Some exciting news has been filling my social media feed for the last 24 hours. A new scenic trail will soon run from New Castle to Eagle Rock running roughly parallel to Craig Creek. For those unfamiliar with these small towns, the trail will be just north of Roanoke, Va, in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. This is fantastic news for the Craig and Botetourt counties where the two trailheads will be located. 

As a tourism marketer, two thoughts come to mind.

1. During the announcement of the funding for this new trail, the comparison has been made to the Virginia Creeper Trail. As much as we love the Creeper Trail – we designed a website for the conservancy — perhaps a better comparison would be to the Jackson River Scenic Trail in the Alleghany Highlands. The Jackson River trail runs parallel to, you guessed it, the Jackson River. It features some of the finest scenery on any rail-trail in Virginia. At times riders or walkers enjoy views of the river on one side and fields and distant mountains on the other. The trail’s final segment is under construction right now. When finished it will stretch from Alleghany into Bath County.

2. While community leaders are surely focused on the funding, planning and construction of the new trail right now, we hope they will not take marketing lightly. Thankfully, Botetourt County has the benefit of following the excellent example of another trail that has had a significant impact on economic development — the Upper James River Water Trail. The lesson to be learned is if you build it they will come only works in the movies. The Upper James River Water Trail is certainly one of the most successful examples of a blueway or water trail in Virginia precisely because from the moment of creation the organizers had a plan and funding for marketing. More importantly, they have continued to support it with a modest budget every year since it launched. It doesn’t always take a lot of money, but consistent marketing is crucial to the success of any tourism-centric trail. 

Many colleagues, clients and friends are aware of the unique relationship that Mikula-Harris has had with the Bath County Office of Tourism in recent years. Some have watched with interest to see what this partnership achieved for the county to see if there might be implications for similar collaboration in the future. There have been recent developments in the county. This is the perfect time for an update and a look at the past and future of tourism marketing in Bath County.

In the spring of 2019, Bath County tourism was in a slump. Frankly, that’s putting it mildly. The county had been without a tourism director for a while and lost significant momentum. Local businesses were feeling the sting because the previous tourism director was a dynamic and hard-working professional who created a fantastic program. The long vacancy in the department is what caused the slump. Thankfully, we had worked with the previous director years earlier who helped us understand the people and assets that make Bath County special. We built the website and designed their visitor guide. When the county hired us to handle pretty much every aspect of tourism marketing, we were prepared to hit the ground running.

What Bath County needed from Mikula-Harris was not like a typical client-agency relationship. It placed the entire burden of succeeding squarely on our shoulders. The truth is, we liked that. It allowed us to emulate every successful tactic we’d observed over our careers and, more importantly, to avoid every mistake that we had seen tourism offices make.

Here is some of what we did:

• We developed a balanced media plan that included print, digital, social media and a small amount of broadcast. Balance is critical. We chose media outlets based on their demographics and reach. Bath County isn’t exactly as well-known as Richmond or Virginia Beach, so building brand awareness was a key objective.

• We launched an e-newsletter so that we could re-market to hot prospects. We hoped this tool would convert prospects into actual visitors, as well as turn visitors into repeat customers. We designed the newsletter to be more than a list of upcoming events, which is a common format for destination newsletters. The newsletter actually helps to reinforce the core brand messages. It communicates the main reasons why Bath County is special and worth visiting. Of course, it promotes events, too.

• We were determined to make maximum use of social media. Even with a large following, social media isn’t free, but it is affordable. We budgeted accordingly to ensure that our messages were widely seen. That message, much like the newsletter, is more than blatant marketing. We strived to offer a variety of content that was interesting, informative and consistent with other brand messaging. Social media grew to become the third leading source of website clicks, usually behind organic search and paid search.

• Because content is so important to social media success, we added a few new things to the website and shared them generously. The new blog has been wildly successful. We added themed itineraries and a page to feature package deals offered by lodging properties. Among the top 50 most viewed pages on the website, 16 of them didn’t exist prior to our partnership.

• We identified the motorcycle touring and scenic drives market as an area for growth. We developed a brochure that features five loop rides. We put all five rides and some additional information on a robust scenic drives page on the website. Then, we promoted the niche with some advertising and social media exposure. The online version of the brochure gets tons of views and we have had to reprint the paper brochure. Perhaps the best indication of the success of this initiative is that the scenic drives page has been the second most viewed page of the website, second only to the homepage.

That is a pretty solid list of marketing achievements. How can we measure if they have brought about real results? That can be difficult, especially with an unprecedented global pandemic in the mix. Some things can be measured. Website traffic during the final six months of FY22 averaged 2.4x more than the six months prior to the start of our partnership with Bath County. There have been months where the traffic is more than triple where we started, but a six-month average seems like a fair, if not conservative, measure of how far the program has come.

