BOISE – With one of the lowest budgets for promoting tourism among states – but with a $3 billion tourist industry seen as key to the state’s ailing economy – Idaho is turning to high-tech tools and tricks to help market the state.
The state’s Division of Tourism is beta-testing a new technology from a Sandpoint firm that enables prospective visitors to virtually fly over the state, checking out attractions, lodging and scenery along the route as they go.
“We feel we have technology that will really help the state attract more visitors and help the tourism businesses attract more visitors,” said Mark Williams, CEO of GeoData Technologies.
Idaho’s also using new 360-degree panoramic photography on its tourism Web site, exploring an iPhone app and planning a campaign for spring around the reality show-style story of a stressed-out Seattle family that won a free Idaho vacation.
“People don’t know about Idaho, and we don’t have the funding to get the traditional advertising out there,” said Idaho’s Division of Tourism administrator, Karen Ballard. “If we can use this online visual world, where you get the visuals of who and what we are, we’re all for that.”
A 2 percent lodging tax funds Idaho’s tourism promotion efforts; that brings in about $6.8 million a year. Of that, 10 percent funds the tourism office, 45 percent goes out in grants to local nonprofits that promote tourism, and 45 percent funds the state’s marketing efforts, including all its national and international advertising. That gives Idaho a bit less than $3.5 million a year to market the state; by comparison, California spends about $75 million a year.
Josh Mercaldo, a brand manager with the Drake Cooper advertising firm who handles the state’s advertising account, said, “The Web is kind of like the grand equalizer.”
The latest project is the collaboration with GeoData. The Sandpoint tech firm employs eight people and previously developed 3-D virtual touring programs for real estate markets across the country that allow people to fly over a property and find everything from nearby schools and hospitals to parcel maps and property tax information.
Williams said the technology is based around “the whole notion of spatial search,” which he said has been difficult to do for tourism purposes with existing technologies.
For example, if someone planned to drive from Boise to Sandpoint as part of a two-week family vacation, he said, “The big question would be, what kind of amenities and places are there to stay along that route? Well, you can’t Google that. You’d have to know the names of the cities that you’re going to want to be in. So what we’ve done is created a way for somebody to virtually drive along that route, and be able to see those locations and attractions and put the trip together.”
High-definition aerial photography is the basis for the 3-D tours, and the Idaho project got a big boost when Avista Corp. donated valuable aerial photography of North Idaho to the state. “It’s something that we do regularly … to map our service areas,” said Avista spokeswoman Anna Scarlett, “so we already had it. If the state had to go out and do it themselves, it would probably cost them over $100,000 to do it.”
The system also incorporates tons of data, from 30,000 “points of interest” to 400 boat launches to 17,000 miles of hiking and biking trails. All are indexed into the aerial photography through GPS and other locating technologies.
The system, dubbed SiteSeer3D Gold, doesn’t cost the state anything.
Instead, the Sandpoint firm hopes to make its money by persuading tourism-related businesses on the system to pay for the right to upload their own logos, photos, Web site links and more onto the virtual aerial map, as well as the right to have the mapping system for their own use in promoting their businesses.
For now, GeoData is offering Idaho businesses a free 90-day trial of the system; attractions from the Coeur d’Alene Resort to Schweitzer Mountain Resort to a mining museum in the Silver Valley are trying it out.
“There’s never been the ability for somebody nontechnical to go in and build a 3-D map like we do within minutes,” Williams said.
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