Technology road well traveled Featured

10:00am EDT July 22, 2002

Ohio's Division of Travel and Tourism struggled to find and track marketing leads. The Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau's expenditures included a call center and mail response.

Thanks to technology, the two have swapped responsibilities, saving time and money in the process.

Changes began in 1996, when the travel and tourism staff investigated how telephone and computer technology could improve the 1-800-BUCKEYE system, through which tourists request travel information be mailed to them.

Now, an advanced system, called the BUCKEYE Information Network, has streamlined that process, decreasing costs at a time when call volume is up nearly 33 percent.

Planning the trip

Developing the network involved creating an advanced, Web-based databank that would serve as a unified source for tourism information previously maintained in separate databases with 1-800-BUCKEYE travel counselors; the division's Web site, www.ohiotourism.com; state tourism publications; and division staff.

The network would not be complete, however, without a telephone system that would handle a large call capacity. It also had to include automation capabilities and the ability to track the time and source of calls.

"What we ended up with was a combination between AT&T and CallTech Communications," says Jim Epperson, interim state tourism director.

AT&T has the capacity to handle the call volume and the computer network to collect caller information, including the originating number, date and time. Columbus-based CallTech, which created the new databank, has Web and intranet capabilities enabling travel counselors to access the databank when callers request personal assistance instead of using the automated system.

Multiple phone numbers can also be wired into the system, meaning tourist attractions around the state can maintain their own phone numbers and track call volume without having to staff a center of their own. That prompted 14 other entities, such as the Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cedar Point and SeaWorld to partner with the tourism division.

Partners pay for advertising and promotion to motivate calls to their numbers, which ring into the BUCKEYE system. The travel and tourism network then mails out requested information with an OhioPass Travel Planner and a state map to encourage additional state travel.

In essence, the partners do advertising and marketing work for the division.

"If we just rely on our money for advertising and our money to answer the phone, it can cost us anywhere between $5 and $20 to generate an inquiry," Epperson says. Now, Travel and Tourism can use money it would have spent on advertising in conjunction with those partnerships to support other marketing plans.

In 1997, the division placed $4.1 million in advertising to generate calls to 1-800-BUCKEYE, with private tourism entities providing $3 million of that. In contrast, last year the division expected $6 million of the $7.1 million in advertising money would come from the private sector.

That's OK with Kari Kauffman, director of tourism for the Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau, who appreciates not having to staff a call center of her own anymore.

"We see roughly a savings of somewhere around $115,000 to $125,000 over a year's period," Kauffman says. "So that enables us to put those dollars into other marketing programs."

Reaching the destination

Going high tech and joining forces has saved the tourism division and its partners more than money. It's cut down on headaches and inefficiencies.

Kauffman says the bureau used to rely on a paper trail of updates and changes to events in the city when callers requested information.

"Now we can update our own information on the database or on our Web site, because those are the two resources they use to answer callers's questions," she says. "The whole process is streamlined so much easier."

The databank includes information from almost 4,000 private sector tourism entities. Changes in that information can be made by the individual entity and will appear on the databank and Web site in less than 24 hours. Previously, the state division compiled information yearly through a mailing.

"When you have a mass mailing once a year, you're treating the business as though it's static," Epperson laments.

Partners receive information-on a daily basis-about callers.

"It's a good tool to measure the effectiveness of our advertising and our marketing efforts," Kauffman says.

In addition, the Division of Travel and Tourism benefits from a name/address lookup feature. Previously, callers recorded their request and address on tape, which were then manually entered as an order. Now, the system prompts the caller to input a phone number and matches it automatically to a mailing address in a matter of seconds at a match rate of 80 percent.

"It means we've had a drop in the call length on the automated ordering from over two minutes to under one minute," Epperson says.

The division can now more accurately process the mail and take advantage of more postal discounts.

Postage costs per order have dropped nearly 18 percent, and that doesn't even show the savings the division has realized from a reduction in undeliverable mail due to bad addresses. The division estimated savings of more than $150,000 in transcription and postage costs per year because of the new technology.

The division expects to see an increase in revenues to the state as more marketing leads are generated through partners and tourists find greater ease in using the Web site and automated system.

"If we can get the statewide material in somebody's hands-regardless of why they were initially interested in Ohio," Epperson says, "they travel to the state and not only travel to their initial interest, but we get either a longer stay or an additional visit."