Travelers who plan to visit Vermont this summer and recently went to the state’s tourism website to search lodging or dining options might have found themselves stymied.
The state Department of Tourism and Marketing launched its newly revamped site, VermontVacation.com, in April. The search function for the online travel planner, however, wasn’t working yet.
Visitors who clicked on the “Places to Stay” tab at the top of the site would jump to a page offering links to browse bed-and-breakfasts or “find a hotel.” Those led only to an array of pre-selected destinations, some of them not even lodgings – such as Vermont Canoe and Kayak, a recreational equipment rental business near Smuggler’s Notch, and Bella Boutique, a women’s clothing shop in Burlington.
The link to lodgings on the “Plan Your Visit” tab brought up a glowing wintertime photo of the elegant clapboard farmhouse of the Inn At Round Barn Farm in Waitsfield.
“Browse through Vermont’s lodging options on our Travel Planner,” the page instructed. “Here we have created a list of lodging options from across the state.”
The link for the travel planner, though, led not to a searchable list but another random selection of destinations. At that point, the would-be traveler reached a dead end, with no way to find a list of options for a particular location.
As of last week, Vermont tourism department staff were continuing to load information into the search functions for lodging, dining and other categories, said Steven Cook, deputy tourism commissioner. The department had made the events category searchable but faced a formidable task trying to organize the database of accommodations and restaurants for a comprehensive search, he acknowledged.
“It’s almost done,” Cook said. “It’s a little bit of a lengthy process to retag all those businesses. There’s almost 2,000 of them.”
Cook expected staff to complete the data input process and have the search functions operable this week. The tourism department, which handled the bulk of the website redesign in-house, didn’t expect an immediate need for the search function nor the amount of work to put it together, Cook said.
Each business location, for example, has to be tagged by its longitude and latitude for the map-based search but also needs its accurate street address, Web address, phone number, photo and description listed for travelers to see.
“The search categorization is absolutely our top priority,” Cook said.
The Vermont economy relies heavily on tourism, which brought in a total of $2.49 billion in revenue in 2013, according to the department’s most recent annual benchmark report, released in February. Tourism dollars represent about 8 percent of Vermont’s total annual revenue, said Laura Peterson, communications director for the tourism department, which is part of the state Agency of Commerce & Community Development.
The department embarked on the website redesign about a year ago to update it for use on smartphones and other mobile devices. Search-engine giant Google had just announced that, by April 2015, it would reduce the ranking points for websites – meaning they would drop farther down in search listings – if they weren’t optimized for mobile usage.
The previous Vermont tourism website was five or six years old and wasn’t mobile-ready, so Vermont tourism staff sprung into action. They designed the new site themselves, using a template provided by Competitive Computing Inc., a Colchester information technology company known as C2.
The state workers built graphics, pulled photos and wrote content. For the searchable databases, the department relied on the Vermont Chamber of Commerce to gather all the business listing information, Cook said. As a longtime partner of the department, the chamber has produced its printed Vermont Vacation Guides for summer and winter.
“It’s a tremendous amount of detailed work,” Cook said.
VermontVacation.com now boasts big, bold images of idyllic historic homes, rolling hills, brilliant fall foliage and happy-looking people skiing down slopes or riding bicycles. The search function will eventually mimic the events calendar, “which is really robust,” Cook said, and getting “amazing feedback.” That’s all part of the travel planner put together by EverWondr Network, a company based in Greensboro, N.C., that provides software tools for digital tourism content.
The tourism department’s call center, in Newport, hasn’t heard any consumer complaints about the new website, Cook said, but a few hospitality businesses have called to ask the department to fix the search problem.
Vermont isn’t likely to lose potential visitors if they cannot find a place to stay or eat on the official state site, said Bill Ackerman, chief marketing officer for Green Mountain Marketing & Advertising and a former hotel manager. Statewide tourism websites generally have a broader and farther reach, he explained, aiming to pique the interest of travelers from far-away places such as, in Vermont’s case, Ohio or Maryland or Pennsylvania.
Most tourists visit a state site for general information, to find popular activities or specific events or narrow their interests to a particular region, Ackerman said. From there, travelers find their way to a regional association’s site and ultimately the individual businesses listed there.
The Vermont Chamber of Commerce provides its own searchable site at VisitVt.com. At the regional level, Vermont tourists will find Burlington and Chittenden County information on the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce site, Vermont.org, and detailed, searchable travel guidance for the Northeast Kingdom on TraveltheKingdom.com. Ackerman said his company designed websites for the chambers of the Rutland and Okemo Valley areas.
Every hotel, B&B and tavern must build their own online presence, he said. They need to incorporate keywords that help their target customers find them. So if someone searches for an “inn” near “Stowe” that is “pet-friendly,” the pet-friendly lodgings in and around Stowe better come up.
“Their job is getting people to our border,” Ackerman said of the state. “It’s the individual businesses’ job to get people to their front doors.”
Nancy Rodgers, who owns Rodgers Country Inn in West Glover with her husband, said their guests have never found the inn via the state’s website. Most of her customers today come through more consumer-oriented portals.
“They’re going to TripAdvisor or they’re going to Airbnb,” she said of the site that connects travelers directly to property owners with available rooms.
Small operators today must focus their time and money on marketing tools that get them bookings, not just exposure, Rodgers said. “The younger ones … it’s all about apps on their phones,” she said, adding that state’s ability to drive any business depends on the ease and accessibility of its site. “Whatever they have, it needs to be working.”
Mobile friendliness is crucial, so the state’s fast upgrade was worthwhile, even if it launched before completion, Ackerman said. These days, he added, no interactive website is ever really complete, as it requires continuous updates and new information to stay relevant and technologically viable.
That’s the new goal of the Vermont Department of Tourism, said Cook, who fields frequent tourist requests for information that he and his staff wouldn’t otherwise have considered including on the website – if they knew about it at all. One recent caller, for example, wanted a list of all the Buddhist monasteries in Vermont, he said, leading to the discovery of quite a few.
They now can add that to the online content. And the back-end software allows not only consumers to pull information but the state to analyze site traffic and collect data about where travelers live, which zip codes they search most often and what topics interest them.
“Fortunately, we’re really close to having that one item fixed,” Cook said of the search function. “And while doing that, we actually discovered there’s a lot of other cool things we can do, too.”