Branding a tourism destination requires a long-term strategy integrated into numerous different channels. It is more than just logos, taglines, commercials, billboards and social media posts. A destination’s brand is defined by a perception of its guests. It is an emotion that visitors feel, brought on by experiences created by stakeholders. Successfully implementing a branding strategy must begin with the destination asking itself the question, “What makes our place unique and attracts visitors?”
This chapter of Solimar’s DMO Development series explores how to put a strategy in place once these questions are answered.
Strategic Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC)
Oftentimes, DMOs will use an assortment of communication tactics across their many different platforms (Internet, print, billboards, TV, etc.), leaving their overall strategy fragmented. Integrated marketing communication, on the other hand, is a collaborative and promotional marketing function where a targeted audience receives consistent and persuasive brand messaging through various marketing channels. It is designed to move buyers, or in this case potential visitors, through the “where to travel next” decision making process. Social media campaigns should align with TV ads, which should link up with messaging on billboards and in print media. When executed successfully, an integrated marking communications plan ensures that marketers are using all available channels to amplify their marketing campaign and brand messaging to reach their target audience, or buyer persona.
A great example of integrated marketing communication comes from Montana, where the Montana Office of Tourism designed a campaign around Montana Moments. As the state’s official website reads, “To help increase awareness of Montana, the concept needed to break through the noise of the tourism market while setting Montana apart. The print, social, out of home, digital and earned media campaign focused around searching for moments.” This campaign won numerous awards and resulted in an increase in visitor spending, as well as a 38% increase in organic traffic.
The Traveler Decision Making Process
Through the vast tourism ecosphere, there is a process that all tourists move through before deciding where to take their next trip. For marketers, this path is broken into four parts:
- Attract – Introducing travelers to a destination can be done via digital marketing (paid advertising, social media), billboards, commercials, etc.
- Engage – Destinations now have the ability to develop relationships with traveler through interactive media, personalized communications, travel planning guide, and of course, social media. User-generated content has become a key to effectively engage an audience.
- Convert – Once the decision has been made to visit a destination, the DMO must ensure that booking channels are easy to find and navigate through. The user experience should be designed in such a way that booking a trip is as seamless as possible, thus preventing travelers from leaving (or bouncing from) the site in the midst of creating a reservation.
- Experience and Share – DMOs now have the ability to speak directly to their guests via user-generated content. Marketing managers should LISTEN (to their target audience via reviews on TripAdvisor, Google), WATCH (the images and videos that are being shared through different social media channels), SYNTHESIZE (the messaging that is being published by your audience), and RESPOND (to keep the conversation moving forward).
The Implementation of an Annual Marketing Plan
Let’s revisit the travel promotion’s virtuous cycle: more visitors lead to more money, which leads to more jobs and taxes. The need to market a destination is designed to make this cycle continue its spiral. The understory of the virtuous cycle is the annual marketing plan.
So, how do you implement an annual marketing plan?
- Identify the target market and understand how your destination meets their needs
- Set specific, measurable goals and time frames for your marketing activities
- Position your destination so that the target market sees your destination as better than, or different from, the competition
- Map out a strategy to reach the target audience, including messages, channels, and tools that will be used
- Communicate with your tourism partners so they can align their marketing efforts with those of the DMO
- Demonstrates to your funding and industry partners how the plan will be effective
DMO’s need an annual marketing plan — one that is revised annually and remains fluid throughout the year to ensure it remains in line with current events (Exhibit A: travel during a pandemic).
DMO Expert Interview
This session’s DMO expert interview featured Courtney Cacatian from the Charlottesville & Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Cacatian suggests that, above all else, the most critical element of destination branding is market research. Anecdotally, she explains that the Albemarle CVB adjusts their marketing strategy based on who is more interested in specific activities. She uses bluegrass enthusiasts or bucketlisters as examples of the CVB’s target audience. She also explains that determining ways in which visitors will increase spending during their trip — or upselling — has been a key to growth in her destination,
Solimar asked Cacatian what advice she would give to a DMO director creating a new marketing plan. Her answer? “Read other destination’s strategic plans, especially if you can find similar destinations. See what’s important to their industry and their board. Even if there’s competition, our success is their success and vise versa….Read. There’s always more to learn.”