It’s the sort of attention that tourism bureaus flip for.
A painting of McAfee Knob was front and center Monday on search giant Google, adding to the widespread attention that locations below it received last week from morning television staple the “Today Show.”
The TV spot came via a pitch to “Today” from Roanoke-based tourist information center Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge. The Google Doodle and slideshow that featured the Appalachian Trail icon was a luckier strike — it paid homage to the AT’s 55th anniversary among the original National Scenic Trails.
Visit VBR only learned about the “Today” plug on Saturday and was not sure what effect it has had so far.
The doodle was easier to quantify, said Kathryn Lucas, the organization’s public relations director. The group’s website, visitroanokeva.com, has a page dedicated to McAfee Knob, the Catawba landmark. Its search engine optimization — a method to draw traffic to a website — ensures that its McAfee page will top most search results, Lucas said.
Web traffic information showed that on Oct. 2, 2022, Visit VBR’s McAfee page drew 298 page views. On Monday, a year later, it picked up 3,266 views — 3,000 of which came from organic search results on Google, she said. That’s a 996% traffic increase, she said.
The Google Doodle is an occasional piece of art that adorns the homepage logo, to celebrate holidays, anniversaries and famous people in history and culture. The Monday doodle featured the Appalachian Trail’s oft-photographed McAfee overlook, with a hiker standing at its peak. Those who clicked through on the image saw a slideshow about the route. Doodle artist Nate Swinehart painted them all and created animations.
Swinehart used his Instagram to write about his trail adventures.
“Today’s Appalachian Trail Google Doodle was all painted on-site!” he posted Monday. “I hiked portions of the trail from Georgia to Maine and carted my trusty gouache [paint] along for the journey. Even more than the beautiful nature, I was struck by all the incredible friendly people I met and heartfelt stories I heard along the way. AT forever 💚💚💚
“(This is also the closest making a Doodle has come to actually killing me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way)”
That’s an intriguing kicker, but multiple attempts to reach Swinehart and learn more were unsuccessful.
The Doodle archive page included a bit of the trail’s history, along with photos of Swinehart working there. The page showed that the painting and slideshow reached an international audience that included Lithuania, France, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Peru.
Alma mater memories
On Friday, “Today Show” travel reporter Mark Ellwood joined hosts Hoda Kotb — a Virginia Tech graduate — and Jenna Bush Hager to discuss a two-item list of fall getaways that began with northern Wisconsin and ended with Roanoke.
“We’re going to take you to Roanoke because we have a Go Outside Festival in Roanoke,” Ellwood told the hosts.
Those are just the kind of words that Pete Eshelman likes to hear. Eshelman, of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, is co-director of the festival.
“I think for the Go Outside Festival, that’s probably the biggest national shout-out we’ve received,” Eshelman said. “I think it’s a great thing any time you get mentioned on national television.”
The free event that celebrates the Roanoke region’s outdoors scene is set for downtown Oct. 13-15 and includes live music at Elmwood Park. Eshelman joked that the TV audience might have gotten more information about it, except Ellwood and Hager nudged Kotb to do a bit of the “Old Hokie” cheer.
“I think all of this combined shows how Roanoke and Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, we’re starting to get noticed more and more, and I think it supports the brand and the narrative around the outdoors that we’ve been building over the last couple of years,” he said.
Kotb’s Blacksburg connection was a boon for the VBR pitch, and the organization played to it, Lucas said.
About mid-September, the Virginia Tourism Corp. notified the commonwealth’s tourism boards — destination marketing organizations, in modern parlance — that “Today” was looking for fall getaways. Colleagues put together regional film footage and photos for the show to use. They recommended The Liberty Trust for lodging in Roanoke, in part to fit the morning show’s required average daily rental rate, $250 or less. The “Today” segment listed rooms at $175 per night.
“We used that Virginia Tech alum niche for Hoda, talked about how we’re a great place to visit — we’ve got a part of the [Blue Ridge Parkway], which just reopened, in Roanoke, Go Fest is coming up,” Lucas said. “So we put that pitch together. Our marketing team worked with us to put together the best images and [film footage] that we had, packaged it all in a drop box and then submitted it to Virginia Tourism.”
And then didn’t hear another word. It wasn’t until Saturday, when VBR sales and marketing Vice President Debora Wright’s sister texted some footage she had filmed from her TV on Friday, that the organization realized its success.
“So, very exciting that we had a direct hand in generating that national media attention for Virginia’s Blue Ridge, and of course [we] are very grateful to Virginia Tourism Corp. for providing us that opportunity in the first place,” Lucas said.
Eshelman said his organization hadn’t had a chance to see if its website had a traffic uptick. Andrew Schlosser, executive chef at The Liberty Trust’s restaurant, The Vault, said that the hotel was almost completely booked for this week by the time the “Today” segment aired.
“But I think that’s the kind of thing that should show an increase as people make fall plans and getaways,” Schlosser said.
It’s a nice exclamation point in an upturn for post-COVID tourism in the region. Virginia Tourism Corp. recently released economic impact data that shows that tourist destinations are seeing a return to levels of spending not seen since 2019, Lucas said. Visit VBR’s territory is Roanoke, Salem, Botetourt County, Franklin County and Roanoke County.
“Visitors to the five jurisdictions in Virginia’s Blue Ridge were responsible for over $1 billion in spending in 2022,” she said. “With all of this national coverage, with all the success of the Northern Virginia spring marketing campaign, we’re expecting those numbers to just continue trending upward.”
Her organization expects even more action after recently completing a full-on marketing campaign in Northern Virginia, which is the Blue Ridge’s top visitor market. Meanwhile, it hopes to successfully deliver pitches that get results similar to the “Today Show” segment and an hgtv.com story from the summer, which included Roanoke among the U.S. 25 best cities for hiking. Later, cnn.com syndicated that story, bringing it an even wider audience, Lucas said. VBR had developed a relationship with Erin Gifford, who wrote the article.
“We’re excited, and we just hope,” she said. “It’s hard to top right away, but we hope we can continue to deliver those results in the future.”