weekly e-mails containing discount ticket offers to over 50,000 subscribers. It is also easy to buy event tickets, make nearby dinner reservations, and scout out parking options in advance. Partnerships with the city’s major media — print, TV, and radio — provide news and feature articles while also garnering ink touting the site in the city’s major publications. And there are plans to podcast and use video.
The growth of the website has continued since I reported those numbers. Liz Anderson Simmons of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance just sent me the latest figures:
As you reported, in 2006 we averaged 100,000 monthly unique visitors, which total 1.2 million unique monthly visits on an annual basis. We are now at 120,000 unique visitors per month, or about 1.45 million unique monthly visits annually.
Here are our key statistics for PhillyFunGuide.com over the last three years:
CY 2005 average: 77,208 unique visitors/month, 91,621 monthly visits, 358,419 page views/month
CY 2006 average: 95,865 unique visitors/month, 145,312 monthly visits, 537,347 page views/month
CY 2007 average: 120,068 unique visitors/month, 219,071 monthly visits, 758,177 page views/month
I quoted monthly visits as well, because the growth rate indicates that people are coming back more frequently throughout the month to consume content in smaller batches; this number has more than doubled over the last two years.
Also, here is our FunSavers subscriber count over the last three calendar years:
CY 2005: 48,670 subscribers
CY 2006: 57,277 subscribers
CY 2007: 64,490 subscribers
We closed out the month of March with over 67,000 subscribers.
Since your original article, the Culture Guide software has been developed by Charlotte, Harlem, and New Orleans. We only receive a small consulting fee for these sites, as our primary focus is promoting cultural activity in our own region. Here is the link to more information on Culture Guides. CultureCapital.com in D.C. also launched this month. (Baltimore is still using the previous system; they are not on the current version of the Culture Guides.)
More important to us is local partners. We have 16 local partners that use our events calendar on their site, including the local Convention and Visitors Bureaus and some media outlets. This has been an instrumental way in which we have increased traffic. You can view them here.
We have been working on a number of un-sexy (but very important) upgrades that we expect to complete this week or next: moving to a dedicated server, revamping the search engine, and redesigning a tool that allows us to group related events, organizations and sets of featured content together. Of those upgrades, the most visible one for the end user will be the new search engine.
(I have requested the latest statistics for the Boston arts pages — I will post them when I get them.)
As for the coming workshop, the line-up of speakers doesn’t include anyone from Philadelphia or Washington D.C., cities that are more comparable to Boston than New York.
Welcome and introductions by Tara Rendon, Chief of Staff, Commonwealth of Massachusetts Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development.
• Consultant Trudy McNulty of Tourism Development Associates oversees the Arts & Business Council of New York’s initiative on Cultural Tourism.
• Professor Sam Mendlinger oversees the Economic Development and Tourism Management concentration for the Master of Science in Administrative Studies at Boston University.
• Chris Pappas, President of Open the Door, has been recognized for her marketing expertise by the Travel Industry Association of America and the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International
Still, the growing realization that Boston is falling behind in the competition for the dollars of national and international cultural tourists may prod our movers and shakers to try out some fresh ideas and relationships. The race to snare the attention of arts lovers is the same, but technology is changing the rules.