Creating a welcoming environment: The Travel & Tourism Roundtable [Extended]

Amid a still-uncertain economy, the travel and tourism industry remains challenged to win over consumers. Sector leaders gathered in Columbus, Ohio, at this Fahlgren Mortine-hosted roundtable to discuss tapping emotions, mobile strategies, and security issues. By Gideon Fidelzeid

Creating a welcoming environment: The Travel & Tourism Roundtable [Extended]


Back row (l-r):
-Greg Staley, SVP of communications, US Travel Association
-Karyl Leigh Barnes, managing partner, tourism practice, Development Counsellors International
-Amanda Dempsey, marketing director, Bermuda Tourism Authority
-Matthew MacLaren, SVP, member relations, American Hotel & Lodging Association
-Christina Steed, EVP, Flowers Communications Group?
-Marty McDonald, SVP, leader of integrated tourism practice, Fahlgren Mortine
-Tamara Brown, PR manager, TourismOhio
-Mollie Hansen, VP of marketing, Airstream

Seated (l-r):
-Joe Marinelli, president, Visit Savannah
-Claudia Vecchio, director, Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs
-Chris Thompson, president and CEO, Brand USA

Winning back consumers

Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What are the biggest challenges to getting consumers to travel? How are you tackling them?

Marty McDonald (Fahlgren Mortine): I’ll tackle this question from the marketing-challenge perspective. Understanding the multiple platforms and opportunities available to us is certainly more challenging, as is the need to come up with creative ideas that are less traditional.

I’ve also seen a change in our business to less execution work and more strategic consultative work to just understand the environment. Finding good partners who can help distill what destinations have to offer consumers is so important.

Above all else, though, the greatest role for a destination marketing organization [DMO] to play is helping a place define why is it special.

That takes me back to a light-bulb moment early in my career. I was at a tourism conference in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel. I was sitting in what appeared to be a normal conference room, but the desk attendant informed us we were sitting in the same room where Elvis Presley attended prom. That perfectly captured why that place was special. It was a moment where I really fell in love with this industry and the role I could play as a destination marketer.

Joe Marinelli (Visit Savannah): The biggest challenge is the competition to get people to travel – and I’m not talking about between destinations. Things such as Netflix, iPads, and Amazon Prime monopolize people’s attention every day. People might shun travel when they can get lost in those worlds in the comfort of their homes. In marketing for this sector, tech-life balance is just as big a challenge as work-life balance.

Claudia Vecchio (Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs): An interesting challenge we face is promoting a state where one particular destination dominates attention. Furthermore, that specific destination – Las Vegas – has an obvious appeal to certain travelers, but not so much to others. We have to earn attention for the entire state, but still promote Las Vegas to a wider range of potential visitors. The challenge to differentiate is a bit different for us.

Greg Staley (US Travel Association): Work martyrs are a huge challenge. The American workforce is leaving hundreds of millions of unused earned vacation days on the table. The US travel and tourism industry has to help shift that culture within business and the workforce. Our jobs are not all about destination marketing. People earn their off time. We need to reinforce that and empower folks to take vacations.

Amanda Dempsey (Bermuda Tourism Authority): Changing perceptions is a huge challenge. When some people think of Bermuda, it’s where their grandparents went. Cuba is actually ahead of Bermuda in terms of being viewed as a cool place to visit. To combat that, you must tell a great story, but also focus on attitudes over age. Many non-Millennials have a much younger mindset, so tailor your story to that mindset.

Karyl Leigh Barnes (Development Counsellors International [DCI]): There has been a big jump from people agreeing to cash in their vacation time and not work at all to what’s happening now. So from a destination perspective, you must make your consumer more relaxed that if they need to work while away, they can. That’s more effective now than highlighting the fact you can totally unplug. Many people actually find that stressful.

Marinelli (Visit Savannah): We’re facing that with an historic destination such as Savannah. Millennials are very interested in that authentic experience but they’re not quite ready to be unplugged yet. So convincing local leadership that making our city as Wi-Fi compatible as possible is a big agenda item. We did a tourism future study earlier this year. Millennials tell us they want to enjoy an authentic destination such as Savannah, but they also don’t want to be unplugged. So that’s good in a cool coffee shop, but if you’re sitting in one of our squares you also want to be connected.

Matthew MacLaren (American Hotel & Lodging Association): There are 1.9 million people employed in hotels in the US. We have a positive economic impact in communities throughout the country. Getting officials to understand that so they support us will help us all in our marketing mission.

