‘Free’ publicity for Rockbridge Area is paying off

By Nuoya Zhou

Last June, the Lexington Visitor Center organized a five-day media tour of the area for a group of national journalists. Already, the journalists have published more than a dozen on-line travel articles about the area’s history, natural vistas and attractions for tourists.

All dining, lodging and activity fees were covered by local businesses, according to the center’s marketing director.

Patty Williams, the marketing director, explained in an email how this marketing project came about. Geiger and Associates Public Relations, of Tallahassee, Fla., came to scout the area. A representative from Geiger’s, Debbie Geiger, made presentations to local business owners, introducing the media tour concept and addressing sponsorship segments of the tour.

Lexington Visitor Center in Lexington, Va. (Photo by Rachel Hicks)

Later, Geiger and the Visitor Center set up a contract for about $40,000, and prepared the logistics of the tour for almost a year, said Marie Plank, the center’s services manager.

Once the Visitor Center secured sponsorships from local businesses, Geiger and Associates brought in more than 20 journalists.

Some of the writers have freelanced for such high-profile media organizations at NPR, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune and The Washingtonian.

Fourteen of the articles had been published by September, though not necessarily in those publications. The articles are published on such platforms as The Costco ConnectionValdosta Daily Times, and Kokomo Tribune. More are expected to come in the next six to eight months.

These are also artfully displayed on the Visitor Center’s webpage, cycling on a calendar to keep the displays fresh, Williams said.

Williams said she has not completed an in-depth analytics of web traffic and social media engagement

“I can say that social media posts featuring published stories performed well,” Williams said. Williams answered questions in email because she was too busy for an interview, she said.

After the slower winter months, Williams plans to make another push and renew public interest in the area as a destination.

Visiting journalists dine at Southern Inn Restaurant, hosted by owner George Huger. (Photo courtesy of Patty Williams)

George Huger, owner of Southern Inn Restaurant, said he thought the media tour was a great idea, and it should have a trickle-down effect for the local economy in the long term.

Journalists were split between five lodging properties, including Hampton Inn Col Alto, the Robert E. Lee Hotel, The Georges, the Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center, and the Inn at Forest Oaks.

They dined at JJ’s Meat Shak, Kind Roots Cafe, Southern Inn, Rocca, Bistro on Main, The Palms, Sweet Things Ice Cream, Sheridan Livery Restaurant, Haywood’s and Red Hen.

According to the Visitor Center’s media tour brochure, Geiger and Association’s media marketing program generates a $10.51 return for every dollar invested. Since 2016, the company estimates it has made at least $460,487 in advertising equivalency.

David Walsh of Shenandoah Rides and Rentals leads a walk on the Chessie Trail, a six-mile rail trail from Lexington to Buena Vista, following the Maury River and the roadbed of a former Chesapeake and Ohio Railway branch line. (Photo courtesy of Patty Williams)

In marketing, getting journalists to write stories that further a corporate interest is called “earned media.” But when it involves gifts, such as free meals and lodging, it raises questions of a publication’s ethics policies.

Jody Jaffe, a local freelance travel journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, said reputable newspapers have a no-freebie policy. She could not take anything, including discounts. Jaffe mentions that some magazines have a more lax policy.

Jaffe said the New York Times even says in its contract with freelancers that when traveling, writers can’t tell the people they are interviewing that they are writing for the Times, to ensure the writers don’t get treated any differently than John Q. Public.