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Capture the travel dollar

How do some restaurants become travel media darlings, acclaimed in guidebooks, magazines and newspapers as don’t-miss destinations for any visitor passing through town? P.R. pros say you’ve got to take a systematic approach to winning the travelers’ dollar, and the first step is becoming a member of the local convention and visitor’s bureau.

“If you must choose between joining the chamber of commerce and the convention and visitor’s bureau for budget reasons, I think the [bureau] is more important,” says Don Luria, president of independent restaurant association Dine Originals and owner of Café Terra Cotta in Tucson. Luria says the visitors’ bureaus are not only a key source of information—he receives lists from his bureau of upcoming conventions with the planner’s name and contact info, to which he sends a “welcome to Tucson” letter along with an offer to create special menus—they also bring groups of qualified media people to the area on press trips.

“Journalists can publicize your restaurant to an awfully large number of people,” Luria notes. “This is not a shotgun approach to advertising. It’s a rifle approach.”

To make the most of your bureau membership, you can offer to be included in their packages and promotions; put your information in the hands of member hotel concierges and ground transportation companies to save them legwork and sit high on their radar; donate samples of your nonperishable retail products such as jams or salsas for inclusion in goodie bags bureau reps often hand out to journalists and V.I.P.s at press events; and offer gift certificates for media promotions. And stand out in the organization by helping the bureau sell your city.

“P.R. offices are always looking for hooks about what’s new, so if you notice a restaurant trend, let the C.V.B. know even if it means including some of your competitors,” suggests New York’s Alice Marshall, who reps such boldface names as the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hyatt International.

Public relations pros advise hosting pre-qualified travel and food writers sent by the bureau at every opportunity, and don’t forget hotel P.R. folks, concierges and visitors bureau workers. “They will become your ambassadors with media, convention planners and visitors,” says Amy Weirick of Weirick Communications in Columbus, Ohio. “It’s an investment that will pay off for years.”

Once they’re at your table, offer samplers of dishes. “It’s hard to get a real flavor of the restaurant in one visit,” Luria acknowledges. “So we pre-order a large plate of appetizers for sharing and let each person order their own entrée.”

Quality promotional materials are another valuable investment. Jack Wolf of Northern California-based Wolf Communications suggests including a bulleted fact sheet with service information like address, opening hours and number of seats; a current menu; recipes for publication; along with concise, colorful 100- to 300-word media releases on your “U.S.P.”—unique selling proposition—or newsworthy subjects, such as a prominent new chef. Also consider professionally shot, high-resolution photos that can later be used for ads, brochures and Websites.

Journalists loaded down with paper also appreciate an e-mail link or an offer to mail press kits home, counsels Mendocino County P.R. rep Sharon Rooney, who knows both sides of the fence after serving five years as P.R. director for San Francisco’s convention and visitors bureau.

While newspapers may use your communiqués quickly, magazines work months ahead of publication dates, so send barbeque tips in February and Christmas holiday ideas in July. Although print guidebooks also have long lead times, most can place last-minute information on their Websites.

Sam Firer of The Hall Company, whose New York and Florida offices represent such high-profile clients as the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, Big Bubba’s at Mohegan Sun, Restaurant Associates, and chefs like David Bouley, offers a few insider tips on dealing with press:

  • Position yourself as part of a trend around the country, whether it’s cocktails or tasting menus.
  • Research each publication that comes your way and tailor information to its readers.
  • Be short, fun and accessible.
  • Spell-check.

The payoff, as in most areas of human endeavor, comes with sustained effort. “I give the Sarasota Visitor and Convention Bureau my time and energy, contributions to their events, support for their special programs and, of course, my membership dollars,” declares Michael’s On East owner Michael Klauber. “I give them press releases, keep them on my e-mail newsletter list and make sure they are invited to events in my restaurant.” In return, “I expect them to keep our community at the forefront of culinary destinations.” When the job is done right, Klauber maintains, rewards can be hefty: Spirit of Sarasota’s Dine Out Week increased his business by 30 percent.

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