With all that’s going on in and around Peoria, discovering the right ways to brand the region and attract potential visitors is a must.

“It’s a crowded world we live in, and despite recessions, layoffs and tumbling revenue projections, people will still make time for getting away,” reports Travel Industry Wire, a leading news service for the travel industry. Central Illinois, take note. In the extremely competitive tourism industry, if a destination cannot set itself apart, it will not attract those visitors who have saved their money and made time for getaways. Fortunately, organizations like the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (PACVB) are dedicated to ensuring that the region is top of mind with meeting coordinators, event planners and tourists alike.

A variety of local initiatives have taken the importance of branding to heart. The redevelopment of the Warehouse District, as well as efforts to create a “mini-Wrigleyville” around O’Brien Field, are examples, but they have been slow to come to fruition. In West Peoria, Daryl Klusendorf of Sky Harbor Steakhouse has created the Farmington Road Entertainment District (FRED) in efforts to attract both locals and visitors to the area. Perhaps these campaigns can learn a thing or two from the success of Peoria Heights, which has done a remarkable job branding itself with the tagline, “It’s Happening in the Heights.”

Making Emotional Connections
If a beach is a beach is a beach, what would make tourists flock to one more than all the others? Emotional connection. Just as beaches and resorts must differentiate themselves from each other, so must cities and other attractions. To do this, tourism bureaus like the PACVB spend a great deal of time and money on marketing and branding campaigns that educate the public and tourism industry professionals on the unique amenities their cities have to offer. Without these distinctions, destinations are not likely to stand out from the crowd.

“If a potential visitor or meeting planner is not familiar with the Peoria area, there has to be that spark that gets them to take inquisitive action,” said Bob Marx, president and CEO of the PACVB. “They have to feel that coming here will satisfy their emotional need—and make no mistake that selecting a destination is like choosing a car or pair of shoes. The more we can make the potential visitor feel that coming here will satisfy some emotional need better than our competitive set, the greater the likelihood they will come here.”

At-Large City Councilman Ryan Spain would agree with that sentiment. “The Peoria region does not operate in a vacuum,” he wrote in the June 2009 issue of this magazine. “We are in direct competition with metropolitan areas across the country. As a result, we must differentiate our community in order to succeed competitively.”

To accomplish this, Marx and the PACVB have embarked on the development of a new, more contemporary logo, the rollout of which will be complete later this year. A print campaign is in the works to persuade meeting and event planners that Peoria has the facilities and the talent necessary to host their next big event. Work on the PACVB website—its primary marketing channel—continues, and a newsletter to stakeholder groups will soon be ready for distribution. Plans for this summer’s leisure campaign include utilizing the organization’s “So Many Ways to Play” tagline, said Marx.

Part of these promotion efforts includes targeting distinct markets and delivering information specific to the needs of each, which may include lodging, conference space, transportation and dining options, and local attractions such as the Peoria Zoo, Wildlife Prairie State Park and, on the horizon, the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Experience Visitors Center. Working with ArtsPartners, the PACVB showcases the artistic and cultural sides of Peoria, while sports marketing efforts feature venues like Eastside Centre, the Avanti’s Dome and the RiverPlex. “All our marketing/branding efforts will focus to some degree on selling fun and an emotional connection with our area,” added Marx.

Where It’s Happening
An emotional connection not only attracts visitors to the area, but local residents to specific districts within the area as well. About six years ago, the Village of Peoria Heights gave money and direction to its chamber of commerce to come up with a marketing campaign to attract patrons to its central business district—something that had never been done before.

The main goal, said Chamber President Pat Drake, was to set Peoria Heights apart. “When the branding was put to us,” she reported, “there were two different concepts—one was ‘The Sky’s the Limit,’ the other was ‘It’s Happening in the Heights.’ Our thought was everybody wants to be where it’s happening, and I think over the course of time, that’s certainly proving to be a true statement.” As restaurants and retail establishments continue to make their homes in the Heights, this branding campaign appears to have been tremendously successful, indeed.

