Tussle Over Tourism : S.D. Tosses Pittsburgh Curves in Billboard Battle

Times Staff Writer

San Diego and Pittsburgh are engulfed in a battle. It’s not the Chargers and Steelers tackling one another, or the Padres and Pirates at odds. This battle involves billboards, not scoreboards, and increased tourism is the prize.

Pittsburgh fired the first shot in this civic war with a nationwide billboard campaign in July promoting itself as “The Most Livable City in the U.S.,” after the authors of Rand McNally’s “Places Rated Almanac” earlier in the year said the steel town was No. 1 in its search for America’s most livable city. The billboards, placed prominently in 15 San Diego locations, provided a rare view of Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers, brightly lighted and shimmering off one of the city’s three rivers.

San Diego, purportedly “America’s Finest City” and 28th in the Rand McNally poll, was not going to take this kind of thing lightly, especially from Pittsburgh.


Beginning Monday, San Diego strikes back. On the heels of a dip in tourism in San Diego, 10 billboards featuring a bronzed blonde basking on a San Diego beach with the message “Winter Is the Pitts If You’re Not in San Diego” will descend upon Pittsburgh--San Diego’s retaliatory strike in this friendly battle for tourists and conventioneers. The warm reminders of San Diego will remain in Pittsburgh until Dec. 15.

On Friday, the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau released figures showing that tourism in the city dipped in September to 2.6% below last year’s levels, even though tourism was strong for the summer months. Museums and Old Town State Park had increases in attendance, while the San Diego Zoo, Wild Animal Park, Sea World and Cabrillo National Monument all showed a decline in attendance. (Visitors to San Diego number 2.5 million for the first nine months of 1985.)

“I think San Diego’s appeals can hold up to any comparison to Pittsburgh, winter or summer,” said Al Reese, spokesman for ConVis. The 10 billboards should warm things up during the icy winter months in Pittsburgh, he added.

Pittsburgh is nestled between the Allegheny Mountains and the intersection of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, forming the Ohio River. The rivers may not offer the sandy, sun-drenched setting of San Diego, but Pittsburgh’s promoters figured the steel town is a nice place to visit and an even better place live.

“People here already knew it was a great place to live,” said Corinne Laboon, a spokeswoman for the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The rating made people all over the country aware of how great Pittsburgh is. When they saw the stories about the rating, they said ‘Pittsburgh?’ They had to read on to find out why it is a great place to live.” Laboon said the emphasis of the nationwide billboard campaign was to increase awareness of Pittsburgh.

“Everybody’s got to capitalize on something, whether it be weather or, in our case, a comfortable quality of life,” said Michelle Manicini, marketing director for the Pittsburgh convention and visitors bureau.

“We were shocked when we saw the ad,” said Shirley Hulett, ConVis public relations manager. “Who goes on vacation and buys a house? We target our ads toward tourism and conventions.”

Hulett said the billboard idea came after her office was deluged with calls from San Diegans inquiring how the city would respond.

The Rand McNally poll ranked 329 cities across the nation on nine criteria, including safety from crime, climate, arts and entertainment, recreation, transportation and economy. San Diego was pushed to the 28th spot because of its housing costs, health care facilities, crime rate and education system, the poll’s authors said.

Will the bronzed blonde and her warm message lure Pittsburgh natives to San Diego?

“Pittsburghers have a deep sense of city pride,” Laboon said. “I don’t see them getting on a plane for San Diego after they see the (San Diego) billboard.”

Before the Rand McNally rating, Pittsburgh called itself the “City With a Smile.”

The Pittsburgh visitors bureau is still measuring the effects of the July billboard campaign and has not yet determined whether the billboards caused people from San Diego and elsewhere to flock to the Pennsylvania city, said Laboon.

The San Diego promotion, which will cost $3,700, was timed to coincide with the Chargers-Steelers game in San Diego Dec. 8, Reese said.

Reese said the billboards go beyond the good-natured rivalry between the cities. Increased air service between San Diego and Pittsburgh has enlarged the tourist market, making Pittsburgh, which can get as cold as the steel it produces, a prime target for winter advertising, he said.

Reese feels confident that San Diego can stand up to any tourism claims Pittsburgh might retaliate with.

“I don’t expect Pittsburgh to run billboards of a girl wearing a bikini, lying on the banks of the Monongahela River,” he said.