RI’s $5 Million Tourism RFP Sparks Questions

Monday, November 28, 2016


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The Iceland footage that defined the disastrous Rhode Island tourism campaign rollout in the spring of 2016.

The requests for proposals for new public relations and advertising agencies for Rhode Island's tourism -- and "business attraction" accounts -- with the Commerce Corporation have raised a number of questions, after the botched rollout of the state's new tourism campaign this past spring.

After the state tapped three firms for its $5 million tourism campaign in 2015, calls from tourism leaders saw the Commerce finally issue a new RFP earlier this month -- with a lack of specifics as to budget allocations provided, or asked of applicants. 

"I think the one thing is, they might not even know," said one CEO of an advertising agency who said his firm is planning on applying, of the state's decision to not provide financial contract parameters. "They might want partners at the table and say how do we best do this? Are there efficiencies of scale? I'm not surprised."

"They last time they said, 'It's $5 million,' and maybe this time they're taking a step back and finding the best approach," he continued. "So we'll see how the process shakes out."

Commerce confirmed that they are waiting to see firms' applications, which are due December 12 -- and what they bid -- before making any decisions, and that the budget allocation will be greater for the tourism RFP.

"[It] will be a heavier emphasis on tourism. As [Chief Marketing Officer] Lara Salamano has said to the tourism commission chaired by Rep. Carson, we split the budget about 80/20," said Commerce Spokesperson Matt Sheaff. "80 percent tourism, 20 percent business attraction."

Proposal Questions

The RFP, which was issued on November 18, was followed with a public addendum posted on the Commerce website on November 23 which contained nearly 50 questions asked by potential applicants -- and answers --  from Commerce.


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The state kept the sail logo -- but got rid of the now infamous "cooler and warmer" tag line.

"The original RFP included the need to conduct significant research and provide spec creative related to fully developing a new brand and identity for the state.  Since much of that work is already done, the firm(s) selected in this round will be able utilize that existing research in providing an overarching strategy and executing an integrated program under the direction of a more robust and qualified Commerce team," said Martha Sheridan, President and CEO of the Providence-Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

"Allowing firms to apply for just the tourism or the business development functions will insure that the most qualified firms in each of the sectors can be identified and Rhode Island will reap the benefits of working with the best in class," said Sheridan.

Direction to be Determined

After the disastrous rollout of the tourism campaign in the spring of 2016 which saw footage of Iceland used in the state's tourism video -- and the state's Chief Marketing Officer Betsy Wall fired -- the firms with state contracts were put on notice, including the public relations firm Havas, whose contract was extended only through the end of the calendar year

"The RFP is extensive and multifaceted and we are still walking through the nuance, as of now we are probably going to apply from some portion of the business," said Marian Salzman with Havas. "The budgets are what they are -- the challenge is to deliver results within those budgets. Again, this is the norm in our business."

SLIDES: National Press Critiques of RI's 2016 Tourism Campaign


Related Slideshow: National Press Critique RI’s Embarrassing Tourism Campaign - 2016

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New York Times

A world-renowned designer was hired. Market research was conducted. A $5 million marketing campaign was set. What could go wrong?

Everything, it turns out.

The slogan that emerged — “Rhode Island: Cooler and Warmer” — left people confused and spawned lampoons along the lines of “Dumb and Dumber.” A video accompanying the marketing campaign, meant to show all the fun things to do in the state, included a scene shot not in Rhode Island but in Iceland. The website featured restaurants in Massachusetts.

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Boston Globe

After the slogan’s unveiling, the blunders just kept coming. A promotional video to accompany the campaign included a shot of a skateboarder in front of a distinctive building that turned out to be the famous Harpa concert hall, located almost 2,500 miles away, in Iceland.

The new website erroneously boasted that Little Rhody is home to 20 percent of the country’s historic landmarks. And officials needed to remove three names from its restaurant database, after realizing the information was so outdated that two of the restaurants aren’t open right now.

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City Lab

“Cooler & Warmer.” It took me roughly 30 minutes of reading about Rhode Island’s new tourism catchphrase to realize that “cool” is a double entendre—as in, the occasional temperature of the Ocean State, but also “hip and awesome.” And I still didn’t quite get it? This was not a good sign. I may be dense, but lordy, was I not alone.

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The Rhode Island Tourism Division had to pull its latest video shortly after it was posted online Tuesday because it contained footage shot in Iceland. The three-second scene in question shows a man doing a skateboard trick outside of the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik, the country’s capital.

IndieWhip, the company that edited the video, and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, which hired the firm, have apologized for the error. “The footage in question is of a Rhode Island skateboarder, filmed by a Rhode Islander,” IndieWhip added in a statement.

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A Big Price Tag Puts a Target on Your Back. Rhode Island spent a reported $550,000 to develop the “Cooler & Warmer” campaign. Development costs for the Florida and Washington campaigns cost $380,000 and $422,000, respectively. That’s before the first piece of media was ever purchased.

My advertising agency brethren will argue you have to invest money at the start of the campaign to “get it right.” But from my perspective, the above numbers seem exorbitant for a program built on public dollars. And in each case, an angry electorate agreed.

Creating a great “place marketing” campaign is a difficult job. Don’t make it more difficult by ignoring the lessons from states like Rhode Island, Florida and Washington.


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