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Q&A With VAAAC President & CEO Connie Del Signore

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It’s been an interesting jaunt for Connie Del Signore since she began her career in destination marketing in 1991, as executive director of a small Pennsylvania conference and visitors bureau, before making her big leap to Reading, Pa., to serve as president of the Berks County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB).

During her seven years in Reading, she initiated the Berks County Sports Commission, co-authored SHOP PA and launched Girlfriends Getaways, making the Berks County CVB the country’s first to package and sell getaway packages to women. During that time, she also debuted on the International Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus (IACVB) board of directors.

It was in 2003 that she moved to Annapolis to become president and CEO of the then-Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference & Visitor’s Bureau (CVB) — now known as Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County (VAAAC). Early in her tenure, the sales department went from booking 4,000 room nights annually to more than 60,000 per year, with an annual economic impact to the community of $19 million; by October 2007, she oversaw a $1.4 million renovation and expansion of the CVB offices and visitor’s center.
In December 2007, Del Signore began a two-year term as chairman of the Maryland Association of Destination Marketing Organizations; since, she also was appointed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley to serve a two-year term on the Maryland Tourism Development Board.

She has also successfully worked on three tourism bills: one provides state funding for the Maryland Office of Tourism Development and destination marketing organizations; another provides three seats on the Governor’s Maryland Tourism Development Board; and, most importantly, the Tourism Promotion Act, which provides for dedicated hotel tax funding of the VAAAC. That has resulted in VAAAC budget increase from $1.7 million in fiscal 2012 to $3.9 million in fiscal 2016.

What’s the latest on the hotel tax?

That $3.9 million annual budget is based on 78% occupancy. That’s about 10% better than the national average, so it’s been very good for us. It was legislated four years ago, and it basically enabled us to get into the game. To compare, Charleston, Newport and Savannah all have $8 million budgets; Las Vegas has $80 million.

But what we have has done wonders for our area. We’ve gone from 250,000 website visitors to nearly 1 million, which has afforded us a tracking mechanism. Also, know that our partners, who have increased in number from 300 to 700 during the past five years, can see the referrals.

We have also recently decided that, if you’re not a partner but are an asset to our mission, we’re going to white list [give exposure to] you on our website. That inclusion serves our consumers well.

All told, this evolution has worked. We were invited to speak at the Destination International Annual Convention, in Montreal, last month to share the success of changing our model. The odd thing is that people on the street often ask me why we have to market, but everyone has to do that. Even Vegas.

What’s the VAAAC’s TV advertising budget?

About $1.8 million of the budget (five years ago, that figure was $250,000) goes toward advertising; from that figure, the TV budget is about $500,000. Twenty million people live in the mid-Atlantic, so we advertise extensively on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), and I make appearances on TV shows in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; and Pittsburgh; then we pitch the travel writers in those markets, and wherever else we advertise.
For instance, when we go to Canada in fiscal 2018, Susan [Seifried, a VAAAC vice president] will meet writers, and John Fulginite [VAAAC community engagement coordinator] will meet reps from CAA (the Canadian version of AAA). The next stream is international.

In case you’re wondering, we’ve tried to market southern cities, but people who live in that region don’t usually travel north.

The NHL’s Washington Capitals will be playing a regular season game at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, in Annapolis, on March 3. How surprised were you to hear that news?

Very. This is like having the Military Bowl all over again. We work closely with the U.S. Naval Academy Athletic Association and are already planning to have some special events around the Caps game, too. As it happens, U.S. Travel is doing a study of the results of such sporting events, which will help us quantify the residual effects.

Speaking of the Military Bowl, what’s new this year?

The fifth event will take place in late December. The year Pitt played Navy, 2015, was the most successful Military Bowl for us, thus far. I remember going on the BWI Marshall web site earlier that [Christmas] week, and every flight between the cities was booked.
So, know that the success of the game doesn’t just affect hotels and restaurants. We don’t know what teams (one from Atlantic Coast Conference, one from the American Athletic Conference) will play in this year’s game, but as soon as we do, we’ll update our www.TheHotelsatBWI.com web site and will drop ads in those cities. And I know the bowl organizers will work with us on a run, arts walk and other events while people are here.

Another great thing about the event is that it occurs during our slowest hotel week of the year. It’s brought up our Christmas week occupancy to 52%.

Are local Realtors getting involved in tourism?

U.S. Travel has noted how local Realtors love travel and tourism. They know people enjoy visiting Annapolis and might even buy a second home here. That market accounts for $60 million a year.

What’s your biggest challenge today?

Most of the delegation has been here as long as I have, and we have been able to educate them. It’s the newer people who we have to educate all over again, and that can be trying.

But the biggest challenge is figuring out what millennials would like to do in 2030. What do we look like to them, and how do we appeal to millennials? I’m glad to point out, however, that there are still 70 million baby boomers out there, and we spend plenty of money.
And, speaking of challenges, when there is an emergency, we have $100,000 in the bank and a budget for operating expenses. So, we are prepared.

What’s the latest on the VAAAC’s multiple web sites?

We have five web sites, because we target individual interests of our clientele: weddings, food, history and hotels; we also get an ample amount of visits to our general web site. We’re giving the people what they want. Combined, the sites attract a million visits a year, but the shift is more to the niche sites; I predict that, in three years, we won’t have a general site.

As for those observers who say that print media is dead, they should know that any print publications that are targeted to a niche market are doing very well. It’s the general interest publications that aren’t doing as well.

What are some of the trade shows and other sales activities the VAAAC attended to market the county?

We go to about 10 shows a year. Then we do meeting planner events, hope they love it here and plan an event at some point.

 

What are your observations on the travel ban that has been imposed by the Trump administration?

Stop it. Just stop it. In January, when the ban was announced, there was an immediate 15% dip in air travel because people were confused and cancelling trips because they weren’t sure how they would get home.

However, we saw a 5% increase in May, and we’re building on that. We’re doing an initiative with Canadian FITS (Foreign Independent Travelers) and media, and we’re also working with U.S. Travel’s visa waiver program.

How does your advisory board benefit the VAAAC?

Our board is mostly people who are in our industry. Due to that fact, we decided we needed ambassadors to talk about how their industries (legal, real estate, etc.) benefit from tourism. It’s spearheaded by The Rams Head Group’s Erin McNaboe, and they come to two board meetings a year. They’re blown away when they learn about what we do and how it contributes to Anne Arundel County’s economy.

What is TEAM Anne Arundel County, and how is it going?
We’re just starting the committee. We find an expert, such as the president of U.S. Lacrosse or the U.S. Tennis Association; then our sales team will accompany them to a national sports show and find events that we try to lure here, like Skate America, a figure skating event. It’s been held in Reading, but wants to come here.

What is the tourism industry’s economic impact in the state?
It’s about $16.9 billion. Anne Arundel County leads the state in travel and tourism tax revenue — generating $3.6 billion, which is due to the presence of BWI Marshall and Annapolis.