Business & Economy

State’s tourism website links lead travel advice seekers down the wrong path

Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing's website, VermontVacation.com
Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing’s website, VermontVacation.com

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.”

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  • Dennis Lalancette

    Another State IT project gone awry…this is not news.

  • Ben Maddox

    “The tourism department’s call center, in Newport, hasn’t heard any consumer complaints about the new website.” Probably because don’t use this sort of site anymore. All of this information is available on standard search engines for free. There’s a ton of other problems with this site that don’t have anything to do with lodging. Here’s what I got when I searched Enosburg Falls: “HMMMM. THIS IS WHAT WE FOUND.
    “Festival Fun, All Summer Long
    From Quirky to Iconic, Events Celebrate Vermont’s Unique Culture
    MONTPELIER, Vt.—Vermont’s incredible season of festivals, celebrating everything from fiddlehead ferns to filmmakers, kicks off Memorial Day Weekend and continues well into the fall. The sheer number of festivals—more than 45 statewide—means visitors to Vermont and locals alike can find something fun to do nearly every day throughout the summer. Here are some of Vermont’s many festivals planned for Summer 2015. Travel tips and lodging packages make it easy to plan a trip to the Green Mountain S …
    A Four Season Destination
    Northern Vermont offers big city amenities, world class outdoor activities, rural landscapes, miles of open water on lakes and rivers, great shopping and dining, and numerous opportunities for enjoying the arts and history. It’s a four season destination and has something for every taste and interest. Arts and culture is thriving. Enjoy outdoor concerts, theater performances, gallery openings and local variety shows in cities and towns across the region. Top notch cultural sites include St. …
    Peonies, Portraits, Heifers and Jazz
    MONTPELIER, Vt. – If you’re looking for ways to entertain summer visitors, check out the long list of things to do on VermontVacation.com. Here are just a few great ideas for the month of June: Celebration of Peonies May 20-June 14, Manchester During the last two weeks of May and first two weeks of June see 1000’s of peony blooms at Hildene, the Lincoln Family Home. Many of the peonies were planted by Robert and Mary Lincoln’s daughter, Jesse. Many Thousand Gone: Portraits of the African Ameri …”

    At

  • Carl Marcinkowski

    This IT project was done with the bureau’s own people and I would predict that it has improvements in place on a regular basis. NOT like the health connect multi million dollar disaster. And as the article says, travelers will find their destination with other search utilities such as TripAdviser, again, not like the health connect where you are screwed.

  • That’s a very nice photograph of Vermont up top…….the state is (was) so beautiful

    BUT……where are the wind turbines and industrial solar projects?

    • Kathy Nelson

      Peter,

      I have dozens of VT tourism guides from several years and you will not find one scene depicting a view of industrial wind turbines. But the turbines are there, we can see them. Why is it that the VT tourist board has not touted wind turbines as a tourist attraction, which Mr. Blittersdorf seems to think they are?

      • Rich Lachapelle

        Any graceful, bucolic mental image of the Netherlands would always include arrays of rotating windmills. Do tourists think that when they visit Vermont that we are devoid of modern energy infrastructure and that they can expect their bed and breakfast room to be lighted with whale oil lamps? Like it or not, Vermont has embraced the 21st century and part of that is taking responsibility for at least SOME of our own energy production. Roadside petroleum filling stations to gas up our Priuses and buy a cup of “Vermont coffee” in a single-use disposable cup are not the most attractive part of our landscape either but since most of us like our cars and like using electricity, we put up with it all. For every watt of electric power used and every drop of petrol burned in Vermont, someone, somewhere has to put up with some ugly/noisy/toxic facility in their neighborhood. Do we in Vermont really take the NIMBY philosophy so far as to think that we are too special to have to host energy infrastructure? First Nations People in Quebec were DRIVEN FROM THEIR HOMES AND TOWNS so that this entire region could have access to relatively cheap RENEWABLE electricity. When is the last time someone in Vermont raised a glass to them while soaking in their electric hot tub?

    • Bruce S. Post

      I clicked on the link for vermontvacation.com and came to a landing page titled “Bike in Vermont this summer.” There, on the summit, are two towers, and they are rather blurred. They may be wind towers, but they are not prominent. Could be Georgia Mountain, but I do not know.

    • Rory Malone

      Sitting in the same folder and on the same pages as the pictures of Vermont Yankee as a destination site.

  • Rory Malone

    This endeavor strikes me as a waste of state money in an extremely tight budget. There are ample websites out there for folks to find travel to VT info. The site, if it ever works correctly, will at best be just be another voice in a sea of travel sites.

    To the extent this site needs to even exist, it should be done by the tourism industry, funded by them, and done by a private professional service, not a state agency.

  • Ann Meade

    Taxpayers would sob if they knew how much this venture, at least 15 years in the making, has cost. C2 had control over the site from the beginning but did manage to build a travel planner that worked. Then it became obvious that other than data entry, every change that needed to be done by the site had to be done by C2. Years of bad contract management and millions of dollars. I am assuming that the tourism department was trying to break out of that cycle but starting from scratch without a dedicated IT department was a crazy management decision. And I agree, this thing is a so 2000 at this point. What was cutting edge and very important is now obsolete and it sounds like, not very functional. Better left to private sector.

  • Kim Fried

    I think the tourists will really be thrilled with the wind turbine red strobe lights after dark. Just like Newark New Jersey. Who says the stars and the Milky Way could even compare to these exhilarating man made flashing red lights?

  • Gloria Moses

    I hope the site also tells travellers to know where they are as the Derby and Rutland dispatch centers (PSAPs) will no longer be there after mid September. This means the caller cannot say, “need an ambulance past the tree with the ribbons on it,” or some such local name – which tourists often go by, too. They will really need an address as cell phones often show only the tower they hit. Someone is going to be harmed by this mess and the more we can stress to know where you are the better for everyone.

  • Judith McLaughlin

    Vermont as a “tourist” destination???!!! I’m still laughing. Look, I’m a 6th generation Vermonter, and I can tell you this about Vermont.

    It’s beautiful all across the state. But unless you are willing to stay in a cheesy hotel, or a non-private Bed & Breakfast, or a camp ground….your choices are limited to the Burlington area….or the expensive ski resorts.

    All of our “tourist” activities are geared toward the “outdoors”. So, if there is a rainy day, there is nothing to do….especially for the kids. (and we all know that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream give young children sugar overload!)

    The reason why we have a lousy tourist website….is because we have no tourist industry. Much of it is smoke and mirrors.

    And if you don’t believe me…….pick a Vermont town….any town. Travel there, and ask the locals….what is there to do here??

  • Peggy Sapphrie

    Let’s be truly pro-active for our visitors, and warn them that if they visit the Northeast Kingdom, they should avoid medical emergencies, accidents &/or the need for police assistance: Cell Service does not exist in most of our towns.
    Let us assure them, however, that the 21st century industrial wind turbines in Lowell & Sheffield can be viewed at no cost to them…We & our wildlife & wilderness in the Northeast Kingdom, have already paid.