SLO may be beginning to feel ‘Oprah Effect’ online

On Wednesday, millions watched as “Oprah” show correspondent Jenny McCarthy — a grin on her face as bright as the smiley-face on her fitted T-shirt — introduced the world to “America’s Happiest City”: San Luis Obispo.

Soon after the 3-minute segment first aired at 1 p.m. East Coast time, San Luis Obispo’s tourism websites began to feel what experts call “The Oprah Effect.”

As analyzed in a one-hour CNBC special on the topic in 2009, “The Oprah Effect“ is the perceived phenomenon that anything Oprah touches turns to gold. Even a brief mention on her show has been said to turn a fledgling online business into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, or put a little-known location on the map. It is unclear how the high-profile mention will affect the city, though if Web statistics are any indication, it’s taking effect.

The San Luis Obispo County Visitor and Conference Bureau’s website (sanluisobispocounty.com), which receives an average of 1,400 visitors a day, increased by 179 percent to 3,900 visitors Wednesday. The number of people signing up to receive a visitor’s guide increased by 50 percent, according to Molly Cano, director of sales and marketing for the bureau.

The San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce’s tourism website (VisitSLO.com) had 2,443 visits, a 745 percent increase over the same day last year, said Whitney Diaz, Internet services and publications director.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Monday that, since the first of the Oprah’s Ultimate Australian Adventure episodes aired last week, three of which focus largely on Sydney and the state of New South Wales, there has been a 33 percent spike in visits to the New South Wales’ tourism website (Sydney.com).

When a segment about Oprah visiting Yosemite aired in October, Web traffic spiked 256 percent from 3,367 visitors the day before to 11,975 on the day of the episode, but normalized about a week later, according to National Parks Service statistics. Actual visitors to the park, however, dropped in the two following months compared to the year before.

Apparently, the short Oprah segment carried weight with one visitor to the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce blog (StayinSLO.com): “Just saw Oprah, and we will talk about moving over there. We are a young couple with our first baby born in last December. We live in Utah and we are tired all ready of snow and cold,” said poster “Fam Perez.”

The buzz around San Luis Obispo started when author Dan Buettner devoted a more than 30-page chapter in National Geographic’s 2010 publication, “Thrive,” to San Luis Obispo, calling it “A real American Dream.” It was the only American city mentioned in the book.

Whether “The Oprah Effect” will occur locally remains to be seen.

San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx, who appeared in the segment, is optimistic that the spotlight will increase tourism, in the best of cases.

But in the worst-case scenario, she said: “Our city is a real flesh-and-blood, brick-and-mortar city. I hope (the media) doesn’t turn (it) into some kind of spin that turns our city into a cartoon of itself.”

But in true San Luis Obispo character, she added: “I think it’s made everyone very happy to be considered the happiest city in North America.”