No industry will be unaffected by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Some will experience setbacks and others will be utterly devastated. Many of our clients are in the tourism and hospitality sector so we are keenly attuned to that industry. There is no way to sugarcoat it – They are being hit very hard. You don’t have to work in tourism to know that. It’s been widely covered in the media.

Not only does the travel industry support a lot of jobs, it also generates a lot of state and local taxes such as lodging, meals, sales and ticket taxes on concerts and special events. When tourism slows, it impacts the revenue to local governments, which generally run on lean budgets anyway. The ripple effect could be felt by many municipal departments for a long time to come.

The loss of tourism-generated revenue should serve as a stark reminder of not only the good times when people were vacationing and hotel occupancy was good, but of how there is always room for improvement and growth. The travel and hospitality industry that has been so hard hit also has the potential to play a huge role in the recovery. Entire communities are suffering economically. Now, more than ever, tourism promotion needs to be viewed as an investment and not merely another line-item expense on a municipal budget. The communities that understand that will reap the rewards.

I have always liked out-of-home advertising because it offers such a great opportunity for creativity. Some out-of-home options like billboards, busses or metro stations can accommodate larger-than-life, eye-popping ads.

A campaign for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, got my attention the other day in an industry e-newsletter. It makes very clever use of the space. It’s more than just a big poster ad. They turned this into a mini experience that is sure to be a conversation starter and maybe even a selfie opportunity. Sitting on that bench/chairlift with that awesome image of the Tetons in the background — most likely while you’re in the midst of your daily commute — surely makes a skier or snowboarder think, “I gotta get out of Chicago and go there.” Heck, I’m thinking that just from reading the article in my office in Virginia.

Even though out-of-home advertising results are difficult to track, this campaign reinforces something we have preached for many years. Great advertising — which means creative messaging, strong imagery, and clever use of whatever medium you happen to be working within — moves consumers through the sales funnel at lighting speed. Whereas, lame creative work doesn’t inspire anyone to take action. Weak advertising moves people through the sales funnel at a glacially slow pace, like waiting in a long lift line at a crowded ski resort.

As a refresher, you might want to take a quick look at the previous blog post. It summarizes some of the recent successes with Bath County Tourism, including a nearly 40% increase in web traffic over the same period a year earlier. Plus, we launched a couple of new initiatives including a Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure and a consumer e-newsletter to people whose information we had been capturing via the website. Today, we’re going to share with you how we were able to accomplish these successes in a short period on a modest budget.

Set Goals — Without them it’s easy to get distracted and begin rationalizing how other things deserve your attention not to mention your limited marketing money. Once you have set your goals, devise tactics and a media plan to achieve them. Stay focused.

Create a Balanced Media Plan — There is no absolute right answer to the vexing question of what percentage of a media budget should go toward online vs print vs broadcast vs other methods. One thing we know, anyone who says to go all in 100% with just one outlet is a fool. In the case of Bath County, since increasing web traffic was a major goal, we purposefully created a media plan with significant investment in online options, including a foundation of SEM and Google Display advertising. Whenever applicable, we negotiated packages with print media publications to include advertising on their website and in their highly targeted e-newsletters.

Invest in Quality Creative — One of the great conundrums of destination marketing is that small, rural destinations need the highest caliber marketing materials even though they have the smallest budgets. Average destinations are a dime a dozen. In order to compete, the smaller ones have to stand out and make people say “wow.” That’s accomplished with professional creative work. In our opinion, it’s not worth the cost of buying an ad in a media outlet if the ad is low quality. It will hurt the brand not grow it. Make quality a priority.

Be Selective. Be Decisive. Be Bold — In previous posts we talked about launching the Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure, a consumer e-newsletter and making a concerted effort to build the county’s reputation for world-class fishing. Early indications are that all of these are yielding results. We knew from the beginning that these would all require effort and money in the future. We could have come up with at least a half-dozen other projects but we chose these based on research and experience. Any niche initiative — wine and beer trails are popular examples — requires funding in every fiscal year not just the first one. “If you build it they will come” only works in the movies. A trail or other program is an attraction like a shop or museum and it needs to be marketed continuously. Once we settled on these projects because of their potential for success, we committed adequate marketing funds to each of them.

Harness Social Media — Even before Mikula-Harris began its partnership with the county, the office of tourism in Bath County had embraced social media. The official tourism Facebook account has twice as many followers as there are residents in Bath County. We’re now using that strength to achieve our goals. We’re sharing quality content, engaging our fans, and driving traffic to the website. It’s a powerful marketing tool that can reach a large audience with a small investment.

Keep the Main Thing The Main Thing — Before spending money on media, initiatives, projects or partnerships, we asked the question, “Will this advance our goals and be good for the long term viability of the brand?” If it doesn’t check both boxes, perhaps the money can be better spent on something else. Nothing is more important than the integrity of the brand.

One final note, the tourism businesses in Bath County, including lodging properties, shops, attractions and restaurants, have been extraordinary partners. They all understand the concept of a rising tide lifting all boats. All have been wonderfully supportive and generous. Because of them, 2020 is looking bright for Bath County tourism.

