"I think this destination is in a position where all the stars have aligned," says Peter Yesawich, vice chairman of MMGY Global, speaking of Tucson's potential for tourism.

Tucson has spent years promoting itself as a travel destination with typical images of saguaros, sunsets and golf courses - much like Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Now, the local convention and visitors bureau - now known simply as Visit Tucson - is launching a new branding and advertising campaign accentuating the laid-back, free-spirited nature of the Old Pueblo.

The branding campaign, with the main slogan "Free yourself," was formulated with the help of a top global tourism marketing firm, Kansas City-based MMGY Global.

Tucson should celebrate "being a little out there," said Stewart Colovin, MMGY executive vice president of creative and brand strategy.

"You go on trips, you don't come back and talk about the 17 name brands you found at the shopping center," Colovin said.

Tucson should promote itself as liberating, free-spirited, personal, genuine and comfortable, he said.

MMGY's ad concepts carry taglines including "A little out there," "Where cultures come together," "Surroundings that surround you," and "Open minds."

At an unveiling event Thursday at J.W. Marriott Starr Pass, Brent DeRaad, president and CEO of Visit Tucson, said the agency has done exhaustive research on visitors, including their ZIP codes and demographics.

"One thing that was missing was a strong brand for Tucson," said DeRaad, who took the tourism group's helm last year after working for Scottsdale's visitors bureau.

The rebranding campaign spearheaded by MMGY Global's report will help Visit Tucson leverage an expanded budget to boost tourism, which contributes $2.4 billion annually to the region's economy and supports 21,000 local jobs.

"That's great, but we can do a lot better, and we will do better," DeRaad said.

The local tourism bureau received 17 bids for the brand consulting contract, which cost $175,000. MMGY was the selection committee's unanimous choice, DeRaad said.

Visit Tucson Chairman Michael Luria said the rebranding study convinced him the city has all it needs to up its tourism game.

"We have a lot of competitors, but Tucson is uniquely positioned to be successful with the assets we have," said Luria, who is executive director of Children's Museum Tucson.

The name change - first announced last fall - will focus the agency's message and eliminate a clumsy acronym, DeRaad and others noted. Visit Tucson used to be called the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau (MTCVB).

Peter Yesawich, a noted travel-marketing expert and vice chairman of MMGY Global, said he first visited Tucson 30 years ago and during his recent research felt a renewed "local energy" surrounding new downtown development.

That bodes well for efforts to shine up the city's image as a tourist mecca. "I think this destination is in a position where all the stars have aligned," he said.

Among a list of key destination attributes, Tucson scores high on the top consideration, "best scenery," as well as "enough time to relax" and "place never visited," Yesawich said.

As a lesser-known destination, Tucson can capitalize on the "been-there, done-that" dynamic in attracting first-time visitors, Yesawich said.

"The smart dollar in marketing is not going after the repeat visitor, the smart dollar is going after the first-time visitor," he said.

Chris Davidson, an MMGY Global executive vice president, said Tucson needs to cultivate an image that prompts a "visceral reaction," rather than a generic metropolitan image.

With competitor markets like Phoenix, Palm Springs and Santa Fe promoting similar Southwest outdoor themes, Tucson can differentiate itself by promoting itself as "authentic and active," he said.

The key insight of the firms' destination surveys was that Tucson rates fairly high on key tourism attributes, but it "lacks a distinctive identity." The city could gain that identity by promoting its authenticity and laid-back, friendly attitude, Davidson said.

"(Tucson) also gets a lot of credit for being a progressive city in a conservative state," he said. "Be yourself - everyone else is already taken."

Did you know?

The Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau was incorporated in 1982 as an independent, nonprofit organization. Its first print ad campaign proclaimed: "Tucson ... Resort to the Unexpected."


MMGY Global's survey of active travelers found that 22 percent were interested in visiting Tucson in the next two years, less than a third of those interested in visiting top-rated Hawaii, at 72 percent. Interest in visiting Tucson trailed Phoenix (28 percent), Palm Springs (26 percent) and San Antonio (23 percent), but there was little statistical difference in that group.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.