Website traffic, along with inquiries and social media engagement, are good indicators of the caliber of the marketing. Does that put heads in beds, as tourism folks like to say? Eventually, it does. No one ever emerged from the marketing funnel as a customer without first going into the top of the funnel. The annual Economic Impact Report for 2021 was just released. The report measures direct visitor spending in each county and independent city in Virginia. The travel industry is rebounding from a terrible year in 2020. The average year over year increase across the Commonwealth was 44%. Direct visitor spending in Bath County exceeded that with a 60.3% increase. Only seven communities out of the 133 measured saw an increase of 60% or more.

While we’re proud of what we have done for Bath County over the past three years, change is inevitable. The growth of tourism in the county — and the desire to have greater local control over how occupancy tax dollars are spent — have lead community leaders to form a tourism board and hire a full-time president. It’s a logical step in the evolution of the program. The new team inherits a solid destination marketing program. As the recovery continues and more occupancy tax dollars become available for marketing, their objective is to take the program to new heights.

The future is bright for Bath County. The historic Jefferson Pools, which have been closed for several years, are being meticulously restored. They will be re-opening soon. The Omni Homestead Resort is in the midst of a major renovation that will make the grand resort one of the finest in the nation. There has been a renaissance in family farming, which pleases local chefs offering farm-to-table dining experiences. We predict continued success for Bath County tourism.

No one knows quite like ad agencies, how important every single word can be. We give extensive thought to every word and phrase. We choose words carefully because what we’re writing has to be descriptive yet concise. It has to impress the reader even though we’re writing for a wide audience with differing levels of reading comprehension. We also consider pace, cadence and alliteration, especially if we’re writing a script that will be read by professional voice talent.

So far in Mikula-Harris’ 30 year history, our choice of words in an ad has not caused an international incident. That was not the case when Turkey recently launched a tourism campaign. To most Americans, the TurkAegean campaign seems harmless. It’s a made up word formed by combining two others, like advertorial or frenemy. Not to mention, Turkey’s west coast is on the eastern side of the Aegean Sea. In some parts of the world where centuries old disagreements exist, a single word can cause tension. The campaign stirred up old feelings about control of the Aegean.

Not only has Mikula-Harris avoided causing any geo-political tension, we actually helped ease some. Well, actually they’re more local, but still passionate positions that needed to be handled deftly. While doing a tourism branding project in West Virginia, we learned that the county that hired us had three distinct areas. One was the county seat where most of the local commerce was located. Another was an area known as the Lost River Valley. It’s a picturesque region with mountains, rolling farmland, and a few high-end B&Bs. The third was a small but growing town that was located on a busy road that a lot of visitors traveled on their way through this county to nearby ski resorts. In this small town, some local businesses had recently popped up using the name Lost River. That did not sit well with the purists in the Lost River Valley. It wasn’t truthful and genuine, they thought, since the town was literally on the other side of a mountain and thus not located in the valley. After assessing the big picture, we advised the client that visitors are not concerned with artificial boundaries like town or county lines and most certainly do not care about what constitutes a valley. We assured them all that with the town serving as a gateway to the Lost River Valley it genuinely helped support and promote the brand. We saw it as a win-win. A few months later at a wonderful dinner at one of those charming B&Bs, a group of local business owners from both the valley and the nearby town all dined together and actually raised a glass to toast Mikula-Harris as the peacemaker. All they needed was an outside expert with no pre-conceived bias, to point out that they’re stronger together. That branding work won some awards, yet the Nobel still eludes us.

Q. The business is 30 years old. To what do you attribute the longevity?

A. So many factors come to mind. Here are a few, not in any particular order of importance.

• Perseverance. It definitely sucks to hear “no” when you submit a proposal or make a great pitch, but you just have to move on to the next opportunity.

• Sacrifice. Many times you work late, arrive early, work weekends, spend time away from family and friends. Not to mention, during some slow periods you might get by with less. During those tough times, you can have confidence that things will improve because it’s in your hands not someone else’s.

• Partnership. Much of the stress and sacrifice I just mentioned are shared because I have a business partner. The weight is distributed over multiple sets of shoulders. We all know how mush easier it is for two people to wrangle heavy furniture up a flight of stairs than it is for one. Come to think of it, we’ve actually done that a few time. Plus, separately we’re bound to make our share of mistakes, but when we make major decisions about the direction of the business together, we get it right more often than not.

• Stubbornness. After 30 years of being a business co-owner, I can’t imagine ever working for someone else in a traditional boss-employee relationship.

Q. How has the business evolved?

A. Keep in mind that our business launched in 1992. Technology has changed every aspect of life and business since then. The original name of our firm was Inprint. We chose that name because we were experts at all facets of print media, from concept through ink on paper. We bought a lot of printing on behalf of clients. Thirty years later, the notion of a firm specializing in print media sounds quaint and perhaps a bit absurd. In 1992, the internet was in its infancy. Websites were not common.

Our firm grew into a full-service ad agency. Today, print media is a relatively small percentage of our business. We have found great success with branding. We help clients with strategic direction, including developing media plans. We provide creative services for every imaginable end use — print, online, social media, out-of-home, and broadcast and video.

