Despite an infinite horizon of rolling mountains and 27 types of trees dotting the fifth most forested state in the U.S., West Virginia was falling short. Instead of visiting the Mountain State to see fall foliage, travelers headed north to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont—despite the fact that West Virginia was closer to mid-Atlantic cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
“For years we’ve been underfunded. … We haven’t been able to keep up with the advertising in our surrounding states, and I think West Virginia is a bit of an unknown,” said Chelsea Ruby, West Virginia’s tourism commissioner. “We are a hidden gem that’s close to everyone on the East Coast. … It’s just getting them here first.”
BVK, a Milwaukee creative agency, came up with a solution: Don’t tell travelers where they’re going.
“When you say those two words [West Virginia], some things come to mind that aren’t exactly positive. It’s had some rough times economically; socially, there’s a lot of unemployment. If you take the negative perceptions out of your head, it’s this unbelievably beautiful, mountainous country with authentic country with authentic people and music,” said Brian Ganther, a creative director at BVK. He’s made several trips to West Virginia with his team while working on the campaign.
Cue John Denver.
Funded by a $21 million advertising budget—triple that of 2018—digital billboards and city buses wrapped in pixellated ads around Washington, D.C. encouraged curious onlookers to go online and search “Destination Unknown,” where they’d be asked to apply for an all-expense-paid weekend trip—without knowing the final destination.
After receiving over 500 applications, 33 people were selected to board a bus at Union Station for the mystery trip, later revealed to be “Almost Heaven,” West Virginia.
According to an overnight visitor survey, 85% of visitors to the state were returning visitors. Since West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice upped the tourism budget, traveler spending in West Virginia has grown 9.9% in two years, more than double the national growth.
BVK followed and filmed the winners on their weekend trip and will use that footage in future advertising.
The ads stayed up for a week until mid-October. While it’s too early to tell whether the state will reap the rewards of its stunt, West Virginia has followed up with all 500 hopeful applicants.
“We know we’re underdogs, and we’re OK with that because we know that when they come to West Virginia, they fall in love with the state and the keep on coming back, year after year,” added Ruby.
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