Tamara Brown (TourismOhio): Our state has a unique opportunity because about 50% of the US population can get to Ohio within about 500 miles. It makes getting here easier than a lot of other destinations. We certainly focus on sharing the story of a top-class vacation spot for those with budget and time concerns.

Christina Steed (Flowers Communications Group): Nielsen recently released a report on the African-American consumer market. It talked about how loyalty and brand affinity are very high in this demographic. They will pay more to travel on an airline or stay at a hotel that treats them a certain way. You need to understand what will appeal to every possible audience with whom you wish to engage.

Chris Thompson (Brand USA): As we look to get more visitors to the US, but this certainly applies to any local, state, or regional destination, you have to look at people’s travel life cycle. Are they in the dream phase where you really have to convince them? Are they in the activation phase, where they need that final push?

McDonald (Fahlgren Mortine): As we develop travel content for Millennials, we need to understand they crave being told how to do something so they can do it themselves and put themselves in a position to discover the unexpected. They want the experiences to be broken down for them.

For example, for Wyoming we’ve created content about what you need to know if you attend your first rodeo. You’re removing barriers that make an experience more comfortable to a visitor, but still allow them to fully experience it in the way they want. And this comes back to the curation and creation of content. We are talking to a generation of wolves, not a generation of sheep. They want to be invited in halfway and then they’re on their own.

Mollie Hansen (Airstream): An interesting byproduct for DMOs to consider is how what we do in the US plays out in other countries. There are Airstreams in China, where people don’t necessarily understand the concept of camping. The proper marketing, though, to visitors here who use our products can lead to a whole new opportunity in other countries.

Shining examples

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Please detail one specific destination marketing campaign that tackled a unique challenge and proved ultimately effective.

McDonald (Fahlgren): For Myrtle Beach, we started with the tactic of a flash sale. We had various local entities put together deals and packages. We then created Travel Saturday to piggyback off of the consumerism of Black Friday. We underscored the concept of giving experiences as opposed to things. It focused on one day, which has proven to be an effective tack to connect with consumers.

Once we had all the deals compiled, we advised everyone to offer their deal for a limited time and we’ll tell the story not of it’s a great time to buy Myrtle Beach packages, but we’re going into the holiday season and it’s a great time to think about what you really want to give this season. It spotlighted the destination in a manner that really underscored the concept of travel being more enriching because it is an experience, not a thing.

Thompson (Brand USA): I was a rookie CEO at Visit Florida during the BP oil spill. Fortunately, for the most part Florida’s beaches did not have significant levels of oil, but that’s not the story that was circulating. Surveys indicated more than 60% of Americans were convinced there was a lot of oil on certain beaches in Florida. That now-famous picture of the little bird covered in oil was associated with us.

Once the spill was capped, we decided to do a Visit Florida beach walk. One morning, we invited every Floridian to defend their state. We Google Mapped 825 miles of beach in Florida and it was automated on our website. You could literally go to any beach in Florida that morning and find people taking pictures of what the beach looked like. For one day, we activated a social marketing campaign that got a lot of buzz that proved once and for all there was no oil on the beach. It put a cap on a crisis.

Brown (TourismOhio): For Discover Ohio To Go, we worked with more than 600 McDonald’s across the state. We got the program logo emblazoned on large beverage cups. Signature partners were brought in as well. The whole idea was to draw traffic to so people could see all the great opportunities in the state. This was a great way to work with a global brand to get our messaging out there very broadly. And this was meant to appeal to in-state travelers as much as visitors.

Dempsey (Bermuda): Lobbying editors still works because getting others to tell your story remains powerful. We worked with National Geographic to highlight how Bermuda is so much more than pink sand beaches. We’ve hooked up various reporters with local climbing or scuba experts to give them an authentic experience on the island they can share. We did something with Triathlete Magazine around Bermudian triathlete Flora Duffy. And all this coverage helped get the word out about things you can do on the island you might not have thought about. And it all plays well on social because it’s earned media.

Hansen (Airstream): We have a rich community of people who love our brand, but there are also many who don’t even realize we’re still around. So we created a campaign called Riveted, which is more of a call to action than anything else. We worked with that loyal community, those who think of Airstream as part of their family, and had them tell their stories, which were really the brand’s stories.

Steed (Flowers): We worked with the Illinois Office of Tourism. We crafted a campaign around family reunions because such events are very prevalent among the black community, but it was also a way to appeal across generations on an emotional level. Whether it’s kids, Gen-Xers, or Baby Boomers, we wanted people to think of the state as the place to hold family reunions. Coupled with content highlighting the rich African-American history in the state, this was a great example of targeted marketing with wider appeal.

