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Walsh administration embarks on $2M tourism campaign to draw visitors to Boston

City is using federal funds to highlight overlooked aspects of the city, and draw people within driving distance

Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke to the media during a press briefing outside City Hall on Wednesday. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The Walsh administration is embarking on a $2 million marketing campaign to persuade visitors to check out Boston’s haunts and patronize its businesses, particularly those in neighborhoods that often get overlooked in tourism guidebooks.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh is expected to announce on Thursday that city officials have awarded a tourism promotion contract to a team led by PR maven Colette Phillips. Also on board: the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau and Proverb LLC, the Boston marketing agency run by Daren Bascome and Chris Needham.

Walsh is using federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay for the ad campaign. Economic development chief John Barros said this is a crucial time to promote Boston to potential visitors and help its struggling tourism sector.

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The marketing effort was set in motion long before the recent surge in COVID-19 numbers, as well as the new state restrictions on businesses that take effect Friday, such as a 9:30 p.m. closing time for restaurant table service and entertainment venues. Walsh on Wednesday said he supports the new limits imposed by Governor Charlie Baker to help curb the pandemic.

Barros said the ensuing campaign will need to be dynamic and flexible, to keep pace with any additional changes.

“It’s going to be a challenge for all of us to make sure the messages are aligned and not contradictory in any way,” Barros said. “Echoing [the governor’s] restrictions is super-important.”

The campaign won’t only focus on how to visit Boston safely, Barros said. There will be important elements of diversity and inclusion, particularly geared toward Black people and Latinos who previously may have felt there is little the city can offer them.

“The mayor . . . has made it clear that we want to reopen the economy in a more equitable way than it was before,” Barros said. “The real opportunity here [is] to rebrand our city as a city that is not just open for business in a safe way, but also open for business in a safe way for everyone.”

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Kate Davis, Walsh’s tourism director, said nine applicants responded to the city’s request for proposals. Of those, the team led by Phillips stood out in part because of its focus on diversity and equity, with two firms owned by people of color. Barros and Davis said they expect ads will roll out within weeks, on social media and broadcast outlets, and run through the end of the year, with a likely emphasis on areas within driving distance of Boston. Davis hosted her first virtual meeting with the team on Wednesday, following their selection.

The terms of the federal assistance, spelled out in the CARES Act stimulus package passed by Congress in March, require the funds to be spent by the end of the year.

“The next two months are going to be very busy for us,” Davis said.

Officials said this effort marks the first time in recent memory that the city of Boston has embarked on its own tourism campaign. And it’s expected to draw attention to outlying places in the city, as opposed to highlighting the usual tourism attractions.

“Boston has a lot to offer in our neighborhoods, ethnic foods, little places that people haven’t discovered,” Barros said.

Connelly Partners president Steve Connelly said his firm, which was once the state’s main tourism ad agency, bid for the Boston job, and hoped to use it to emphasize the city’s walkability. He said he also held a brainstorming meeting last week with colleagues to help the local hospitality sector over the next few months, a meeting unrelated to the bid his firm submitted for the city campaign.

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While Connelly was disappointed his firm didn’t win the city competition, he said now is a perfectly sensible time to market the city.

“I would promote tourism right now because people want to get the hell out of the house,” Connelly said. “In a COVID world . . . you can put a mask on and navigate areas of Boston with some degree of sanity and safety.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.