Howard County wants to turn the day-tripper into a weekender.
That means trying to entice visitors who attend events in the county to stay a little longer and spend a little more. To that end, tourism officials embraced a new marketing strategy this year: packaging, packaging, packaging.
The latest deal involves this weekend's Columbia Classic Grand Prix, an annual fundraiser for Howard Community College in Columbia, with visitors getting a special rate at Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center in Ellicott City. And Merriweather Post Pavilion has set aside tickets for its Sept. 19 WPOC Sunday in the Country concert featuring Travis Tritt, Diamond Rio and others. As part of the deal, concertgoers get two VIP tickets, a night at the nearby Homewood Suites by Hilton and dinner for two at Aida Bistro for $269.
"The hope is that the more time visitors spend here, the better chance that they will spend money in our restaurants, our stores and our hotels," said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism Inc., a nonprofit membership-based group that's partially funded by state and county grants. "And if you make it as convenient as possible for the traveler to come to Howard County, we stand a better chance of getting them back."
Bonacci also arranged similar packages in May for the Wine in the Woods Festival in Columbia and the Columbia Festival of the Arts in June.
Through those deals, tourism officials are targeting Washingtonians and Baltimoreans with lots of money to spend and little time to waste on the road. The ideal target, Bonacci said, is the "urban power couple who want to escape the concrete without having to drive more than an hour. And if they want their Nordstrom fix, we have that, too."
It's too early to tell whether the strategy works. One telling sign will be how many packages are sold through Merriweather Post, Bonacci said. Each of the partners involved is responsible for advertising the package through various means, including Web sites and customer mailing lists.
Ideally, the tactic will boost hotel business during the off-peak weekend times, when they don't attract that many business travelers.
"The goal for hotels is putting heads in beds," said Yolande Lacan, general manager of Homewood Suites by Hilton, off Route 108. "Since Columbia is not a vacation destination, why not use Merriweather Post" to get customers into the hotel.
Restaurants benefit from new customers who might not otherwise discover the eating establishments tucked in small, out of the way shopping centers.
For the county, there's also the added tax benefit.
Raymond S. Wacks, Howard County's budget administrator, said the county collects a 5 percent lodging tax and a 5 percent admissions tax. The money goes to a general fund that helps pay for police, schools, road maintenance and other services.
The county collects about $1.75 million from the admissions tax, about half of it events at Merriweather and the rest from other entertainment venues, such as movie theaters and golf courses. Hotels and motels generate about $2.7 million a year, most of it from business travel during the week.