Not Just Potty Talk

Since the Commonwealth of Virginia’s announcement a few weeks ago that it’s closing 18 highway rest stops, the potty jokes have been pretty much non-stop. My favorite is from one of my Facebook friends who suggested the famous “Virginia Is For Lovers” tourism slogan should be changed to “Virginia: Hold It or Go Around.”

It really is no laughing matter. Tourism is one of Virginia’s biggest industries, generating nearly $19 billion in visitor spending in 2007 and supporting 210,000 jobs. Creating a sense of welcome and travel comfort is an important part of any state’s tourism marketing effort. Virginia, which owns one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time with “Virginia Is For Lovers,” usually does a great job of making visitors feel welcome.

Closing the rest stops might save Virginia $9 million a year in these recession-racked times, but what is the cost to the state’s tourism industry, not only in real dollars but also in terms of public relations? What kind of message does it send to potential visitors? The Virginia Tourism Corporation touts the fact that every $1 spent in tourism marketing generates $5 in tax revenue for the state. Rest stops as marketing vehicles is not just potty talk. You could say it hits people where it hurts the most, at least on the highway.

Meanwhile, Texas is adding free Wi-Fi and Internet kiosks at all 98 rest stops in the state. Ironically, this announcement comes on the heels of news that Virginia overtook Texas to once again claim the #1 spot in CNBC’s ranking of top states for business. That ranking might be in jeopardy if the welcome mats to the state’s bathrooms stay rolled up.

The little things really do mean a lot when it comes to public relations. The message communicated by Virginia in this example is mixed: “We’re glad you’re here. Make yourself comfortable — but go behind that tree, will you?”

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