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National Travel Writers: ‘Rockford Has a Lot to Be Proud Of’

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For a city our size, we have an awful lot of good things going for us, but it’s nice to hear it from “outside experts,” too. Paul Anthony Arco talked to some writers after their recent visit, and you know what? They liked us. They really liked us.

Rockford's Starlight Theatre. (Greg Murphy photo)

What’s that you say? There’s nothing to do in Rockford?

Try telling that to Eileen Ogintz, a syndicated columnist and blogger who writes a column called Taking the Kids. Ogintz was one of 85 travel writers who made their way to town last summer as part of the Travel Media Showcase, a three-day event put on by J. Vero & Associates, a Freehold, N.J.-based company that produces tourism conferences designed to promote destination travel.

“I really liked Rockford,” says Ogintz, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune. “You don’t expect to see so many incredible places within a smaller city like Rockford. I travel around the world and it’s great to find cities that have so much to offer. Anderson Japanese Gardens was awesome, and I loved Burpee and Discovery Center museums. Rockford really surprised me.”

In late August, writers from big and small media outlets came to town to check out what Rockford has to see and do. In addition to seeing the sites, they networked with 75 staff members from various visitors bureaus, conference centers and agencies around the country, at the conference held at Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center.

Each year, the travel showcase is held in a different city. Rockford submitted its request to hold the event two years ago, and was notified of its acceptance last year. This was Rockford’s first time playing host.

The timing couldn’t have been better.

“The biggest satisfaction I got was seeing these savvy journalists love being in Rockford,” says John Groh, president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB). “We saw people with big smiles, having a wonderful time in our community. We saw that play out over and over throughout the week.”

The event featured tours of several popular destinations, such as the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum, Starlight Theater, Discovery Center Museum and the Rock River, where visiting writers had the opportunity to kayak.

Writers also feasted on meals served up by many local favorites, including Toni’s of Winnebago, Stockholm Inn, Ciao Bella and Garrett’s. Extra touches – such as fireworks and performances by local musicians such as Miles Nielsen and Kelly Steward – added to the overall experience.

“We tried to infuse the entire week with original Rockford restaurants and shops, to give them a real local flavor,” says Groh. “We wanted to instill a high degree of quality and personal attention. For example, every person who got off a bus was given a small flower arrangement. Everything we did was with the idea that ‘we’re thinking of you.’”

Some of the mediums represented were CBS, Ladies Home Journal, MSN, USA Today, Woman’s Day Magazine, as well as smaller outlets. All writers, who were either freelancers or assigned by a publication, were prequalified and personally invited by organizer Joanne Vero. “Writers were required to submit

documentation to prove they’re active, publishing and have some sort of following,” Groh says.
Vero has been putting on these special events for 15 years. She says Rockford’s presentation stood out, compared with other host cities.

“It was a tremendous success,” she says. “We had nationally syndicated columnists come with no expectations and end up writing story after story. They’re blogging about different experiences that they had, and pictures are being blasted everywhere. The social media is still going strong.”

Groh says at least 50 articles have been written about Rockford since August. Stories and blogs have covered a gamut of aspects including the Discovery Center, the Swedish pancakes from Stockholm Inn and the large koi at Anderson Japanese Gardens. Groh expects even more coverage in the months ahead, as his staff continues to follow up with the journalists, pitching other story ideas about Rockford.

The RACVB staff spent several months organizing the event. “Rockford was very prepared,” says Vero. “The visitors bureau staff was tremendously hands-on, extremely detailed and full of information.”

The cost to cover the showcase was $150,000, which included everything but transportation for the journalists to get here. Half of the expenses were covered by state tourism grants. Sponsors, including the Rockford Park District, and in-kind donors, also helped to offset the cost.

“It’s an effective way for us to market the community,” says Groh. “If we had to pay for all the promotion from the articles that we received, we couldn’t afford it. This event was a really effective use of our resources, time and money to get the word out about Rockford. There aren’t many events like this in the country.”

As a reminder of their visit, each journalist took home a Rockford-made keepsake, designed by local artisans who sell their items online at Etsy, commissioned by the RACVB.

“The writers were more than impressed with the community and the abundance of culture that the region offers,” Groh says. “We were grateful to hear all of the positive comments after all of our hard work.”

According to Groh, more than 60 percent of guests who visit many local attractions and events come from outside the Rockford area, adding even more importance to events like the travel showcase.

“Some communities would kill to have our gardens,” Groh says. “They don’t have the high-quality park system that we have. We have golf courses, museums and great theaters. For a city our size, we have cultural and entertainment tourism footprints that are much bigger than our size would suggest. I think that’s impressive.”

As for negative publicity about Rockford from national publications, including Forbes Magazine’s Most Miserable Cities list, events like the media showcase can help to quell some of those perceptions, by showing the city’s positive side.

Still, Groh is realistic. “I’d be naive to say that some of it isn’t true,” he says. “There are certainly realities within our region that get us included on those unfortunate lists. But it’s not the whole truth, and it doesn’t demonstrate the breadth of our community.”

He continues: “We recognize in an urban area there are urban issues that come along with that and have to be addressed. For example, thanks to the Forbes list, we created a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign, ‘Misery Loves Company.’ It was a chance for us to highlight the great things that define us, in a positive way. It reminds us of the work that we do and why it’s important.”

After spending a week in town, Vero left impressed.

“What stands out the most about Rockford are the people who live here,” she says. “They love where they live. Everyone we met was so down-to-earth, including Miles Nielsen. The performance he gave us at Anderson Gardens was tremendous. After the show, he invited everyone to hang out with the band. We don’t see that type of passion everywhere we go.”

The writers, too, sensed that same genuine enthusiasm.

“For a city like Rockford, it’s good to be part of a showcase like this,” adds blogger Ogintz. “You get a dedicated audience who may not be familiar with Rockford otherwise. By coming, they saw and experienced all that the community has to offer. It’s worth the investment – to have people come back with a whole new perspective of your community. Rockford has a lot to be proud of.”

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