Q. What are some memorable projects?

A. There were some great projects for U.S. Foods, like food shows that had themes like Mardi Gras, Wild West or Hollywood. We really had a chance to get super creative with those. In the early years of our business, we created logos and other things for performances at Mill Mountain Theatre. Of course, the actual logo designs were done entirely by my business partner and creative director, but I got to interact with the marketing people at the theater who were all incredibly fun and creative personalities. More recently, we have done some exceptional work for local tourism offices. It’s gratifying to see it succeed and increase visitation. Obviously, I have a unique and biased perspective on this, but I think our team has helped to launch some of the strongest local tourism brands in the mid-Atlantic.

Q. How did your agency’s specialty in travel and tourism develop?

A. Over the course of 30 years, we have had clients in tourism, foodservice, higher education, assisted living, non-profit, automotive and many more. All of those industries are interesting and we have learned much about each of them, but we really wanted to be able to supply expert and nuanced guidance to our clients. Tourism is an industry in which creativity really matters. We chose to really work hard to serve the travel and tourism sector and develop a reputation as a firm that gets results by using research, data, experience and exceptional creative work. Our entire team has learned a lot about destination marketing. I have genuinely immersed myself in it and I still find it fun and challenging every single day. I have attended more tourism industry events than advertising industry events. I have even had the pleasure to speak at industry conferences and conduct educational webinars, something I would not have predicted 30 years ago.

Q. What’s next for Mikula-Harris?

A. I hope it doesn’t sound corny, because I think it’s true, that we are producing some of our best work ever right now. Creatively, our current team is firing on all cylinders. We are hyper-focused on continuing to produce nothing but great work. We want clients who agree that quality and creativity move the needle in advertising.

Q. What advice do you have for young people?

A. Let me answer this in multiple parts.

First, to young people beginning their career with a graphic design firm or agency, your talent and creativity is what will make you valuable to your employer. Don’t be shy about sharing ideas even if they’re spur-of-the-moment and not highly polished. Be bizarrely, weirdly, wildly creative in all things. Imagine how strange the conversation must have been in the conference room when someone said, “I got it, let’s use a talking gecko that walks upright to sell insurance.” Think like that. At the same time, expand your abilities by constantly learning from those around you.

Second, the entrepreneurial spirit is wonderful but it’s not for everyone. As a business owner, you carry some weight on your shoulders and put a lot at risk. I would never discourage anyone from launching a business, but I suggest giving serious consideration to how you’d handle stress and responsibility. Not only is your own income and future in your hands, so is that of the people who work for you. After very careful thought, if you’re comfortable accepting the stress, supremely confident in your skills and the thought of being your own boss is appealing, then go for it.

Finally, enjoy every minute of your career because it goes by fast.

A major objective of both a marketing program and retirement planning is growth. Both short-term and long-term. It’s easier to measure the growth in your investments because the results show up on your statement each month. Sometimes the balance goes up and sometimes it decreases, but it’s always there and crystal clear. In marketing, however, some advertising options are chosen for maximum impressions to build brand awareness. It’s not so easy to measure but definitely important. 

The first comparison to make is diversification. With a marketing program and an investment strategy, you don’t want all your eggs in one basket. Every expert will say that’s risky. A balanced marketing plan may include some effort or spending in social media, print publications, targeted online display ads, Search Engine Marketing (SEM), re-targeting efforts like newsletters, and depending upon the budget possibly television, radio or out-of-home advertising. The exact right balance of all those media depends on your product, feeder markets and visitor demographics. The important point is that balance is best.

Can you spread your marketing too thin? Yes you can. This is where the diversification metaphor is slightly imperfect. You can diversify too much. For example, it’s not reasonable to place an ad in a single issue of a magazine (because you’re trying to spread your limited budget to include ads in as many places as possible) and then wonder why there wasn’t a spike in phone calls and website clicks. You’ll be much better off zeroing in on fewer publications that are the absolute best for reaching your target demographic, and advertising consistently throughout the year.

There is yet another way in which a marketing program is like an investment plan, one that way too many marketers overlook. Even after protecting yourself with the right degree of diversification, don’t you still want every single marketing initiative to be performing at the highest possible level?

Ideally, every stock or mutual fund in your 401K is not just growing, but outperforming the market in general. In marketing, you need every advantage to ensure that each initiative is getting the best results possible. One key is quality creative work that gets noticed, clicked and remembered. Another is the best possible targeting and keywords. Metrics like click-thru-rates (CTR) measure the efficiency of a campaign. In other words, more bang for the buck. With e-mail marketing, the click-thrus and open rates are the key metrics. The quality of the content, design, subject line, and smart use of links can increase performance in email.

Now that your destination marketing plan has balance and consists of a variety of tools, all of which were well researched first, its time to monitor the results. Have realistic expectations. Some initiatives should start to show website clicks promptly while others take longer to work. Before throwing in the towel on any of the tools, ask if there is anything you can do to make them perform better. For example, can the creative work be better? Is the landing page truly designed for conversions? Can the online and social media targeting be improved? Tinker with all these things and more to make each and every marketing project a star performer. 


6 Walnut Avenue • Vinton, Virginia 24179

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