Early in the spring of 2019, Mikula-Harris entered into a unique partnership with Bath County to provide strategic and creative guidance to its office of tourism. The relationship allowed us to steer the tourism program in a few significant ways:

• exercise creative influence over the advertising, messaging and design

• build a media plan for advertising and marketing

• bring all aspects of the Bath County tourism brand into alignment, including social media

• establish priorities by launching new initiatives and scaling back others

We were given a budget and tasked with getting maximum impact for the county, its citizens and its tourism-related businesses. We began planning and negotiating immediately even though our budget didn’t become available until the start of a new fiscal year on July 1, 2019. We began to see modest results sooner mostly because of our social media activity driving some web traffic. After July 1, things kicked into higher gear. Here are some insights on what has happened and why:

• The media plan contains a mix of print and digital advertising, but definitely more digital than previous years. Print is needed to build brand awareness, which is not easy to measure, while digital advertising builds awareness while also delivering traffic to the website. All our advertising is as targeted as possible, whether by interest, location within driving distance of Bath County, or some other criteria.

• Using recent research, we identified some key areas that we believe could be strong growth areas for tourism in the county and we committed to pursuing them relentlessly. One is scenic drives including motorcycle riders. Second is building upon the county’s growing reputation for great fishing, which got a boost in spring of 2019 when some entrepreneurs launched a fly-fishing festival.

• We designed and printed a Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure that includes details on five routes that begin and end in Bath County. It is displayed at select Virginia Welcome Centers and certain local visitor centers. The online flipbook version has been promoted on social media. It has been viewed online 550 times with an average read time of 2:13 since it launched in September. More marketing to support this niche is scheduled for the spring.

• In September, we sent the first ever consumer e-newsletter to keep in touch with people who have opted-in through the website. At first this e-newsletter will be published quarterly but that may change depending on its popularity. The newsletter offers insights and ideas about why to visit Bath County and what to do when here. It’s filled with links to the website, including the lodging and dining pages to make it easy for people to plan a trip. The first issue had a 28% Open Rate and a staggering 24% Click Rate.

• Between July 1 and October 31, website traffic to the official tourism site of discoverbath.com is up about 30% over the same period in 2018. Website analytics can confirm that the traffic is resulting from our initiatives and viewing the pages we want them to view. For example, online ads for scenic drives and fishing lead directly to relevant landing pages. They are the second and third most viewed pages on the website behind only the Home page.

Those are just a few specific examples of propelling the brand forward and achieving measurable results. Other good things are happening, too. We have had regular meetings with tourism stakeholders to report on everything being done to promote the county. Keeping the lines of communication open is helping to build strong partnerships. There is a wonderful sense of teamwork between the office of tourism and local businesses. We also applied for and received a grant from Virginia Tourism Corporation that will allow even more marketing opportunities. Finally, Hot Springs was recently awarded Top Adventure Town status by Blue Ridge outdoors magazine. A lot of people voted for Hot Springs, but I believe in my heart that the official tourism social media outlets lead the get out the vote drive.

Now that we have shared some specific accomplishments and statistics, the third and final post on this subject will offer some thoughts on the strategy and guiding principles behind the decisions that produce the results.

A lot of people have been curious about the partnership established between Bath County and Mikula-Harris. It’s an interesting story that will one day become an extensive case study or white paper. In the meantime, we want to share what we’re doing and the results that are being achieved. This is the first of what will surely be several blog posts on the subject.

It’s definitely a unique relationship. The county basically outsourced most of the functions of the Office of Tourism, including providing strategic and creative direction to the marketing, working closely with the administration on budgeting, and communicating with local tourism partners to build relationships and foster teamwork.

It’s not a typical client/agency relationship, but the stars aligned for this partnership to become possible. As conversations progressed and the agreement began to take shape, I knew in my heart that it was going to be successful — a genuine win-win situation the way we hope every relationship will be. Today, let’s talk about what makes this relationship unique and why it was so perfectly poised for success.

A. Mikula-Harris has experience in Bath County. We knew the brand and some of the key players. We were not starting from scratch. Sure, we had the challenge of re-gaining some lost momentum, but at least there was a solid foundation in place.

B. We often consult with clients on media and advertising plans. In many cases, clients accept some of our counsel and mix in some of their own preferences. In the case of Bath County, the responsibility for developing the plan was entirely on us. Results would rise or fall because of our strategy. We’ll take that any day of the week. We crafted a plan that took advantage of every discount, buy down, cost share, and value-added bonus we could find. We’re delivering maximum bang for the county’s bucks.

C. The creative work is handled much like the media plan. We answer to the county administrator who hired us because we’re experts at what we do. We share ideas accompanied by research and rationale. We’re held to a high standard but in the end we are not being micro-managed. Once again, we’ll take that scenario any day of the week because we’re confident that we’ll get results. So, we have developed new creative work that we believe will be effective AND it’s paired with our media strategy.

D. In addition to tending to details like the media plan, we had the opportunity to step back and view the big picture of where the tourism program is headed. We considered new markets to pursue, new ways to reach people beyond traditional advertising and new ways to form partnerships. We identified a few key areas for growth and launched a couple of new initiatives, including a Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure and a consumer e-newsletter.

So, how is it all working out? What kind of results are we seeing? You have probably heard the term “Taking names and kicking butt.” We’re literally taking names and metaphorically kicking butt. The next blog post will analyze some results to date.

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