CHARLOTTE AMALIE, St. Thomas -- Strategies to attract a larger share of the mainland market to the U.S. Virgin Islands focus on the American connection to the territory.

These include a patriotic-themed logo, incentive-filled off-season packages, niche programs, marketing partnerships, the launch of a program targeting small properties and toll-free information lines.

The strategies were unveiled at the 10th annual Destination Symposium in St. Thomas, which brought U.S.-based tour operators and wholesalers together with the Virgin Islands' hoteliers, carriers and island representatives, plus several marketing and Internet experts, to discuss challenges facing tourism today.

"We are on a critical path in Caribbean tourism," said Pamela Richards, commissioner of tourism. "Although the war in Iraq dealt us another blow, we have a strategic marketing plan in place and several more components still to be launched. Our visitor numbers this winter did not suffer as badly as we feared."

Several hoteliers, operators and cruise officials confirmed Richards' statement of a strong visitor count from December through February in St. John and St. Thomas.

Richard Doumeng, general manager of Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on St. Thomas, described a "solid winter and a full house for the Easter period."

Graeme Davis, general manager of the Westin St. John, termed this winter "the most successful in the history of the property."

Greg Thorne of Inter-Island Tours reported "a fairly even winter season with several sellout weeks."

Edward Thomas, president and CEO of the West Indian Co., which handles cruise ship operations in the Virgin Islands, said as many as seven ships had docked in St. Thomas on one day this winter, and many days saw five ships in port at the same time.

Despite that, overall cruise traffic from December to February was down from the same period a year ago, due mainly to the pullout of several cruise lines from St. Croix last fall.

The recovery of St. Croix, where visitor numbers are well below those on St. John and St. Thomas, is the mandate of Gov. Charles Turnbull, according to Vargrave Richards, his lieutenant governor.

"We must spearhead the economy to drive travel to each of the U.S. Virgin Islands. We are hopeful that the connection to the U.S. makes tourists feel safe in traveling to our destination," Richards said.

Symposium delegates agreed that aggressive marketing campaigns were needed to move beyond traditional markets.

Thorne pointed out that "this is a sales-driven business. Unless we can offer real incentives, nothing will fly off the shelves."

The new logo calls the territory "America's Caribbean" and depicts a stylized U.S. flag to promote the connection between the U.S. and the U.S.V.I.

A component of the radio and cable TV ads running in 13 mainland markets is a reworked version of Woody Guthrie's folk song, "This Land is Your Land," whose borders now stretch "from California to the Virgin

Islands." The ads also include toll-free numbers for information on tour packages to the U.S.V.I., specifically those offered by AA Vacations and US Airways Vacations.

Steve Bornn, marketing director of the Department of Tourism, said the use of the numbers represents a partnership with the two airlines.

Glenn Harris, head of Carib-bean marketing and public relations for American Express, outlined a new partnership venture with the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel & Tourism Association that debuts in June and runs through September.

Package features include the fifth night free when four are booked and paid for with an American Express card; a $50 gift certificate; and a discount coupon book for use in stores, restaurants and attractions.

Targeting niche markets was the focus of speaker Keith Clinkscales, chairman and CEO of Vanguarde Media, which publishes Savoy magazine.

"No one has really targeted the African-American travel market, which represents a great marketing opportunity for the U.S. Virgin Islands," he said.

The Caribbean is the second-most desirable destination for African-Americans, second only to Europe, according to Clinkscales.

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Package links
Web site:
www.usvitourism.vi
Information: (800) 372-USVI
AA Vacations: (800) 863-7151
US Airways Vacations: (800) 831-4545

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