With international travel by U.S. citizens falling in each of the last seven months of ’08, foreign tourism councils are signing sponsorships to help lure American tourists to their shores.

The majority of the activity has come from countries close to the U.S., primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Mexico Tourism Board is the category’s most active sponsor, spending an estimated mid six figures on a range of properties from pro sports events to art shows over the past year.

Mexico’s deals include new partnerships with the just-concluded ATP/WTA Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla.; the Int’l Chocolate Festival presented by Whole Foods at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla.; and the Chicago Red Stars, a team in the upstart Women’s Professional Soccer league.

Meanwhile, the Bermuda Dept. of Tourism last month announced first-time ties to the MLB Boston Red Sox and the PGA Tour’s Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton, Mass., while the Cayman Islands Dept. of Tourism recently signed a new deal with October’s Albuquerque Int’l Balloon Fiesta.

The balloon festival also is negotiating renewal of its year-old partnership with the Mexico Tourism Board and is in discussions with a third tourism council from a South American country.

“We’ve always attracted tourism councils, but we’ve definitely seen more interest over the past year,” said Nathan James, the fiesta’s director of corporate sponsorship.

Tourism bodies largely use sponsorship to gain one-on-one marketing opportunities to discuss their value proposition and give consumers a taste of their travel offerings.

Mexico Assembles Diverse Portfolio
The Mexico Tourism Board uses sponsorship to reach targeted groups and to showcase the country in relevant environments.

“Sponsorship allows us to provide direct and segmented messages to targeted audiences,” said Rodrigo Esponda, director of the board’s Midwest office. “It provides a positive message and puts things in the right perspective.”

Mexico is increasing its use of the medium as it faces media coverage focused on violence stemming from the illegal drug trade. The board hopes vacationers will bring back first-person accounts that the country remains a safe travel destination.

“People who have been to Mexico will counterbalance what is happening in the news,” Esponda said.

Among the sectors targeted by the board’s sponsorships are frequent travelers and mothers.

“We want to target mothers because females make a lot of important family decisions, including travel and vacation destinations,” Esponda said. “We want to position Mexico as a family destination.”

Mexico is leveraging its Red Stars tie with a Soccer Mom of the Year contest, which allows fans to nominate a deserving mother to win airfare and an all-inclusive five-night hotel stay in Riviera Maya courtesy of the board and Apple Vacations Inc.

The board will use the promotion to acquire a prospect database. Consumers, who enter the contest on the team’s Web site, must share information on the size of their family, whether or not they have been to Mexico, and the frequency of their family vacations, among other questions.

In addition to hitting certain market segments, the Mexico Tourism Board also uses sponsorship to promote specific spots in Mexico.

For example, the board used its sponsorship of the Sony Ericsson Open to promote Cancun, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and other beach destinations by hosting a beachwear fashion show at the event. The show featured Mexican-themed cocktails and apparel by Mexican designer Guillermina Martinez.

The board created additional buzz by raffling off airline tickets from AeroMexico to spectators.

Mexico sponsored January’s Int’l Chocolate Festival to showcase the state of Tabasco and the region’s cocoa-producing history, and partnered with Miami’s Bridge Art Fair in November to promote art destinations and other cultural offerings. The board also sponsored the just-concluded Las Artes de Mexico exhibition at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum.

The Mexico Tourism Board screens and funds deals out of its five U.S. regional offices located in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York City. Deals are spearheaded by the director of each office.

Other ties funded out of the Midwest office include the Chicago Int’l Film Festival and the Grant Park Music Festival. The office leverages the ties by sponsoring programming that touts Mexican movies and music.

Bermuda Targets Consumers In New England
Looking to offset a 17 percent slide in visitors in ’08, the island of Bermuda hopes to rekindle interest in part through its new partnerships with Boston-area properties.

Bermuda is targeting Boston and New England because it is only two hours away by plane, plus a large number of former Bermudians live in the region.

“Consumers in the Boston area have many vacation choices; we want to make sure we align with brands such as the Red Sox, where we can gain a point of differentiation and be on top of the consideration list when someone thinks about going on vacation,” said Kevin Williams, senior vice president with GlobalHue, Bermuda Tourism’s marketing agency.

In addition to sponsorship, the agency has developed a national print and TV ad campaign–dubbed Pink Sand–which will run in mass-market and multicultural media and is aimed at generating trips to the island among 35-to-54-year-olds.

The Red Sox will host Bermuda night on June 19 at Fenway Park. The event will feature officials from Bermuda, music from the island and the distribution of promotional material.

Bermuda also is activating through a promotion at every Sox home game, awarding a trip for two if a Red Sox player hits a home run during a pre-selected inning.

The island also gains ad spots, billboards, a presence in on-air promotions and other branding opportunities on cable broadcaster New England Sports Network, as well as branding on the Red Sox schedule page on NESN.com.

Bermuda will use its sponsorship of September’s Deutsche Bank Open to reach golfers, Williams said, noting the island has more golf courses per square mile than any other country. Bermuda will leverage the tie with on-site display areas.

Fenway Sports Group owns the Red Sox and 80 percent of NESN and has a partnership with the golf tournament to sell sponsorships.

The Boston deals follow a one-off tie last year to the MLB New York Mets, a sponsorship that let Bermuda get its arms around using a pro sports team as a marketing platform.

“It gave us an understanding of baseball fans and how we could engage them to promote leisure travel, corporate incentive travel, or weddings and honeymoons,” Williams said.

Bermuda replaced the tie this year with a New York-area media buy because of concerns the destination was not reaching as many consumers as it could due to split loyalties between the Mets and the MLB Yankees.

Tips On Selling Overseas Tourism Bureaus
Important information, benefits and other considerations when pitching sponsorship to members of the category:

Highlight travel habits of audience. Properties should provide market research that documents their audiences either travel abroad or have an interest in foreign trips.

Provide experiential opportunities. Properties should develop on-site activation programs that give attendees the chance to participate in a country-themed experience, such as exposure to cultural and entertainment offerings and sampling regional food, drink and products.

Case in point: The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation has leveraged its year-old sponsorship of the 11-city Real Men Cook events by sampling food prepared by Bahamian chefs.

Leverage bureaus’ strategic partners. Where possible, properties should try to include additional sponsorship opportunities for airlines, hotels and other types of companies that typically market in conjunction with travel bureaus.

If a travel industry partner passes on sponsorship but is included in promotions by providing tickets, hotel stays, etc., properties must insure such participation does not conflict with existing partners.

Incorporate personalities attached to your property. Many destinations would welcome the opportunity to host fan trips and other excursions featuring athletes, artists, spokespeople, etc.

For example, the Bahamas has leveraged its sponsorship of the NFL Miami Dolphins with the Dol-Fan Fest on Grand Bahama Island. The event featured past and present players, cheerleaders and a sports clinic. The destination also activated the tie by serving as the location of the photo shoot for the team’s annual cheerleader calendar.

Offer category exclusivity. Although there are exceptions, such as the Albuquerque balloon event, most countries seek exclusive “preferred destination” status of sponsored properties.

Consider trade promotion agencies. In addition to their tourism departments, some countries sponsor on behalf of export development agencies.

For example, APEX-Brasil–the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency–this year partnered with the Indy Racing League to promote ethanol as a global commodity, as well as support overall trade with Brazil in the three countries where the series races: Canada, Japan and the U.S.

The agency is introducing a mobile marketing vehicle at races where consumers can learn about Brazilian products, culture and travel opportunities.