By TEYA VITU
One day two years ago, Oprah Winfrey stopped by Miraval, Life in Balance not as a television titan, but as a guest at the resort spa in Catalina that focuses on healthful activities for the mind, body and spirit.
Life has not been the same at Miraval.
“There is an Oprah impact,” said Jack O’Donnell, Miraval’s chief executive. “I will tell you there has never been a stronger promotion than Oprah Winfrey.”
Winfrey has made three significant TV mentions of Miraval, which is near the Pima-Pinal county line. And each time, while her show was still on, Miraval’s phones started ringing. The show plugging Miraval’s then-new “partner, pleasure and passion” program within 48 hours generated calls filling all slots for 2004, and there’s still a waiting list of 200.
Sex sells, evidently.
“We booked $1.5 million in business in 48 hours,” O’Donnell said at a recent Public Relations Society of America lunch at the Arizona Inn.
He became a convert to public relations in the post-9/11 world, when Miraval could barely fill half its rooms on any given day. Today, he dismisses simple advertising and encourages full-fledged public relations campaigns. Locally, Miraval is represented by LP&G Inc.
“We didn’t have an organized PR effort (three years ago). I think that was hurting our business,” said O’Donnell, a former chief executive at the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and Merv Griffin’s Resorts Casino Hotel, both in Atlantic City, N.J. “We looked at a lot of things, how we spent our marketing dollars. There is always a credibility issue with advertising. We shifted to a PR-based story. It’s much more authentic and believable.”
Very few Tucson businesses will get the gold-standard Winfrey plug, let alone three of them. But O’Donnell, in an interview, said employing PR basics is just as important as having Winfrey on your side.
“You have to have a strategy to get an impact out of PR,” he said. “You have to identify the uniqueness of your product. You have to sell it. It’s not going to come to your door. You think you have the PR firm do everything. No. You have to put time into it.”
Doesn’t have to be Winfrey
Long Realty and Golf520.com are two other Tucson companies that turned to public relations and saw vivid results with the help of Caliber Communications Group.
When Rosey Koberlein became Long’s chief executive at the start of 2004, Tucson’s dominant residential real estate company relied on advertising.
“My experience with consumers is, when an advertisement is placed in front of them, they kind of tune it out,” Koberlein said. “They appreciate hearing the history, a focused story. We’re putting a concerted effort to tell the Long Realty story. A 30-second clip on TV when a person is getting chips just doesn’t make it.”
Long’s stab at PR got about a dozen articles into local newspapers, magazines and radio. Koberlein has no direct evidence of PR results, but Long’s sales volume surged from $3 billion to $3.97 billion last year.
Year-old Golf520.com used initial marketing and recent public relations to build a 10,000-subscriber base that allows members to book tee times online at 18 Tucson area golf courses and select golf courses in nine states.
“We did a lot of marketing efforts on our own,” said Adam Lazarus, the company’s sales and marketing director. “About six or seven months in, we wanted to take it to the next level.”
Marketing involved advertising in newspapers and on radio and going to events. PR entailed getting articles published in five local publications.
“The day of and three days later (after each article was published) we saw a significant spike in Web site traffic,” Lazarus said. “It was definitely the best two months we had after doing PR.”
What happened at Miraval
In Miraval’s case, its New York PR firm got in touch with Winfrey’s producers several times, and, suddenly, with barely a day or two notice, Winfrey showed up at Miraval, simply as a guest. They had put a signed copy of then-executive chef Cary Neff’s book “Conscious Cuisine” on her night stand.
A week and a half later, Neff was on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and while Neff was still talking on TV, the phones at Miraval started ringing and kept ringing for two days.
“It was crisis management at the property,” O’Donnell said. “We couldn’t field all the calls. Is she the most powerful person in America? We saw in that two-day blip that it’s real.”
At that time in 2003, Miraval’s guest book was 80 percent female. O’Donnell pondered how to get men into the mix. Do it with couples. So he brought in nationally known sexuality expert Lana Holstein.
“What do all couples want? Better sex,” he said. “We went after a program that offers better sexuality. It has that sex appeal for TV. One of the Oprah producers got interested.
“When that show aired (in early 2004), the response was 10 times what the cookbook show was. The show was live in Chicago. It was all Chicago (calls) for the first hour. We could track where the show was airing through the day, based on where calls were coming from.”
In all, the passion program has booked more than $2 million in business, but Miraval did not sit back. Instead, O’Donnell put a potential $300,000 on the line to land on Oprah’s Favorite Things show in December. Miraval had to offer free stays at the resort for everyone in the 300-person audience, and so far more than 100 have redeemed the voucher.
“I was questioned, ‘What are we gonna do? Spend $300,000?’ It was worth it,” O’Donnell said. “It was a double bonus. We did not know it was going to be given away to teachers. It ended up a PR positive that we could never have imagined. People across the country contacted us and said ‘thank you for doing this for teachers.’ ”
Miraval is 70 percent owned by American Online founder Steve Case. The 106-room resort spa is the top destination spa in the world in Travel+Leisure magazine, and Condé Nast Traveler in 2004 named it the top resort spa in North America. The private company does disclose revenue, but O’Donnell described it as in the low “tens of millions.”
MIRAVAL LIFE IN BALANCE
• Situation: Business plummeted after Sept. 11, 2001, and no recovery was in sight.
• PR approach: Make Oprah Winfrey aware of Miraval.
• Result: Winfrey has visited twice, and Miraval has been featured on her show three times, with phones ringing each time and millions of dollars of business booked in just a couple of days.
LONG REALTY COMPANY
• Situation: New CEO Rosey Koberlein believed that passive advertising is easily ignored.
• PR approach: Tell the Long Realty story through the media.
• Result: Sales soared from $3 billion to $3.97 billion last year.
• Situation: The year-old company started with advertising but wanted to expand its marketing.
• PR approach: Get the media interested in doing article.
• Result: A significant spike in Web site traffic.