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East County Thursday, Mar. 3, 2022 7 months ago

Fortune cookie strategy could be tourist windfall for Bradenton area

Bradenton Area Convention and Tourist Bureau cooks up fortune cookie campaign.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

Kelly Clark admits she is a fortune cookie kind of gal.

She keeps one on her desk at the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Well, actually, just the fortune, not the cookie.

"Get ready to relax on the beach."

Clark, the bureau's chief marketing officer, said she wants to drive to Ana Maria Island every time her eyes come across that little snip of paper.

She also keeps other fortunes — at home, in her purse — that predict success from hard work.

When Clark and her staff were brainstorming ways to promote Avelo Airlines' new service between New Haven, Connecticut and the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, the conversation turned toward the OpenFortune company that sells more than 1 billion fortune cookies a year to 21,000 restaurants in the United States.

Clark, along with Elliott Falcione, the bureau's executive director, decided to take a chance on a unique type of branding.

"I do research in the market and I look at different tactics," Clark said. "I knew of OpenFortune and its revolutionary idea of marketing. It seemed like an out-of-box idea to me. It's classic guerrilla marketing, and it checked all the boxes."

Guerilla marketing engages its target audience where they work, play, shop ... or eat. It's kind of a quick-hit marketing tactic to pique a person's interest.

In this case, the campaign was held in a three-month window, from when Avelo Airlines made its announcement in November that it would begin service between New Haven and Sarasota Bradenton International. Clark said the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau purchased 200,000 fortune cookies to distribute through the greater New Haven area. 

An actual fortune was on one side of the paper that was contained inside the fortune cookie. On the other side was the bureau's logo, Bradenton, Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key, and the bureau's QR code, which sends those interested to a special Bradenton area website designed by the bureau.

"OpenFortune, this is their job — fortune cookie speak," Clark said. "They created some initial ideas for us, and then we tweaked them. It was a fun thing to do."

Clark said that she and her staff created about half of the 40 fortunes on their cookies. They had to be clever and had to contain a level of mystery, because after all, people don't want to be cheated out of their fortune.

Among those fortunes created by the bureau's staff members were:

"Warm weather is closer than you think."

The tourist bureau staff members came up with more than 20 sayings of their own for their fortune cookie campaign.

"A beach vacation is in your future."

"Soon the only ice you will find will be in your drink."

"Say hello to warm weather ahead."

"Go relax on the beach. You deserve it."

Clark said she hopes those New Haven residents who never had heard of Anna Maria Island would be thinking, "It's freezing cold here, and let me look into this."

Nicole Christopoul, the director of integrated marketing and strategy for OpenFortune, said the company's research points to 6% of those throughout the nation opening its fortune cookies will post something on social media about the fortune. She said early research on the bureau's buy is right in line with that number.

Falcione said, better yet, those who have accessed the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website have stayed to do research.

"The average in our industry, if you can keep them, is 2 minutes, 30 seconds," Falcione said of visitors coming to the website. "Those (seeing the fortunes) have stayed four minutes. So you know they are interested in buying. It's a methodology we can calculate."

In the three-month window, approximately 10 people a day visited the website after seeing their fortunes.

Falcione said getting people to realize there is a Bradenton, along with Sarasota, attached to the airport is critical.

"When you fly into Sarasota Bradenton Airport, nine out of 10 wouldn't know Bradenton exists. We need a requirement with the airlines to be consistent with the Bradenton name on all platforms. We have to protect our hospitality industry. This marketplace is geographically challenged. Is it frustrating? Hell yeah!"

The Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau promoted travel from New Haven, Connecticut to the region on Avelo Airlines through fortune cookies.

Falcione credits Clark for developing the program and taking a chance.

"It's working a lot better than I ever expected," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if Kelly doesn't take this to other markets."

He also stressed the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau marketing budget of $5.6 million comes out of tourism tax dollars (bed tax) and does not come out of property taxes. He did not say what the bureau spent on the fortune cookie campaign because it's a competitive market, but all the numbers will be included in a report to the commissioners which will be open to the public.

"The bed tax does belong to the taxpayers," Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said. "But we have exceeded our expectations in what we have done with tourism. We are doing more with tourism than we did before the pandemic. Tourism is alive and well in Manatee County."

Baugh said bed taxes are regulated by the state, but the commissioners do meet with Falcione and his staff monthly. She said the commission approves a two-year budget for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We get reports on what is being done, how effective it is and how many visitors (it drives)," she said.

More than 200,000 fortune cookies were distributed in the New Haven, Connecticut area to induce people to visit Manatee County.

Clark said the marketing campaign was a stretch since the bureau has tended to stick with traditional advertising methods.

"Sure, we are thinking through every decision we make," she said. "We wanted to make sure this made 100% sense because this definitely was outside-the-box. This has been almost a pilot program and we wanted to make sure we were spending the money as efficiently as we can. But looking at the preliminary numbers, I would be looking into doing something like this again. Our (web site) visitors have been looking at flights, and at more than just the main page. They were taking action.

"It's so smart, I don't know how we didn't think about this sooner."

Falcione said it was an artistic campaign that involved a risk. He said at the end of the day, though, he is held accountable for the overall tourism numbers, and he didn't want to taint his staff's creativity.

He said the bureau's marketing campaign fit with Avelo Airlines' creative marketing strategies.

Kevin Jacobs, director of partnerships and distribution for Avelo Airlines, praised Clark for her creativity.

"It's akin to what we do," Jacobs said. "We consistently run sweepstakes and we use door hangers with promo codes."

He said Avelo, which began offering two flights a week in January between the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport and New Haven will increase that to four flights a week in late May.

"It's been a great start so far and we're looking to expand in Florida."

He said the effort by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has been "fantastic since Day 1."

"We have seen a partner that was willing to do something creative," Jacobs said. "It speaks volumes about what this community is all about."

Elliott Falcione, the director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Tourist Bureau, says the fortune cookie campaign was well worth the risk.


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