Howe Caverns is the largest show cave in the Northeastern US. It’s also a roadside attraction from a time gone by, when people drove out to the country to see what they could see. Today, Howe Caverns competes with flashy amusement parks, water parks, interactive video games and the bright lights of the shopping mall. Until recently, they promoted the tourism destination through geographic marketing, widely dispersed billboards and broadcast media in a limited area. Their online strategy included a web site, but no banner advertising, no search engine optimization and no behavioral retargeting. Howe Caverns relied on old school media to compete in a new school market.
Annual visits peaked at nearly a quarter million per year, but had been declining steadily. The management decided it was time to take Howe Caverns to a new level. Purchased in 2007, the new owners committed significant capital investments for cavern expansion and the addition of several above-ground activities. They wanted to reinvent Howe Caverns as a year-round travel destination and enhance the user’s experience to attract new and repeat visitors.
Chart the Course
Howe Caverns hired the Wanderlust team to rebrand the destination and roll out a new media marketing campaign to increase annual visits. Working with their in-house team, Wanderlust initiated a comprehensive market research project to analyze the business, it’s brand equity and the opportunities for growth in the market. We conducted one-on-one interviews with stakeholders, employees, cavern visitors and non-customers. In addition, the team researched geographic markets, media opportunities and travel consumer behaviors.
Our research showed that Howe Caverns visitors fall into two broad categories: day-trippers who live within 150 miles (an area that includes NYC metro, Northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Upstate New York), and vacationers who visit Howe Caverns as part of multi-day trip to the region. Demographics reveal that visitors span a broad spectrum, but the majority are families with young children.
This research helped Wanderlust gain insight into our target audience’s decision making processes. It has been proven that travel consumers are greatly influenced by vivid sensory experiences, and rely on travel websites for the information they need to select destinations or plan trips. Imagery, verbal descriptions, story-telling and reviewer comments all contribute to their ability to imagine and anticipate the activities they will experience at a selected destination. We used these insights to realign the brand position and create core messaging for creative development.
Based on our research and understanding of travel consumers’ purchase behaviors, the Wanderlust team recommended repositioning the brand from its current perception as “an old roadside attraction” to “a real cool way to spend the day”.
We created a new identity for Howe Caverns. Youthful, energetic, gritty and alternating between light and dark, the visual identity conveys all the excitement, wonder and adventure of Howe Caverns, with an invitation to “go underground”. It is supported by dramatic photographs from the cavern, along with images of people engaged in the many activities available on the surface.
We redesigned and enhanced the website and launched a new media creative campaign for transit and online advertising. We dramatized the underground experience, provided vivid descriptions of a trip inside the caverns, and employed online messaging and search engine functionality to get the message out to a young audience.