We also employed a dedicated blogger to travel to different parts of the state to highlight some of those places we put in a planner we created. Folks could follow the blogger, interact with her, and get more information. This really helped us get consumer insight.

Marinelli (Visit Savannah): We’re always trying to stretch the travel season, so December is an opportunity for us. In 2013, we hired a team of photographers and videographers and put together a list of about 20 different activities happening in Savannah during the holiday season. We built an entire holiday campaign around those assets. We did some joint marketing with JetBlue in New York and Boston to attract visitors in December. We focused other efforts on regional markets such as Charlotte and Atlanta.

Last December, hotel occupancy was up 7% from the prior year during that period. Hotel/motel taxes for the month were up 13% year on year. This told us the campaign worked. And as an added bonus, the photography and videography is evergreen. We can refresh it a couple of times over and get more value out of it.

Barnes (DCI): About six years ago, we stared work for Namibia, which had never marketed to the US. We focused on media relations and interest in the country grew. A surprising byproduct was a surge in Namibians entering training programs to learn how to meet North American consumer demands. Over six years, there was a 30% uptick of first-time travelers, but of equal importance was the number of jobs created.

Equally satisfying was the fact our efforts helped create a local school and a local clinic within a day’s walk of a community that never had one before. You can really see the effectiveness of tourism marketing and, particularly in this case, PR in helping establish a nation that had never had the number of jobs that resulted from this particular marketing effort.

Staley (US Travel Association): Between 15 and 20 US airports consistently have high-volume traffic that challenges them. We undertook a campaign spotlighting the under-resourcing of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). These security officials are the frontline. They are often the first person an international traveler sees on US soil. But surveys revealed that 43% of overseas travelers told others not to visit the US due to CBP issues. And, of course, there is President Obama’s stated goal of welcoming 100 million visitors by 2021. That’s a tough goal to reach given that prevailing sentiment. It also didn’t help that officials on the Hill weren’t connecting the dots.

Once we had the data, we were able to apply an econometric measurement to what these CPB issues cost the economy when so many people tell others not to come to the US. We needed to get on lawmakers’ radar.

So we went to gateway airports and captured traveler testimonials. It was interesting because many of them talked about the process to enter other countries and how those experiences were better. And armed with everything, we lobbied on the Hill as a collective industry. We highlighted the President’s goal and spotlighted the problem that could prevent us from reaching it.

We got Congress’ attention and it appropriated funds to hire 2,000 additional CBP officers in the 2014 Homeland Security Appropriation budget.

Vecchio (Nevada): To this day, our great challenge is to educate people on what there is other than Las Vegas to do in this extraordinary state. That is made harder by the fact Nevadans see theirs as a very fragmented state. But that also means there is a great duality in the state that could be a selling point if the story is told properly.

In coordination with the governor’s office, we were determined to create a statewide brand that embraced the duality of Nevada – mountains and deserts, bit city and small towns. We came up with "A world within. A state apart."

However, Las Vegas’ brand is very much about freedom – and we did feel that was an element that can bolster the campaign. So we had [popular Las Vegas-based] band The Killers sing Don’t Fence Me In to support the effort. It was great to bring in-state partners together under one unified voice.

Making a mark on mobile

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): How is mobile marketing impacting your business? What are some of the biggest decisions you are making in this regard?

Marinelli (Visit Savannah): One thing we always talk about is to app or not to app? What are we in business for? Driving people to our website, creating an app, or both? Should we be marketing an app if most people will only visit Savannah once or should we be more interested in driving people to a website? Mobile is powerful, of course, but you need to know what works best for your own goal.

Thompson (Brand USA): I’ll focus internationally, specifically on China. This is a country with 1.4 billion people. It has 686 million Internet users. It has 1.29 billion mobile phone numbers. There are 450 million mobile Internet users. WeChat has 549 million active monthly members. That’s an emerging market that has totally embraced the Internet, but equally has embraced mobile as a search vehicle, an activation vehicle, and actually a purchase vehicle. That’s an interesting perspective when you think about how to navigate potential consumers, in our case travelers, outside of the US.

McDonald (Fahlgren): The impact is evident in the investments we are making. We’re focused heavily on marketing automation specialists and developers because of the impact of mobile. It’s crucial to make the back end of a marketing program synchronize so the database can speak to every platform. Equally important is responsive website development. All this assures that when you create that great content, it has the broadest reach. Mobile necessitates such decisions.

