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New London, Mystic and more get funding for tourism initiatives

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How does a city or region promote itself and its attractions when travel is discouraged or restricted? What do tourism initiatives market when so many events have been canceled?

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the nature of tourism marketing, but people in the industry have been nimble, adapting their initiatives or creating new ones. Now, with a recent grant announcement from the Eastern Regional Tourism District, they have more funding to further these projects.

Earlier this month, the tourism district announced grants for nine additional programs as part of the 2020 Regional Marketing Partnership Program, bringing the total for all projects to $202,267 in matching grant funding. This includes the $50,000 announced in September for ThinkMystic and Wide Open; since then, the Connecticut Office of Tourism increased its total allocation to the tourism district for the year from $180,000 to $202,267.

"We received so many creative strategies for supporting our tourism businesses," Jim Bellano, chairman of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, said in a news release. "Given the pace at which the U.S. is developing a vaccine, we are excited to see these programs move forward to market Connecticut's spring and summer tourism seasons."

One recipient is the New London Tourism Unity Initiative, which Felix Reyes, director of planning and development for the city, said stemmed from the recognition that there is no tourism infrastructure in New London. The program got a $25,000 grant.

The city is working with Astor Place Inc., ReelE Media and Socialike, all based in New London, as its video and social media partners. In 2021, Reyes said, the city will have a new tourism website along with video and social media content that highlights community, tourism and economic development.

The tourism district also gave a $9,000 grant to Partners in History, a collaboration between the Thames River Heritage Park and eight partner sites, to create short videos promoting the history of the sites in Groton and New London. They are the Avery-Copp House, Ebenezer Avery House, Garde Arts Center, Hempsted Houses, Lyman Allyn Art Museum, Monte Cristo Cottage, Nathan Hale Schoolhouse and the Submarine Force Museum.

"There's such a range of history here, that not everything is linear, but everything is sort of connected, and one of the things that the park is here to do is to make these connections among all of these sort of independent historic sites," Executive Director Amy Perry said.

She explained that Partners in History involves creating a 30-second to 1-minute PBS documentary-style video for each place, "highlighting a compelling story of each." She is working with the Groton-based Firesite Films and hopes the videos will launch in May.

"The videos are going to help buoy us for a comeback," Perry said, noting that the heritage park's water taxi ridership kept doubling and was "on this precipice in 2019" — but then the pandemic hit. But while ridership dropped significantly this past summer, she said it was still better than expected.

To adapt to the pandemic, the park shortened hours and limited capacity on the water taxi, and introduced audio tour guide systems for its walking tours. Going forward, Perry said, the park is starting some virtual tours and probably will launch the first one in January.

The Eastern Regional Tourism District gave $20,000 to So Good to See You in Mystic, a campaign from the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce that models itself on the state's So Good to See You, Connecticut campaign.

David Labbe, a member of the chamber's executive board, said the campaign launched in July as a Facebook campaign in Westchester County, Fairfield County, South Boston and northern New Jersey.

It featured five elements: where to stay, where to dine, indoor events, outdoor events and a rotating category based on the season; it was "on the water" in the summer.

"The idea is to continue with messaging to the same groups, over and over, to hopefully create a visitation habit," Labbe said. The campaign ended Dec. 9 for the holiday season but likely will pick back up at the beginning of March.

Without events to feature, he said, the campaign is "pushing the Mystic message, the Mystic experience," such as its food scene and water activities, which he noted are "safe and healthy and socially distanced." He hopes the Mystic Outdoor Art Festival can return in 2021.

The Florence Griswold Museum and Lyme Art Association received $5,000 for a collaboration with a working title of Art Lives Here. Tammi Flynn, director of marketing for the museum, said the initiative is about how the two organizations can best work together in a consistent way, and that it will start in the spring.

Flynn said this will involve advertising, signs and cross-promotion through each organization's website, social media and newsletters. The idea is highlight southeastern Connecticut as a place for day-trippers and "staycationers."

The museum has adapted to the pandemic by offering virtual tours and starting a virtual camp. Flynn noted that people from all over the country are enjoying the online programs, so staff members are having conversations about how to maintain them when more on-site programming returns.

She hopes that the Midsummer Festival and GardenFest can happen next year but also is prepared to adapt if they don't.

Each of these four organizations received the amount they requested. The New London Tourism Unity Initiative and So Good to See You in Mystic must raise their own funds to match the grant in full, while the other two must each chip in an amount equal to half the grant.

Reyes explained that the $25,000 from the tourism district is going toward marketing while New London's $25,000 match, which comes from the city's sale of Parcel J at Bank and Howard streets, is going toward the infrastructure for the city's initiative to highlight its Black heritage.

New London also got a $75,000 matching grant this year from Thames River Innovation Place, meaning the city has a total of $200,000 for a tourism and marketing strategy, which Reyes said the City Council approved a few weeks ago.

The other five programs to receive funding from the Eastern Regional Tourism District in its latest round are Passport to Norwich, the Town of Windham Marketing Campaign, Windham Region Chamber of Commerce Regional Marketing Project, Voluntown Tourism Campaign and Air Line Trail Brochure Marketing Campaign.

e.moser@theday.com

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