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Ashley Johnson spreading the word:

Laguna Beach is more than a great place to visit

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ashley Johnson is the go-to gal when you want to go to Laguna. Having started out in marketing nine and a half years ago with the Laguna Beach Visitors and Conference Bureau, she has been there for the re-imagining and name changing, and is now the Director of Brand Marketing and Communications for Visit Laguna Beach. And no one understands that Laguna Beach is a brand more than Ashley.

Ashley Johnson

“Visit Laguna Beach oversees the visitor’s center,” she says. “The name helps with Google searches, especially when people want to visit here for the first time.

“Tourism has changed, marketing has changed,” she continued. “We don’t use magazines so much for advertising. It’s now about 80 percent digital and social media.”

People search through Google and sites like Trip Advisor to find out what’s brewing in Laguna. Surprisingly, Ashley tells us that the MTV show, Laguna Beach, is still a major player in tourism here as well. 

“We have families coming in to find out about the show,” she said. “The parents say, ‘We have no idea, except our kids love this show!’”

The office receives about 3,000 first-time visitors per month. There they will find out everything they want to know about that darned TV show, as well as all the activities and events and goings-on about town, seven days a week. 

“There’s so much to do here,” Ashley says. “Our concierges train in telling everything we have in town. And we try to get them to stay at least a night in a hotel.” 

Travel trends and the show circuit

She recently returned from a trade show in Orlando; IPW, the US Travel Association’s forum for travel industry pro’s. There were more than 6,500 people in attendance from all walks of the travel business. The news that Ashley sent out to the tour operators, travel agents, and travel journalists is that Laguna Beach is not just about the beach: we live in a year-round worthy destination. 

“Especially Germans,” she said. “They really like the outdoor components of travel, and they were surprised to learn that Laguna is surrounded by 20,000 acres of wilderness.” 

China is seen as a hugely emerging market because their travel visas have gotten easier to procure. Ashley tells us that their travel trends are changing. 

“In the next few years we will be welcoming 200 million Chinese travelers to California,” she said. 

Whereas once the Chinese would book for group travel, the latest trend is toward independent travel. There’s even an industry term for it, “FIT”, short for Foreign Independent Traveler. 

“We used to see 80 percent group travel in the past, now Chinese operators are booking 60 percent FITs.”

That’s a good thing too, because group travelers tend to not spend very much where they go. Individuals are more likely to branch out to restaurants, concerts, and other cultural events that keep the Laguna economy happy.

Then there is the luxury crowd. At the conference, Ashley met with several Saudi Arabian tour operators particularly interested in luxury travel to Laguna Beach. 

“When they come, they bring extended family and hired help too. They typically spend time at South Coast Plaza, and Fletcher Jones,” she said. “I was promoting places like Montage Laguna Beach, and events such as The Pageant of the Masters, and Laguna Dance Festival. I got very positive responses.” 

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Many tour operators and travel journalists were looking for family destinations, which, in California, is mostly Disney territory. It was Ashley’s joy to tune them in to Laguna’s family-friendly features, such as the Sawdust Studio Art Classes: one-day, in-studio classes, offering instruction in photography, jewelry, oil painting, and other arts.

Let’s Visit Laguna Beach

Visit Laguna Beach has some new interactive and hands-on features that have helped put Laguna on the digital map. One is the app, Laguna Beach Travel Info, a new and improved version – coming out this summer. It’s the official and handy place to tap into all things Laguna (available on iTunes, and Google Play), with extra new features.

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“It’s got a lot more functionality,” Ashley says. “There’s a loyalty program for repeat visitors, and special discounts.” For example, the GPS would be able to connect you with a free drink offer as you walk by Las Brisas, or special deals at shops and galleries you pass.

Another big deal at Visit Laguna Beach Visitors Center, downtown on Forest Ave, is an interactive kiosk. Here, people will be able to not only print out maps and brochures, but also to plan itineraries, make restaurant reservations, and buy tickets to events like Laguna Playhouse or the Pageant of the Masters.

Matters of the heart

To get what it is that excites people about travel, you have to have been bitten by that same bug. Ashley has travelled all over the US promoting Laguna Beach, and she loves it, because she loves to travel too.

Raised not very far away, in Irvine, Ashley went to the University of Arizona for education and became a nut for sports too – especially football and basketball. She will travel just about anywhere the Arizona Wildcats are playing. 

Her work promoting Laguna gets her travelling about quite a bit. So far, her favorite visit was to Nashville. “I loved it,” she says. “The culture, the talent, the music. It’s a great place!” Next up is an international dream to visit Spain. “I want to go!”

Meanwhile, back at the home ranch, Ashley is shaping up wedding plans. She will marry her fiancée, Clint, in October. They may likely serve up some of their home brewed beers. 

Yes, she’s a brewer too. That would be due to Clint’s interest professionally (he’s a beer distributor), and personally (he’s brewing all types at home). “I’m a self-proclaimed wine snob, but I’m coming around to beer,” she says. “I do love the IPA!”

Weekends, when she’s not brewing up some IPA, or off to yoga class, Ashley can be found at flea markets and antiques shows. She’s got a well-rounded repertoire of activities that keep her busy. 

But when it’s time to learn more about what’s going on in Laguna, it’s time to visit Ashley Johnson downtown.