When the world shut down and most tourism numbers flatlined, Gila County shockingly surged.
“We had a 23% increase in inbound tourism dollars during the height of the pandemic,” shared Cameron Davis, President of Razor Thin Media. “There were only two counties in the state that were actually up during the pandemic and Gila County was one of them.”
What helped Gila County excel?
Five major awards in 2021 from organizations around the state indicate that the Discover Gila County (DGC) marketing initiative made all the difference.
Launched 3 ½ years ago with county economic development funds, this three-pronged campaign produced a marketing plan, a website with 550 subpages, and a social media platform.
“There was never a road map for Discover Gila County,” Davis expounded. “We did a lot of research and couldn’t find a single county in the U.S. that has taken on a monumental marketing program like this that covers the entire county and all the communities within it.”
So DGC ventured into unknown territory.
Their 78-page marketing plan was produced with the input of many county stakeholders. Mac Feezor, DGC Board President, remembers, “We spent the first 6 months meeting with everybody we could think of in Gila County — north, south, east, west, big towns, small towns, everywhere –asking them what made their area special and why people would want to go see it.” This information became the foundation for their website. “Every place you can think of to go where there’s something to do, you can find information on the website. It’s engaging and informative.”
The stats during the pandemic prove that visitors agree.
“That was the first real ‘rubber meets the road’ indication where we could see the value of the marketing program that we put together,” explained Davis. “This year alone we’ve had nearly 130,000 visitors to the website and our Facebook page is right at 13,000 followers.“
However, even more important than numbers of visitors and followers is site engagement. Davis explains, “Engagement is likes, comments, shares. It’s some type of interaction that takes place with the content. If you do a Google search for typical engagement rates for Facebook, you’ll see it’s a 0.99%.” Discover Gila County has a 30% engagement rate. “So we’re performing 30 times greater than the average business entity or group engagement rate.”
Davis thinks DGC’s success is linked to the striking resources Gila County offers. “It has a lot to do with our attractions, the adventurous outdoor stuff, as well as our history.” However, DGC’s success would not be possible without well-designed marketing. Gila County hired Razor Thin Media in Payson for this reason.
“We design all their magazine ads, do the public relations for the program, manage all the updates and changes on the website, and create all of their promotional videos. The website now has over 200 videos that people can see and over 4000 photographs.”
To manage the larger marketing efforts, a 501c3 nonprofit was formed called Discover Gila County, Inc. It’s 5-member board is made up of local business owners from incorporated and unincorporated parts of Gila County, the two county Chamber of Commerce directors, and a county government representative. Currently serving on the Board of Directors is President Mac Feezor, Vice President James Bruzzi, Secretary Tianna Holder, Maia Crespin, and Jacque Sanders.
Davis says both chambers are represented intentionally because “we’re inviting tourists to come to our community and they control the visitor’s centers.” He adds, “One of our goals is to drive people from our advertising and promotions to our chambers where they can learn of things to do in our communities, as well as get introduced to our businesses. This is one of our mission-critical objectives.”
Another “mission-critical” focus is to recruit businesses and support job acquisition. Davis says DGC created a job board to “help people who live in Gila County or who want to move here successfully find good sustainable jobs.“ Feezor adds, “People said they were having a hard time finding workers. So this is a central place where people can find what they need. We wanted to make it a one-stop-shop.” He adds that a housing resource is coming soon.
Davis credits stakeholders with the success of DGC. “No county has ever done this, so we really had to rely on our stakeholders coming to the table with a ‘can do’ attitude. There were some who said this could never happen and we’ve proved those people wrong. This is a testament to those people that we’re ‘all in’ from the beginning.”
Feezor believes DGC will naturally support economic development. “We’re marketing Gila County, but it sells itself once people know what is here.”
Thea Wilshire works as an author, psychologist, speaker, healthcare consultant, and AirBnB host. Her passions include community development, the creation of public spaces, trying new adventures, and sharing her therapy dog with schools and medical facilities. Find her blog at https://www.acornconsulting.org/blog.