Mexico aims $27M ad blitz at U.S. homebodies

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ith hotel occupancies and visitor numbers remaining stubbornly depressed, Mexico's struggling tourism industry continues to pin its hopes for a recovery on a vigorous advertising campaign designed to attract U.S. vacationers who want to travel while staying securely within hailing distance of home.

Backed by a $27 million budget, some $10 million more than last year, the ad blitz is scheduled to run on more than a dozen national TV cable networks such as CNN, the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel and the Weather Channel through March.

Building on last year's "Mexico, Closer Than Ever" theme, the campaign also will include radio commercials and print ads in major dailies, travel trade journals and specialty magazines that will run concurrently with the TV spots.

The theme worked last year in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Mexico is hoping it will work again.

"We could have postponed, or even canceled, all our promotion efforts [after the terrorist attacks], as several other destinations did, but we decided to proceed and keep Mexico in the forefront of people's minds," said Alejandro Gonzalez Molina, director of international promotion for the Mexico Tourism Board.

In fact, just as Americans became wary about foreign travel in the wake of Sept. 11, the country scrapped its "Many Moods of Mexico" campaign in favor of a new tag line and message that portrayed the country as a friendly, supportive place that was easy to get to. Thus, the tag line "Mexico, Closer Than Ever."

Funded primarily from the $15 visitor entry fee imposed last year on tourists, the campaign hit the U.S. airwaves last October as Mexico was experiencing the biggest tourism slump in its history.

Before the events of Sept. 11, Mexico had been on track to surpass the 20 million international visitors it welcomed in 2000, according to the tourism board. Instead, the destination registered 19.6 million international arrivals in 2001, down 4.8% from 2000.

And arrivals from the U.S. -- which traditionally represent 85% of Mexico's tourists -- fell 13%.

Occupancy at Mexico's hotels in 2001 dropped to 55.8%, down from 59.3% in 2000, a dip that would have been even greater had it not been for a 1.6% uptick in the number of Mexicans who vacationed in the country's hotels.

During the first quarter of this year, tourism was off about 5% compared with the same period in 2001, and revenue was lagging 2.4%, according to the tourism board.

Hoping to boost its recovery, the tourism board is continuing to meet the issue head-on. This year's campaign will feature a series of five commercials showcasing at least two destinations at a time that are within proximity of one another: Mexico City and Acapulco; Los Cabos, Loreto and La Paz; Oaxaca and Huatulco; Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta; and Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

"The tourism board is taking a much more businesslike approach in the way it markets Mexico to tourists," said Patrick Sanchez, chairman of the marketing and advertising committee for the Los Cabos Tourism Board and general manager of the Westin Regina in Los Cabos.

Los Cabos and Cancun have been especially hard hit by the tourism slump, with arrivals down 11% and 8%, respectively.

Americans account for more than 90% of Los Cabos' visitors, and their reluctance to travel after Sept. 11 was a major blow to the destination. And it didn't help that Los Cabos' hotel room inventory increased by almost 19% this year.

"When supply and demand are not following the same growth patterns, you're going to face a problem. For the destination, we are projecting that hotel occupancy will reach 48% this year," Sanchez said.

According to tourism officials, one of the major accomplishments of the Mexico Tourism Board in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was a campaign to raise funds for tourism marketing through cooperative adverting, matching public funds dollar-for-dollar with contributions from tour operators, hotel companies, destination associations and airlines.

"The cooperative environment that the tourism board is fostering now makes me very excited to be partnering with it as we go forward," said Colette Baruth, director of marketing for Mexico and Latin America at Gogo Worldwide Vacations.

"This campaign will be an enormous boost to our business because Gogo gets an opportunity to piggyback on the commercials and get its name out there.

"Mexico will have an opportunity to compete with destinations that are getting our business by default. We'll have a way to garner more attention for our Mexico product than in the past."

Although the majority of Gogo's business to Mexico "is always going to be resort business," the campaign should help Gogo tap markets that are less traveled but have great potential, Baruth added.

She pointed out that one of Gogo's most popular itineraries in Mexico during the '50s and '60s, the decades when volume travel to Mexico exploded, were driving tours of Mexico City, Acapulco and Taxco.

"This [new] campaign just might help renew demand for these kinds of nostalgic trips," Baruth said.

As for the prospects of a recovery for the destination, the tourism board is predicting business will improve this year, at least in part thanks to its promotional activities, and that the country will welcome 20 million international visitors, barring any untoward events -- a slight increase from 2001. These travelers are expected to generate $8.5 billion in revenue, also a slight increase.

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