WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Throughout the unpredictable and ambiguous journey that defined the travel industry last year, Visit Williamsburg decided to make a move that was both bold and unusual for tourism in 2020. They launched a $7.6 million advertising campaign during a pandemic. Consequently, this strategy appears to already be paying dividends, with hotel occupancy on-par with 2019 levels, hotel rates higher than 2019, and attractions experiencing heavy ticket sales and attendance.

“We knew there would be an enormous pent-up demand for travel in the post- COVID world,” said Victoria Cimino, CEO of Visit Williamsburg. “We operated under the premise that staying focused on awareness today, will assure a competitive position tomorrow.”

In spring 2020, the organization pushed ahead with 12 research programs (focus groups, campaign/image testing, consumer sentiment, ad effectiveness, and COVID-19 traveler sentiment) conducted by Strategic Marketing and Research Insights (SMARI), a full-service research firm with a focus on tourism destinations. Findings informed audience segmentation, media decisions, and creative messaging that ultimately led to the creation of the “Life. At Your Pace.” advertising campaign.

A multi-channel, integrated media strategy launched in June 2020 across television, streaming audio, programmatic digital, and paid social media in 20 markets. Created to reignite the region's marketing presence, grow/enhance brand awareness, and facilitate consumer engagement, the “Life. At Your Pace.” campaign embraced the promise of the future. Imagery was in-line with consumer sentiment during that time – showcasing Williamsburg as a safe and relaxing escape from a life of strain and complexity – the messaging honored the true spirit of travel and encouraged people to reunite with what truly matters.

To measure the reach and impact of the “Life. At Your Pace.” campaign, SMARI conducted an Advertising Effectiveness and Return on Investment study in early 2021. Results show that the campaign performed in the top 25 percentile of SMARI’s industry benchmark, reaching 46 percent of its target audience (around 4.4 million people). Further, the campaign familiarized consumers with Williamsburg, built overall perceptions of the destination, and generated intent to visit in 2021. 

The bottom line is, Visit Williamsburg’s unconventional 2020 marketing strategy was quite successful despite operating during a pandemic that wreaked havoc on leisure travel. The “Life. At Your Pace.” campaign not only influenced the decision to visit Williamsburg, but it also provided visitors with ideas of things to do – leading to longer, better trips with higher spending. Today, the “Life. At Your Pace.” campaign continues to perform well with more than 80 percent of visitwilliamsburg.com users being first-time visitors to the website.

“Visit Williamsburg was one of the first DMOs in the country to resume marketing efforts,” said Cimino. “As the world continues to open up and people begin traveling farther from their homes, we remain optimistic that the region will see continued growth trends throughout 2021 and into 2022.”