Travel Correspondent LANDER, Wyo. - The mantra of the real estate industry, "location, location, location," is also true in tourism.
One Wyoming business that has put its location to work for the tourism industry here turned 10 years old this year, and celebrated by inviting its nearly 20-million customers to visit the region (Yellowstone National Park). But more than that, this business is sharing its formula for success.
Shelli and Jerry Johnson founded the Yellowstone Journal Corporation in 1994 and began publishing a small color newspaper geared toward Yellowstone National Park tourists. Today, one decade later, that small tabloid has grown into a Lander-based company boasting two high-quality travel magazines, a leading web site, direct mail fulfillment, e-mail marketing, leads generation and a premier trip-planning business.
While the physical location of the business is located along a major travel corridor leading into Northwest Wyoming's fabulous national park playground, U.S. highways 26/287, the company's Internet address, YellowstonePark.com is proving to be the real gateway. The site attracted nearly 20 million visits last year.
"We are marketing Wyoming and Yellowstone to folks in their home states during the trip-planning stages, and they are responding," Shelli Johnson said. "Forty-four percent of the people who received our Yellowstone Trip Planner Kits indicated they decided on Yellowstone as a vacation destination only after spending time at YellowstonePark.com. This is a big number, and it means at YellowstonePark.com, we're converting the "undecideds" - those who haven't yet decided between Wyoming or Disney World."
Not only does YellowstonePark.com offer information on the region, but Johnson and her team have also developed six Yellowstone interactive travel itineraries for visitors interested in seeing the Park, including five different routes through Wyoming. Several additional itineraries will be added for the coming travel season.
Yellowstone Journal Corp. publishes two high quality travel magazines, the Yellowstone Journal, published five times a year and distributed in Barnes and Noble, and Borders bookstores throughout the country, inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks and to subscribers in all 50 states, plus 99 Things To Do In Yellowstone Country.
The Yellowstone Journal includes in-depth features and news stories about Yellowstone's animals, geology, history and news. Two hundred thousand copies of the free 99 Things To Do In Yellowstone Country magazine are distributed within a day's drive of the region. Published for "over the road" travelers, this magazine is chock full of information useful for a family looking for both soft and heart-pounding adventure as they head toward Yellowstone.
Yellowstone Businesses Benefit
Yellowstone Journal Corp. customers include both travelers and businesses serving the tourism industry.
To further benefit its business customers, Yellowstone Journal Corp. issues a monthly "Business-to-Business" e-letter. Recent topics have included stories on GeoTourism and e-mail marketing, plus travel tidbits, such as the fact that 98 million adult Americans have participated in "adventure travel" in the last five years.
In the competitive world of travel marketing, Wyoming's relatively small tourism industry is slugging it out with the likes of the Disney theme parks, Las Vegas and America's coastal cities. "Sharing information is one way to stay ahead of the game," Johnson said.
Wyoming also has a distinct advantage with such natural attractions as Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, Devils Tower and Fossil Butte national monuments, and true Western history at Fort Laramie, Fort Bridger and along the historical corridor of the Oregon, Mormon, California trails and the route of the Pony Express, to name just a few.
By providing user-friendly and accurate travel planning information, Yellowstone Journal Corp. products have succeeded in getting travelers to commit to visiting the Yellowstone Park area.
"We started little but with a big dream and we've added new product each year," Shelli Johnson said. "And it's not just more of the same thing; we've become pros at putting our finger on the pulse of who the Yellowstone visitor is, what they want to do and where they want to go. Our new products are born out of that knowledge."
Yellowstone Journal Corp. offers a variety of products. They include: print advertising, advertorial, expanded and searchable links on YellowstonePark.com, itinerary and map inclusions plus sponsorships, lodging locator links, and directories including Regions to Visit, Lodging, and Things to Do. A complete online version of the 99 Things To Do in Yellowstone Country magazine is also available on the web site, along with qualified email leads, direct mail fulfillment, e-fulfillment, and more. Expansion in the works for later this year include the addition of downloadable and extensive detailed sample itineraries based on interests and time. These itineraries can also be e-mailed to interested customers. Other coming attractions include: an Itinerary-Builder on YellowstonePark.com that will allow YellowstonePark.com visitors/users to build their own custom itinerary; a Yellowstone e-card functionality on the site; and independent market research provided in custom online reports for Yellowstone Journal Corp. customers.