It’s also wise to resist the temptation to do what everyone else is doing and really figure out what will make a difference. What are the markets others are largely ignoring where you can find a lot of business? Mobile is part of that story.

Barnes (DCI): Mobile’s prominence has added to our responsibilities well beyond just trying to get people to our destinations. We now must focus on dispersing them once they are there and, perhaps more important, getting them to share content about our destination once they’ve left. A few years ago, that was not our focus at all. Today, it’s a major element of what we do.

Staley (US Travel Association): A study we released this past year offers some interesting insight into travelers’ use of mobile technology for destinations. Women are more likely to be planners on mobile technology, while men are more likely to use mobile apps for directions and getting around. As you develop mobile tools, you really need to consider how they will be used by various demographics.

Vecchio (Nevada): Nevada is somewhat devoid of infrastructure, so we use mobile technology as virtual infrastructure. It provides rich educational components around where you are. You could be in the middle of Nevada at a cool exit with lots of great things to do, but there is no other signage. A mobile app can be highly informational and, as such, as essential partner on your travel experience. That’s how we see a mobile app being beneficial outside of just a marketing tool.

MacLaren (American Hotel & Lodging): Whether it’s online or mobile, the first step is to get the consumer to the right website. We launched a campaign this past year on consumer deception because there are so many websites out there that purport to be the hotel site or are set up in ways that make the consumer think they’re on the hotel site. We must educate consumers so they know how to find the proper sites – and subsequently benefit from doing so.

Dempsey (Bermuda): We’ve found that Instagram is a particularly popular platform on mobile, so we focus heavily on that in our marketing. There are influencers on the island of Bermuda who have more than a million Instagram followers who take tons of pictures and feed those out to their markets. We obviously promote on our own channels, but we feed content onto their channels, too.

Safe and secure

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Security is a major issue when it comes to consumer trepidation about travel. Inasmuch as it affects the organizations you either represent or work with, how are you tackling this in terms of your outreach to consumers?

Staley (US Travel Association): Travel and security are not mutually exclusive. We have examples of travel programs that are national security programs. The US visa waiver program is the finest example of that. It allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the US without a visa for stays of 90 days or less, assuming they meet certain requirements. It includes a very deep, mutual security exchange with the partner nation. Furthermore, the Jolt Act would further expand the visa waiver program.

As the needs to keep travelers secure continue to evolve, this is an example of how travel and security go hand in hand.

Marinelli (Visit Savannah): I’ll go down a different path that focuses on weather-related issues of security that are very prevalent for markets such as ours. Savannah can certainly find itself in a cone of uncertainty as it pertains to tropical storms and worse. Such possibilities necessitate a further focus on crisis management.

With that in mind, as a DMO, you have to really study how other cities handle all sorts of crises, including ones totally unrelated to weather. As a DMO, you always must ask yourself what lessons did you learn from Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore. Such events can happen anywhere and you have to be prepared to deal with them. How do you deal with conventions or major events that cancel on you or are no longer interested in having your city bid for them? These are not issues DMOs would instinctively expect to face, but they are vital to consider and can have a massive impact on travel to your destination.

Dempsey (Bermuda): Hurricanes are obviously a major concern we deal with. Last year, we had two in six days. Up-to-the second information is table stakes for both people about to visit our island, as well as those already on it. Furthermore, we have a  "hurricane guarantee" in place in which those who have booked a trip to the island can cancel it without penalty if a legitimate hurricane threat is forecast.

We obviously have a crisis communication plan in place so that we are keeping everybody updated and being very transparent about what’s going on. It’s on social media, on the website, and then afterwards in letting everybody know we’re open for business and it’s safe.

Staley (US Travel Association): There’s a natural link between emergency preparedness and security. A recent example our industry faced was with the Ebola crisis coming into the US, which had the potential to greatly impact conventions, trade shows, and the like. Of course, while the travel industry can’t stop Ebola, what it can do is have good information and protocols in place that get shared across the entire industry.

We worked with a former head of homeland security and put together best practices for situations such as this. It’s a model we can replicate the next time a crisis comes up. We’ll be ready for it.

McDonald (Fahlgren): Such situations are where professional communicators can really shine. We can expose where our brands are most vulnerable, predict what might lie ahead, but also be change managers to assure we react properly. I was recently listening to someone from New Orleans talk about Hurricane Katrina and how communicators were the ones who started driving real change. They were the facilitators who got city planners, economic developers, and the infrastructure teams communicating about what could be exposed and the steps that had to be taken to keep people safe.

