While growth in the travel and tourism business is still in recovery mode, the early warm temperatures across most of the U.S. coupled with an uptick in positivity over the future of the economy could make 2012 a good year for the U.S. tourist industry and the small businesses that support it.
Commerce Secretary John Bryson and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the Administration’s National Tourism and Travel Strategy  [PDF] – delivering on President Obama’s call in January for a national strategy to promote domestic and international travel opportunities throughout the United States.
The National Strategy is a blueprint for expanding travel to and within the U.S., laying out concrete steps to be taken in five key areas. It sets out a goal of increasing American jobs by attracting and welcoming 100 million international visitors annually by the end of 2021, more than a 50 percent increase over the number expected this year. These international visitors would spend an estimated $250 billion per year, creating jobs and spurring economic growth in communities across the country. Learn more about the strategy here .
So, how can small business owners put the 2012 tourist and vacation season to profitable use? Here are some operational and marketing tips to help you start planning a successful season today.
1. Plan Your Marketing Strategy Now
While you should do everything you can to stay in touch with your customers all year, now is the time to reach out to past customers. Send emails offering coupons or showcase what’s new at your business. U.S. tourists often return to the same destinations year after year. What can you do now to bring them back to your business this year?
2. Hire Seasonal Workers
If your business counts on the summer season or tourist trade, then start planning your seasonal workforce now. If you’re new to this process or have questions about hiring and compensating seasonal workers (for example, do you need to pay unemployment taxes for seasonal workers?) Check out this blog – Hiring Seasonal Workers  – for tips on hiring and working with seasonal workers.
3. Get Help Financing your Seasonal Working Capital Needs
If you need help meeting your short-term and cyclical working capital needs, such as building inventory for the season or paying workers, then you might want to consider a short-term loan or line of credit such as SBA’s CAPLines Program , which provides advances against anticipated inventory and accounts receivable to help businesses with seasonal sales fluctuations. The program was recently streamlined  to make it easier for small business owners to get financing even if collateral is tight. Read more  about the program.
4. Plan to Get Involved in Local Events/Festivals
Sponsoring or participating in local festivals, carnivals and fairs is not only great for your brand, it can help introduce new and potential customers to your products and services. Start by identifying events that are the right fit for your business and have a track record of success. Local newspapers, community flyers, city or homeowner association websites, as well as your local Chamber of Commerce can help point you to upcoming events in your community. For tips on how to make the most of hosting and sponsoring events read guest blogger Rieva Lesonsky’s: Marketing Your Business with Events . Also check out: How to Legally Sell Your Goods at Fairs, Garage Sales, Flea Markets, and Craft Shows .
5. Host Your Own Event
Whether it’s tied to a holiday (Memorial Day, July 4th) or a theme, why get your business out front by hosting your own event? Restaurants and stores can benefit most from self-hosted events, but other businesses can, too. For example, if your business organizes tours or other tourist-related activities, you could team up with other complementary local businesses to host a fair or other happening that provides an opportunity to showcase your services.
6. Take Your Business to Vacationers and Day Trippers
If you are in the food business, taking a concession stand on the road is a great way to capture tourism dollars and give new customers a taste of what you’ve got to offer back at your restaurant or store. From fairs to festivals, theaters and concerts, a concession stand is an opportunity to bring in extra dollars and spread the word. This article can help you understand how to start up a concession business: Starting a Mobile Food Concession Business .
7. Line Up Summer Giveaways
Whether your customers migrate away from you during tourist season or you are in the heart of a tourist hot-spot, use promotional items with your name, website, etc. printed on them. From frisbees to re-useable water bottles, host a competition and use these as giveaways or give cheaper items away when customers frequent your business.
8. Partner with Local Business Groups
Reach out to your local Chamber of Commerce and local tourism associations or sector organizations that promote clusters of businesses in the same business sector such as hotels, restaurants, tour operators, B&B’s, camp grounds, and so on. Many of these offer small businesses an opportunity to participate in their targeted and collective approach to seasonal marketing.
9. Stay in Touch
Remember to stay in touch with customers year-round. If you run a seasonal business, your off-season should be one of your busiest marketing seasons. Capture customer emails  (use drawings, surveys, and other sign-up incentives), send updates  year-round (entice them to come back next year) and use social media (check out this “Ultimate Guide to Social Media Marketing for Small Business ”) to put out teasing content and updates all year long!
For example, a popular vacation beach rental realty company in North Carolina’s Outer Banks posts Facebook updates from the beach even in winter. These include videos of the beach in wild weather, teasers when it’s nice (“don’t you just wish you were here”), updates about what’s new for the upcoming season, and promotions on early-bird rental bookings. It’s a nice reminder of a summer vacation, costs very little, and keeps them in customers’ minds throughout the year.