- September 8, 2021
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The City of Boston wants to extend a multi-cultural ad campaign focused on reversing the economic damage the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted on tourism, hospitality, and restaurant spending.
The four-month pilot version of the campaign — launched in April — included into two parts: “All-inclusive Boston,” a tourism ad effort designed to attract diverse and multilingual local and regional visitors, and “B-Local,” a small business engagement app that encourages visitors and residents to shop locally.
On Monday, the city posted a new request for contractors to bid on a second round of the project to run through December.
The city says All-Inclusive Boston generated 1.2 million social media impressions, and 500,000 views for the launch video that encourages people to visit neighborhoods typically ignored by tourists, along with traditional spots like the Freedom Trail. Part of the goal was to “foster an environment that is welcoming to diverse travelers, specifically, people of color from other parts of the United States,” according to the original request for proposals from last fall.
The 83-second long video pays homage to classic spots like Fenway Park and Mike’s Pastry, but also introduces beloved joints like Jamaica Plain’s El Oriental de Cuba, Tawakal Halal Cafe, a Somali restaurant in East Boston, and 50Kitchen, a Black-owned Asian and Southern fusion spot in Dorchester.
The initial $2.5 million pilot project was proposed by then Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration and was quarterbacked by former Chief of Economic Development John Barros, who is now running for mayor. The city plans to speand at least $1 million on the second round of the marketing effort.
Three entities — Colette Phillips Communications, Proverb, and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau — won the original contract and jointly developed a branding campaign to funnel travelers back into tourism and hospitality, which constitutes the third largest segment of the Massachusetts’ economy.
The city says arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services make up 10.4 percent of Boston jobs, sectors that were dealt a blow when coronavirus kept travel at a standstill.
The B-Local App rewards users when they shop at participating businesses — including many led by Black and brown owners — with points that can be redeemed for discounts at 350 local businesses. The city reimburses business owners for the cost of rewards redeemed by users. Over 2,600 local businesses are participating in the program, and over 7,300 users have downloaded the app.
Federal COVID relief funds supported the pilot version of the program and will partially fund the second round along with money from the city’s FY22 operating budget.
Barros said Boston doesn’t have a history of doing branding and marketing campaigns for travelers and residents. “New York does. Baltimore, other cities our size have campaigns like this happening all the time, $25 million, $30 million, $40 million campaigns,” he said.
The branding campaign, which was regional, was intended to reach people who drive, take public transit, or go from neighborhood to neighborhood, according to Barros.
For the All-Inclusive campaign, the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau said it and other agencies spent $750,000 advertising within a three-hour driving radius of Boston, including billboards off high traffic roadways like the Mass Pike.
Colette Phillips, president of the public relations firm that bears her name, said local media buys went to hyperlocal publications like the Dorchester Reporter, the Bay State Banner, and the South End News/Bay Windows with the intention of supporting hard-hit small media outlets while urging locals to get out and shop.
About $90,000 worth of ads also went to Chinese and Spanish language outlets like El Mundo, Univision, and Sampan News.
The process of creating content was a diverse effort, Phillips said. She and Proverb’s managing director Daren Bascome are Black; a Roxbury-based web development company did site work; a Chilean-American videographer put together the video displayed on the site; photography was done by an African-American photographer; digital media outreach was done by a group of women called Black Girl Digital, she said.
Martha Sheridan, CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said part of the project was figuring out what people thought of when they considered of visiting Boston. The bureau conducted a survey of 1,000 visitors and residents before launching the campaign.
“The perception of Boston among residents and some visitors to Boston that was it is predominantly white, kind of male leaning. Boston that was very focused on sports and sort of the what the mass media portrays us,” Sheridan said. “So think about Ben Affleck or (no disparagement there at all), or a Matt Damon film or perhaps a Dunkies commercial, that kind of impression that people had. People weren’t as familiar with Boston’s multicultural assets. But when we told them through the research of what they could be, they were very interested in learning more.”
The initial goal of the project was to reach individuals who visited Boston in the previous 13 months — such as former suburban commuters who might be working from home — and to lure them back, focusing in particular on people interested in going to museums, historic destinations, hotels, and restaurants.
The pilot project has now run out of money and ad buys are on pause, but the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau continues to update and host the webpage for the project.
The city is now pursuing in a second round of the project. The creative team believes that rising COVID caseloads this summer limited the impact of the first round.
Sheridan said when the campaign was conceived last fall, “People were not 100 percent comfortable traveling, so we had hoped that by the time we launched the campaign, we would have been farther out of the way of the pandemic.” Late spring and early summer, however, brought new worries about the delta variant.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t work for us, but the funds had to be spent within a certain time frame,” she said.
The second round seeks to extend the projects, while continuing to spotlight “cultural and commercial assets in areas of Boston that have long been marginalized.”
Phillips said the campaign needs more time to reach more people. “If we truly are going to change the perception that people have of this city and really show Boston in all of its diversity, it requires a longer period of time than just four months,” she said.
Barros said that keeping track of how well the campaigns are going is essential.
“Hotel occupancy rate at one point it had fallen below 10 percent. Most recently, it was at 33 percent. And we needed to make sure that it was trending in the right direction,” he said, adding that he believes a second round of funding will do that.
The city also wants to get more people to download the B-Local app.
Phillips also said private organizations have expressed interest in the campaign.
“We have actually had companies like Wayfair and others who really want to use this campaign as part of their outreach to encourage more diverse talent to come to Boston by showing Boston really as an all-inclusive,” she said.
Phillips said she’s heard from owners at Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant in Jamaica Plain; Urban Grape, a South End wine store, a Black-owned business; and Daryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen that more tourists are coming in and having a meal and buying goods.
She’d like to further track who is changing their travel plans, or creating them, based off the campaigns. “I would say that we are going to go back and do further research and focus groups to see how people have responded to this,” Phillips said.
Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining GBH, Sarah was a reporter for CommonWealth Magazine, and senior immigration reporter for Law360. She’s covered politics, immigration, incarceration, and metro news for The Guardian, DigBoston, The Boston Globe, and the Associated Press.