Reno 911 who? $4.4M marketing push to sell a cooler, more fun Reno-Tahoe

Reno faces its longstanding image problem with a sizable stash of marketing dollars and a new story to tell

Biggest little marketing campaign

Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority quadruples marketing budget to sell new Reno image in Bay Area, Los Angeles and Seattle, while also launching a national online campaign.

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After going through the toughest recession in its history, Northern Nevada has seen its fair share of economic development victories. Here's a list of some of the major developments for the region in recent years. Wochit

For many who live outside of Reno, the Biggest Little City’s image typically bounces between being a poor man’s Vegas to that place with the bumbling lieutenant who wore short shorts on TV.

After securing more funding for its marketing efforts, however, the area’s leading convention and visitors’ bureau is gearing up for a big push to sell a more enticing image of the Reno-Tahoe region.

The Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority announced a new marketing effort on Thursday, backed by what could end up being the biggest infusion of marketing dollars for a campaign in the organization’s history. Supporters of the new brand campaign — which focuses on three key Western markets and includes an online push for the rest of the nation — hope the initiative leads to increased visitor counts while erasing the less-than-flattering perceptions of the region, especially from people who live outside of the area.

Deconstructing the root of Reno’s image woes is a longstanding topic at the RSCVA board’s monthly meetings. The issue was clearly a sore spot for board member John Farahi, CEO of Atlantis parent company Monarch Casino and Resort, Inc., who called Reno’s poor image a continuing problem for the area earlier this year.

BVK, a Milwaukee, Wis.-based marketing agency that was hired to craft the latest marketing initiative, cited several reasons for the problem during the RSCVA’s meeting in March.

“It’s partially fueled by stereotypes of the destination that is tied to shows like Reno 911,” said Kevin Kriehn, BVK executive creative director. “Unless you’re traveling to this destination and exposed to what’s been happening in the last several years, it’s really hard to overcome some of those stereotypes.”

In addition to low rates of repeat visits from non-gaming visitors, the Reno travel market also suffers from some demographic idiosyncrasies not seen in other destinations. One is its propensity to attract a significantly larger number of men over women. The trend is particularly an issue when considering how women tend to be the key decision makers for traveling among households, said Victoria Simmons, BVK vice president and group account director, during the Thursday brand launch.

"You are a very male-dominated destination and you don't see that a lot in the travel space," Simmons said. "As (the campaign) expands geographically to different areas, we need to make sure that the brand can appeal to a wide-ranging audience."

Showing off

'We're the cool kids'

For its latest marketing campaign, the RSCVA is bringing out a significant war chest. At $4.4 million, the amount is about four times what the organization typically spends on marketing campaigns in previous years. BVK is also the first tourism-focused marketing agency that the RSCVA has hired in nearly a decade.

The money for the campaign comes from a room surcharge tax that was approved by the Nevada Legislature. Collection of the surcharge started in August 2015 with the new marketing initiative providing the first opportunity for the money to be used. The RSCVA says it delayed using the funds until it completed its five-year strategic plan and hired a new CEO.

The campaign features big, bold text and colorful images aimed at attracting millennials, Gen X’ers, outdoor enthusiasts and people looking for a grittier but more authentic urban vibe. In addition to Tahoe, which is a staple of past marketing campaigns, the new marketing initiative will play up the area’s arts and culture scene — including the Burning Man festival and the city's mural art — as well as its bustling Midtown and the high-profile companies that have moved or expanded into Northern Nevada.​

Gaming will be highlighted in the marketing campaign as well. Despite not being the juggernaut it once was, the sector still plays a big role in the local economy, not to mention the funding of the marketing campaign. One of the catchphrases of the campaign, “Win big, lose yourself,” is a nod to Reno’s gaming heritage, according to BVK.

“Gaming is in our DNA,” said Jennifer Cunningham, RSCVA executive vice president. “Visitor surveys show that 40 percent of people come to Reno for gaming but 60 percent actually enjoy it once they’re here.”

Downtown’s image has been a challenge in the past, even for people who live in the area. Although the grittier aspects of Reno used to be omitted in past campaigns, the city’s own unique urban vibe is being highlighted this time to distinguish it from the more “whitewashed” messaging seen in other destinations, Cunningham said. Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve agreed. During the RSCVA’s March meeting, Schieve said that showing authenticity would play well with members of the younger generation.

