By Jared Council
Visit Norfolk, the city's tourism arm, wants fresh statistics on who its visitors are, where they're coming from and what they're spending when they get in town.
But instead of a using a private research firm to conduct a full-year study, it's contracting with Old Dominion University.
"I'd say we've probably had 150 students that have had some play in this," said Stephen Shapiro, an assistant professor of sports management who's overseeing the project. Recreation and tourism curricula at ODU are closely aligned with sports management, Shapiro said.
The study, which will cover 2013, is expected to be published early next year. It's the first visitor survey taken since 2006, and will likely be used to drive marketing strategy, among other things.
Officially, the partners in the study are the Norfolk Tourism Research Foundation - part of Visit Norfolk - ODU and the Virginia Tourism Corp.
The foundation paid $50,000 for it and surveyors hope to interview close to 1,000 visitors.
Shapiro and Visit Norfolk President and CEO Tony DiFilippo both said although students are involved, the quality of the study won't be compromised. The students are primarily data collectors and work under four faculty members and one graduate assistant.
"Four of the five are Ph.D. faculty members trained in research, and one of them is a Ph.D. student," Shapiro said. "We develop the survey, design the methodology, examine it and interpret it for the Norfolk Research Foundation."
Speaking about ODU's research team, DiFilippo said, "This is not their first time around the block."
The study gives students real-world experience, officials said. Shapiro said oftentimes students will do research for a class and have difficulty seeing the connection between that and getting a job upon graduating.
"I think this is a great example of showing how research can be effective within a field and how this data can help drive decisions," Shapiro said.
The survey is aimed at any visitor, Shapiro said, whether they're in town for business, sporting events or festivals. As such, students have visited places including airports, hotels, events thrown by Festevents and the Ted Constant Center for college basketball tournament games this past spring.
They didn't conduct interviews, but asked people for their email addresses. Later, a link to an online survey was sent to participants, Shapiro said.
"We wanted to know why they're here, what they're doing while they're here, how they're spending money and what they're spending their money on," Shapiro said.
DiFilippo said officials are hoping to compile some psychographic data to try to identify emerging markets.
"How important is a green region to you when you travel?" DiFilippo said, giving an example of a question. "How do you book travel, research travel with all the new technology these days?"
When compared to on-scene questionnaires, Shapiro said, online surveys have some drawbacks. Some people, he said, are tardy or don't respond to online surveys. On the flip side, online surveys allow for more questions, questions based on responses to other questions and open-ended questions.
"I've learned there's good and bad from both methods," Shapiro said.
The $50,000 figure is essentially a grant ODU applied for that's now funding the research. Money will be used for administrating the survey and incentives for survey respondents. Roughly five "student leaders" overseeing data collectors at various sites are getting paid, he said. The rest are doing it as part of a class project.
Shapiro said ODU and the University of Florida performed a similar study for Norfolk in 2005, and the school has had other tourism-related partnerships with the city. DiFilippo teaches a class at the school.
In the past, Visit Norfolk has contracted with Norfolk-based Continental Research Associates Inc. Most recently, the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach paid $50,000 each to Continental to conduct a year-long survey on cross-city visitation. That study, which surveyed 3,543 people for 12 months ending in July 2012, was released in February. nib