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Delaware’s Rise as a Tourism Promoter

delaware small wonder final

Delaware in the last quarter of the 20th century underwent a significant transformation in its approach to tourism, elevating the sector to the state’s second-largest industry by its close. 

This strategic shift became evident early in the quarter. Tourists spent $223 million in Delaware in 1975 alone, according to data from the U.S. Travel Data Center. The robust figures spurred the state to adopt a multifaceted strategy to capitalize on this vital segment. 

Humble Beginnings

In 1973, the Delaware Division of Economic Development founded the Delaware State Travel Service. However, this recognition did not translate into significant support. The service initially had only two staff members and operated on a limited budget. 

Under the early stewardship of Donald R. Mathewson, the service struggled to transform Delaware’s reputation from a mere beach destination into a well rounded cultural/recreation mecca as well. 

The state of Delaware conducted its first-ever tourism cost-benefit analysis in 1977 to evaluate profitability from the sector. This groundbreaking study generated such high demand that the state began selling copies to other states intrigued by the data. That same year, Pierre S. Du Pont became governor. Encouraged by the positive results of the analysis, he fully supported an expanded tourism initiative. Consequently, he elevated the tourism industry’s role in the state’s overall economic strategy. 

Understanding the need for investment, Du Pont dramatically increased the budget allocated for tourism promotion from a paltry $78,000 in 1978, the lowest in the nation, to a more robust $460,000 in 1979. 

Early state welcome sign

Donald Mathewson pointed out a glaring lack of child-oriented attractions in northern Delaware. Acknowledging the challenge this posed for attracting family-oriented tourists, the state shifted its focus to target young couples without children and older adults, particularly “empty nesters.” 

The strategy sought to lure visitors who would appreciate the existing offerings, such as cultural museums, historical landmarks, and scenic landscapes, without feeling the lack of child-friendly entertainment options. 

The “Small Wonder” advertising campaign took a particular focus on individuals with a median middle-class salary and who resided within 300 miles of the state. While there was a noticeable influx of tourists from as far away as Texas and California after the campaign’s launch, Mathewson clarified that the primary goal was to attract visitors from nearby metropolitan areas.  

The reason was simple: Delaware lacked its own major airport, making it challenging to draw tourists who would have to fly into Philadelphia and then make the connection to Delaware. 

The legislature in October 1981 created the Delaware Development Office (DDO) to assume a dual mission to promote both tourism and industrial development in the state. Director Nathan Hayward ousted Mathewson in favor of “an expert in the travel field.” 

Funding the Vision

For the fiscal year 1982, the state increased DDO’s budget to $471,000 and diversified its advertising avenues. The office itself also spent an additional $12 million across various agencies to accommodate incoming tourists. For instance, the state allocated $32,000 to cover medical examiner expenses for autopsies and tracking down relatives when people passing through Delaware died. 

The new acting director for travel at DDO, Jan Geddes, targeted her primary advertising efforts on Northern Delaware, specifically spotlighting the region known as “Chateau Country.” This area boasts not only the renowned Du Pont estates of Hagley Museum and Winterthur but also other must-see attractions like Longwood Gardens, Granogue, Mount Cuba Center, and Nemours Mansion and Gardens. Meantime southern Delaware, particularly its beach resorts, already boasted a high return rate of around 75% and therefore required less marketing intervention.  

Geddes cultivated relationships with travel writers to increase Delaware’s visibility. This strategy yielded both immediate and enduring results: A feature in Glamour magazine in 1982 led to over a thousand calls requesting information about the state. Moreover, by 1994, northern Delaware claimed 12 of the state’s 20 most visited sites. 

travel brochures from all 3 delaware counties

Expanding the scope of their efforts, Delaware State Travel Service sought to maximize its limited resources by targeting specific international markets. Delaware targeted the United Kingdom and Germany as strategic international markets. The state’s decision did not hinge on any inherent charm it offered these countries. Instead, airlines from these nations had direct flights to Philadelphia. 

Geddes created a fly-drive package tour for British Airways. This package offered an integrated travel experience across four states, including Delaware. The design aimed to provide foreign tourists a compelling reason to select Delaware as a part of their American journey. 

The state shifted from negligible investment and passive involvement in tourism to a highly targeted, proactive strategy. This change forms an intriguing case study in economic development. Delaware faced inherent challenges, including the lack of a major local airport and limited child-friendly attractions. Despite these obstacles, the state successfully turned them into strategic advantages. 

Lessons in Resilience

The entire process offers valuable insights. It shows how a jurisdiction can intentionally improve a neglected commercial realm. Such an area can, through these efforts, become a crucial part of both a state’s economic and cultural landscape. 

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