"As more and more people plan their travel using the Internet, more businesses are spending their ad budgets on online marketing," said Johnson. "With that will come an increased demand for market research. Right now we have web analytics and extensive web stats reporting. But only market research can put a face on and quantify whom we're reaching," Johnson said. "I believe so strongly in this that beginning this summer, we're going to offer cross tabs for particular customers that will tell them exactly who they're reaching via their presence on YellowstonePark.com." Johnson said real data, including age, income level, duration of vacation, activities that interest them, where they live, how they plan to travel, and more, for all of the site's visitors will be available for particular customers.
"For example, should they choose to purchase this value-added program, Xanterra/Yellowstone National Park Lodges will be able to access 12-month, up-to-the-minute market research including demographics, activities of interest, how long travelers plan to stay, where they live, etc. for only those people who use our site who either plan on staying in a hotel inside Yellowstone Park. It will be that customized. We will be offering this highly-customized, ongoing independent market research for all of our lodging tax region customers, in addition to lodging customers, rental car companies, etc," she said.
Johnson said her company has grown 10-fold in 10 years due to its willingness to diversify and innovate.
"Our products effectively reach families at home sitting around the dinner table trying to decide between Wyoming and Disneyland, plus folks who have decided on Yellowstone for a destination but need trip-planning information, and tourists already in transit, driving to and from the park," said Johnson. "This is what we've tried to accomplish... to reach Wyoming's visitors ahead of time and once they've arrived here. Now, we're looking at taking that one step further - at customer retention. How can we lure these past visitors to return again and again? We're working on this aspect right now," she said.
Noting that about 70 percent of travelers currently use the Internet as a travel planning resource, Johnson said the company's web site "sells" the Yellowstone region using the park's icons of bears and geysers with a combination of short movies, incredible photography, easy to access information and interactive features. Johnson said the web site's interactive travel itineraries are just another logical connection for the state's tourism industry to get their message to the traveler.
"Because the foundation of Wyoming's and Montana's tourism industry is the drive market, we've giving customers like the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and Wyoming's various regions - both common and off the beaten path -additional opportunities to get their message to the people arriving here," she said.
What Makes YellowstonePark.com Different From Other Web Sites?
"There are a lot of great sites out there, but ours is organized better than ost. Because we serve Wyoming's and Yellowstone future visitors on a one-to-one basis and because we've paid for independent market research and conversion studies, we know a great deal about how our site's visitors think and what they need most. Our site's architecture was built in a such a way to serve these needs.
Another difference, and it's an important one says Johnson, is YellowstonePark.com was designed with the user/visitor in mind, not advertisers.
"We realize our biggest strength is reaching and serving prospective and current Yellowstone visitors," she says. "If we do that effectively, then we'll be valuable to businesses in the tourism industry."
Johnson says her company is in a unique situation because it serves two very distinct customers: folks considering or planning a vacation to the world's oldest national park, and businesses in the tourism industry. "We can't serve one without the other," she says.
"We wouldn't be able to cover Yellowstone the way we do without the support of our advertisers. Our passion for Yellowstone and delivering great vacation experiences to families across the country is what drives us to increase ways of serving prospective visitors while connecting them to the tourism industry. It's how we grow our company."
Paid advertising is presented in a non-intrusive way that invites people to investigate the site.
"Our site serves two very distinct audiences - what I call the decideds and the undecideds," she said.
"For the people who have already made a decision to travel here, we give them what they need to plan their trip, how to get here, what route to travel, how many days to spend in the park or at events such as Cheyenne Frontier Days or American Indian Powwows. They can plan their entire trip, not just the Yellowstone portion of it. Yellowstone is the carrot that gets them here, and then we advise them on all there is to do before and after their tour of the park," she said. "We sell the entire area around Yellowstone, and with three million people a year headed to the park, it makes sense to tap into this market because they are traveling through here anyway."
Johnson said about 50,000 families annually "ask us to help them plan their trip. They fill out a questionnaire; it's one-to-one marketing at its best. They book their whole trip on what we send them. They look at us as the experts from what to wear while visiting to here, to what regions to explore while en route to and from the park, to where they should stop for supper," Johnson said. According to the company's most recent market research, 100,000 families will actually use the Trip Planner kits so businesses whose information is in the kit is getting a lot of added exposure.
"We're passionate about what Wyoming has to offer. We truly love this state, and we live here. We want to shout at the top of our lungs about how great this place is, and to share its wonders with people across the country and world," she said.
"All roads lead to Yellowstone, and fortunately businesses and leaders in Wyoming's tourism industry recognize that, and have made the wise choice to tap into that steady stream of traffic. Our products provide the opportunity for businesses to lure this traffic into their own communities and businesses."