Thousands of visitors should flood into Rim Country communities in the course of the July 4 weekend, drawn by mountain air, a Main Street block party and a Green Valley Park fireworks display, as Payson takes a more aggressive approach to marketing the region.
Traffic on the town's new tourist-oriented Web site jumped from the normal 500 per day average to a one-day record 825 visitors this week, with most people checking out activities and hotel rooms for the upcoming weekend, said Cameron Davis, Payson's director of tourism and economic vitality.
An informal survey of Web site visitors, most of whom live in the Valley, asked what image they had of Payson. About 31 percent mentioned "outdoor activities," 23 percent checked "gateway to the Mogollon Rim," 15 percent checked "cool, mountain town" and country's oldest rodeo, and about 8 percent mentioned the scenery.
The findings lent support to the town's emphasis on promoting camping, hiking, fishing and other outdoor activities in cool weather, less than a tank of gas from Phoenix, said Davis.
Davis said the old-fashioned block party on Main Street, a daylong series of activities in Green Valley Park and a big fireworks display should draw a lot of out-of-town visitors.
The town advertised in various media in the Valley and also in Flagstaff, which won't have a fireworks display this year.
Davis said the town just hopes to hold its own, despite the state's economic problems on what has traditionally been one of the biggest weekends of the year.
Payson also got a welcome dose of free publicity when the Arizona Republic named the Fossil Creek and Horton Creek trails in Rim country as the two best hiking trails in the state, said Davis.
"I'd be happy if we had 3,500 to 5,000 visitors in town," said Davis, which would be a solid weekend for the tourist industry but only a fraction of the 30,000 or so visitors that turned out several weeks ago for the Vietnam Tribute Memorial.
"Through these tough economic times, just staying level is a victory," said Davis.
Davis said that town is working on a marketing plan that will focus on reaching the six million people who live in the Valley with the message that Payson is a destination, not just a pit stop on the way to the high country.
"We want them to say, ‘boy, we went up to Payson -- it was less than a tank of gas," said Davis. "It was cooler and man, we had a great time.'"
The town on Monday hosted a meeting for all the hotel operators in the area, which drew about 30 people. The town hopes to create a coordinated marketing plan that involves local hotels and that will underscore the overall marketing message.
Davis said most of the hotels reported they were weathering the economic downturn, with modest declines in business.
"They're down in the trenches, and we want to understand what challenges they have -- and they can be invaluable in supplying us with information down the road," said Davis.
Historically, the town has not created a network involving the local tourist industry, tracked occupancy rates or even systematically counted visitors.
Davis said the block party and the addition of First Friday events on Main Street with a fireworks display should make it a memorable evening, one which will prompt visitors to return to Payson in the future.
"The goal is to create a buzz in this area so people in the Valley can drive up here, see the fireworks -- and even though they didn't go to San Diego, they still got their money's worth when they came to Payson."
The town will have to build that image weekend by weekend, by keeping the focus on the area's existing attractions and making sure people in the Valley get the message.
"We're early in the process right now," said Davis. "We're building a marketing engine here that's never been constructed before. Pieces of it are coming together and being turned on, but the whole engine has never been fired up and humming along."