MacLaren (American Hotel & Lodging): Hotels have numerous laws in place to keep consumers safe. However, the rise of short-term online rentals, the types listed on Airbnb and similar sites, go largely unregulated and don’t have the same types of laws. We’ve been particularly outspoken in asking cities and states to apply the same type of regulations to the short-term online rentals that hotels have to abide by.

Points of differentiation

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What is the key to establishing a powerful brand in this particular sector?

Vecchio (Nevada): A brand needs to be experiential. It needs to touch people emotionally. Our state will never win an attributes war with many Eastern states, but we can win by making that emotional connection with consumers. And it’s equally crucial in all outreach efforts that you serve as an essential partner in somebody’s travel experience, both the planning and the actual travel. In sum, a powerful brand in this space must go above and beyond talking about attributes and become a definitive part of a transformational experience for our visitors.

Staley (US Travel Association): The brand should reflect a destination, what’s authentic about it. It can’t be manufactured because a traveler can see right through that. Non-manufactured means going where the local residents go. If you can market those aspects, you have a good chance of success while offering a true reflection of your destination.

Barnes (DCI): It’s about engagement with people in the places where they’re spending the most time. Consumers don’t live in the travel space like we do. They live in the food or lifestyle space, for example. Those areas are more on their daily radar. We have to find creative ways to reach consumers there.

You also have to remember that you might have told a certain story so many times that it seems overly repetitive to you, but it very well could be the first time that consumer has heard it.

Marinelli (Visit Savannah): Authenticity is key. How do we avoid the trap of shopping, dining, and nightlife galore? So many destinations can offer that. It’s not the message we want to convey. We try to focus on the attributes that make a city great. Much like what Greg said, it often comes back to what the locals do and creating an environment where locals and visitors do the same things.

However, if I can offer one key piece of advice for marketing in the travel and tourism sector: it’s about being clear, not clever. We sometimes fall into the trap of trying to be too cute, but with user-generated reviews and firsthand experiences being so prevalent in what travelers look for when pondering a destination, messages need to be clear to entice them.

Steed (Flowers): Being inclusive is crucial when marketing in this space. We simply don’t have as much power anymore in controlling the message because people instinctively go to Trip Advisor or Yelp to make decisions about where to go, where to stay, and what to do. We have to tell great stories about the destinations we represent, but we also must enable others to tell even greater stories because those carry incredible influence with potential travelers.

Hansen (Airstream): Airstream is a product manufacturer, so we differ from the other entities at the table. That said, a major focus of ours is spending a lot of time with our dealers educating them on consumers so they can craft the right messages. And they have to realize that a lot of people who come to their dealerships are very knowledgeable. They have done their research. This is a case where you should assume your customer knows a lot. We have to get our dealers in the right mindset to converse with customers. That’s a huge part of establishing the brand.

Dempsey (Bermuda): Research is the key to a strong brand. So many different kinds of people visit our island for so many different reasons. To know who our customer is requires lots of research. That will dictate not only our messaging, but also the platforms we use to spread that message.

MacLaren (American Hotel & Lodging): I must give a lot of credit to Brand USA for the impact its efforts have had on the hotel industry. Its whole focus around "marketing the welcome" has reaped benefits for so many sectors within the travel and tourism space. If there’s one trait you want your brand to have in this space it’s to be welcoming.

Brown (TourismOhio): What others have said about a brand evoking emotion is very much in line with our thinking. One of the ways to draw emotions is through photos, which are a huge selling point for destinations. However, a key is having the discipline to recognize a photo – even a gorgeous one – and realize that it might not evoke the type of emotion you need it to.

Vecchio (Nevada): Every destination has multiple stakeholders, all of whom have personal agendas. A powerful brand needs to be able to bring them all together and present a collective message. It’s not easy, I’ll admit. Destination brand marketing requires hard decisions and is not for the faint of heart.

Thompson (Brand USA): Branding in the DMO space is less about the geography and more about the delivery of the destination. It’s the seeing, doing, experiencing, and feeling. Most of all, it’s the storytelling about the experiences you’ll have and the memories that will be created in an authentic and genuine way that makes your destination unique. Stories feed the motivators that get people to travel.

McDonald (Fahlgren): You need to resist the temptation to create a brand because you can’t necessarily do that in this space. The brand is already there. We tap into its strengths. This is where curating becomes so important. Finding the thought leaders, figuring out who really has broad credibility, real influence, and tapping into it. A real art to our profession is in curating and then making the best choices from there.

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