A few weeks ago in this space, we published a post titled “Make Tourism Part of the Comeback.” I think a lot of people interpreted it as a gentle reminder, “Hey, don’t forget about travel and tourism.” Readers not in the tourism industry probably thought of the blog as a suggestion to use their wallets to help businesses by returning to travel as soon as they were comfortable with it. That’s a great thing to do, but I think it’s time for bolder action.

I want to be clear on exactly what we meant in the original post. Now is not the time to cut spending on destination marketing. Unfortunately, in many cases, DMO budgets are directly tied to lodging tax collection, which has obviously come to a screeching halt. So, that’s the end of the story? Wrong. We’re calling on community leaders to be bold, forward thinking and creative. Find a way to invest in tourism marketing now in order to hasten your community’s recovery. There are endless stories around the country of politicians trying — and too often succeeding — in diverting lodging taxes that should be used for tourism promotion to some other pet project when times are good and money is flowing in. Isn’t now the right time to turn the tables and let funds flow to tourism instead of away from it?

Tourism marketing is not like most other line items on a budget. It’s an expense that is also an investment. Tourism is a revenue generator. Travelers not only fork over money to businesses and attractions that desperately need it (who then put it to good use providing jobs), they also deposit money directly into local tax coffers including lodging, sales, meals, gas and, in some cases, ticket taxes. When things are going well and the economy is humming along, local elected officials are in love with tourism and very happy to have that tax money.

We are in the midst of a major economic crisis right now. The road back to prosperity is not going to be easy or quick. The communities that are wise enough to invest in marketing at a time when others are slashing the marketing budgets will come out ahead in the long run.

The combination of a strong brand and effective marketing are more important than ever as destinations emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. To be clear, it really mattered before the crisis hit. This situation has turned a lot of things about life in America completely upside down, but it has actually clarified the role of brands and marketing. The good news — for some destinations — is that destinations that have a solid foundation of good branding and marketing are in a position to recover faster.

Keep in mind that a strong brand and excellent marketing are related but definitely distinct things.

• A destination’s brand is what people think of the place whenever they are reminded of it. It’s a set of emotions. It can’t be completely controlled but it can be strongly influenced. What makes a branding effort successful is understanding what makes a place special and using every opportunity to portray it truthfully to the public.

• Marketing is heavily influenced by the brand strategy. At a bare minimum, it steers the message so that it speaks about the destination’s strengths in a way that appeals to the most likely target audience. Ideally, everything about the marketing is creative and professional. Plus, the marketing plan should be balanced and robust. It’s building brand awareness and engaging people all the time in as many ways as possible. Marketing is the necessary hard work — the muscle, if you will — that pushes the brand in front of people.

Why do we say that both are more important than ever as we emerge from the coronavirus disaster?

There are well-know benefits to having a strong brand, including:
Recognition and recall — That will be helpful as consumers have been temporarily focused on other things, like childcare, working from home, providing their family with the basic necessities.
Trust — It’s earned over time by being honest, consistent and familiar to consumers

The benefits of investing in high-quality, aggressive marketing are:
 – Awareness — Which is typically considered the first level of the marketing funnel. The simple truth is, having more consumers in any stage of the marketing funnel puts a destination in a better, competitive position to convert them to visitors quickly when people begin traveling again.

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.

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.

It has been a long time in the making but I’m happy to announce that Mikula-Harris has just launched a new website. Like many agencies, we get so busy with client work that our own site took a back seat for a while. We hope you’ll spend a few minutes clicking around and then let us know on Facebook what you think.

Here are five things we want you to know about our new website:

1. Our design team spent a lot of time on the Work Samples section. Partially because it’s difficult select samples from over 25 years of work but also because we wanted to show a wide variety of projects and tell you a little bit about what we did for each client. We significantly beefed up this section compared to our previous site.

2. We’re a bit more philosophical in this site. Mixed in with telling you who we are and what we do, we offer some insights into how we think and what is important to us — like being genuine partners to clients, our belief in the power of creativity, the importance of research and how it actually makes the creativity sharper, and our thoughts on how to build strong brands.

3. The blog is now integrated into the website. Previously, it was a separate site. Even though we had a link to it, we think many people overlooked it. We hope you will bookmark it and return often. This post you’re reading now happens to be all about us and our new website, but that is a unique situation. We try to make them educational, topical, thought-provoking and fun.

4. The Expertise page talks about the importance of both talent and experience. Members of our team bring an enormous depth of experience to the table, such as art direction, research, problem solving, media strategy and more. Yes, indeed, Mikula-Harris has earned a reputation as experts in tourism branding and marketing, but we also have clients in other industries. As long as they share our core beliefs on partnership, creativity and collaboration, we enjoy doing great work for a wide array of clients.

5. What is the most important page on the site? Answer: The Contact page. We can’t help new clients until we create a connection, which is very easy to do through the simple form on the Contact page. We LOVE launching brands and taking existing brands to greater levels of success. We are passionate about developing advertising and marketing solutions by using research and exceptional creativity. We really enjoy getting to know our client’s products and what makes them unique. None of that is possible until we connect. It all begins with a “Hello.” 

540.774.9932

6 Walnut Avenue • Vinton, Virginia 24179

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