“We should embrace that (grit) sometimes,” Schieve said at the RSCVA’s March meeting. “We’re the cool kids.”

More than a little west

'We have changed our marketing message how many times in the last 10 years?'

Given the stakes surrounding the new multimillion-dollar campaign, it’s especially important to the RSCVA that the latest initiative delivers results.

Reno is no stranger to marketing campaigns that either peter out or — in the case of a 2009 initiative — cause flat-out consternation among some members of the community. The 2009 campaign, which cost more than $110,000, proved particularly memorable after the mayor and several representatives of the casino industry panned its infamous “A Little West of Center” slogan.

“It embarrasses me,” then-Reno Mayor Bob Cashell told the RSCVA board at the time. “It embarrasses the city of Reno.”

One hotel-casino executive said the slogan gave him “a little heartburn” while one hotel-casino marketing director said he “didn’t get it.”

Farahi, who witnessed many of the RSCVA’s marketing campaigns through the years, expressed caution about the latest campaign even as other board members applauded it. Farahi also stressed that he wants a way to see tangible results this time.

“We have changed our marketing message how many times in the last 10 years?” Farahi said at the March meeting. “I don’t like to hear that it’s effective, I want measuring tools to show that it is effective.”

The latest RSCVA effort is different from past campaigns in a few ways, Cunningham said.

One difference is the heavy use of data to gauge its success. Prior to launching this campaign, for example, the RSCVA commissioned a visitor profile study in 2015. The study, which includes data from hotel-casinos in the area, shows the breakdown of visitors by state and will be done each year to gauge visitor patterns. The information will allow the RSCVA to gauge the impact on regions targeted by the campaign. The RSCVA already plans to do its first assessment of the results later this year.

“We’ll be doing a post-analysis in the fall to see how the advertising is doing,” Cunningham said. “We’ll be looking at consumer brand awareness and the desire to visit the region, so we’re looking at actual, real numbers to see if we move the needle.”

Dollars and sense

'We are a destination of tremendous contrast'

Another difference from past campaigns is the financial muscle backing the latest initiative, the RSCVA said.

Due to the smaller budgets of the past, the RSCVA has not been able to run full-fledged advertising campaigns in areas outside of Reno's drive-in market such as Northern California. Thanks to the boost from the surcharge tax, the latest marketing initiative will run ad campaigns in three Western markets that were identified as prime areas of opportunity. Besides the Bay Area, the cities of Los Angeles and Seattle are now included in the mix as well.

California is a no-brainer, given how it traditionally accounts for the bulk of visitors to the area from other states. In 2015, the Golden State accounted for 32 percent of visitors in the area, the RSCVA found. The next closest state was Texas at 7 percent.

As for Seattle, Washington accounted for 2 percent of visitors to the area, making it the third-largest source of visitors in the West after second-place Arizona’s 3 percent.

“Seattle used to be a big market for (Reno-Tahoe),” said CEO Wendy Hummer of EXL media, which will be placing ads in the three target regions for the campaign. “We want to go back and tell them about a lot of the changes here.”

About 43 percent of the campaign’s $4.4 million will be used for online marketing in other areas. This includes sites such as Tripadvisor as well as social media platforms.

Although California accounts for most visitors to the area, for example, its share in 2015 represents a decline from 39 percent in 2011 and 35 percent in 2013. The South, meanwhile, has posted steady increases from 19 percent in 2011 and 24 percent in 2013 to 26 percent in 2015.

Texas, Florida and Georgia accounted for 15 percent of all visitors to the area in 2015.

Kriehn of BVK believes that all the positive buzz about the area, which has seen the arrival of several high-profile companies, is causing a shift in how people elsewhere think about the Reno area. Slowly but surely, people are coming to realize what those who live in the region have known for a long time — that Reno-Tahoe is a good place to live, Kriehn said.

Ultimately, everything all comes back to the one issue that has bedeviled Reno through the years: image. Even with the arrival of Apple, Tesla and Google, how others perceive the region remains the biggest little problem for Reno tourism. A key difference in the latest campaign is embracing all sides of the area's true self, not just its alpine lake blues and mountain greens but it's rougher facets as well.

“The challenge is to uplift the image and reputation of the entire region in the mind of the consumer,” said Phil DeLone, RSCVA CEO. “We are a destination of tremendous contrast.”

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