Prior to the release of the “It’s Happening in the Heights” campaign, the village was seeing a two- to three-percent annual increase in sales tax revenue. “But once we did that…we saw a 14-percent jump in sales tax revenue,” reported Mayor Mark Allen. After deducting the expense of the campaign, that amounted to an increase of $80,000 in the first year alone. Since then, revenue has plateaued and remained steady through the recession, dipping just two to four percent in years when other communities saw drops of 10, 15 or 20 percent. “I think that this branding gave us a huge boost initially and has allowed us to maintain that level, or close to it, over the past four years,” said Allen.

Just as Peoria Heights’ branding targeted both locals and area visitors, Daryl Klusendorf hopes that branding can do the same for the recently formed Farmington Road Entertainment District (FRED). Klusendorf, owner of Sky Harbor Steakhouse, just off of Farmington Road in Peoria, kicked around the idea of forming a cooperative of entertainment and hospitality-related businesses along the two-mile stretch of Farmington Road from Main Street to Kickapoo Creek. The goal of the cooperative, he said, is to “remind people who’ve lived here all their lives to head this way when planning their night out, and to get top-of-mind with the guests and visitors to the area.” 

Charter members of FRED include Sky Harbor Steakhouse, Oscar’s Family Restaurant, Jimmy’s Bar, Dave’s Goodtime Billiards, Pulse, Karma the Hookah Lounge, The Trolley, Raber Packing Co. and Jukebox Comedy Club. All were asked to pay a modest membership fee of $100 to help pay for signage and marketing materials. Klusendorf noted that all licensed businesses along and adjacent to Farmington Road are eligible to join FRED and hopes that more do as time goes on.

While it’s challenging to run a business and take on a project like FRED, Klusendorf believes the benefits will be worth his efforts. He’s hoping that giving a name and identity to this stretch of Peoria will attract business to the area. “The Heights has a destination and a vibe, the Riverfront does, and I think FRED is kind of an area that we’d like to bring to the top of mind when people are thinking of a night’s entertainment,” said Klusendorf.

Renewing Old Projects
The redevelopment of the Warehouse District has long been on the City of Peoria’s to-do list, but it has been hampered by the recession and lack of available funds. Private developers have been waiting on infrastructure improvements before investing their dollars, but those are expensive and require a great deal of coordination among many different stakeholders, as well as addressing legal and jurisdiction issues with both public and private entities.

Ten million dollars of federal money was awarded last year to kickstart the redevelopment of this nine-block area south of Downtown Peoria, but that money has since been tied up in legislative limbo in Congress.

Meanwhile, Chicago-based PDG Partners announced its intentions last year to build loft-style housing units in the district and introduced a new marketing name for its plans: “Rivertown.” It’s certainly fitting—and offers great potential as a brand—but at this point, it’s still preliminary. A lot must happen, including buy-in from the City Council and other stakeholders, as well as the beginning of actual development, before the branding initiative could ever take off.

Nearby, interest in creating a “mini-Wrigleyville” in the neighborhood around O’Brien Field has been revived of late. Such a project could work hand in hand with the Rivertown concept, but it, too, has been stalled for many of the same reasons as the Warehouse District redevelopment. Another issue lies in the seeming contradiction between the family-friendly atmosphere desired by a proposed mini-Wrigleyville and several of the adult-oriented businesses there. The City Council recently took steps to address the situation, but the impact remains to be seen.

As various projects move forward throughout the region, it seems clear that coordinated branding efforts can help make the difference between plans realized and those left on the drawing board. “Over the years, the PACVB has utilized every conceivable message distribution channel,” said Marx. “And in the spirit of a marketing assault, we will continue to utilize multiple channels to convey our message, build brand awareness and create trial use.” If these brands are built, there is no doubt that the PACVB will do everything it can to ensure that the visitors will come. iBi