Lately, there is not much on the evening news that puts me in a good mood. This brief mention of tourism in Bath County, however, made our entire team happy. This is what we work for.
This segment on WDBJ in Roanoke is just a brief update, but if it were a more in-depth examination of the post-pandemic tourism recovery in Bath County, what else might be included in the report?
It’s true there is pent up demand for travel and a lot of destinations are seeing visitors return. It’s also true that Bath County has amazing lodging properties that all have loyal repeat visitors who are likely itching to return to what they have missed for more than a year. If it seems like Bath County is slightly ahead of some (but not all) destinations, I for one will not be surprised. I don’t believe in coincidences.
During the pandemic when some destinations paused marketing, the county Office of Tourism proceeded with most of its planned advertising. The message was carefully crafted, but the objective was to remain top-of-mind when travel resumed.
The targeted advertising included 1.8 million impressions in print outlets; 3.1 million impressions on online outlets including websites and e-newsletters; 404,000 video impressions, including online pre-roll and streaming TV services.
Over the past 12 months, traffic to DiscoverBath.com was up 50% over the same period a year earlier. That followed a 57% between last year and the year before. Page views have more than doubled within two years.
Bath County tourism marketing was on the rise before the pandemic struck and brought travel to a complete stand still. We were confident at the time that the solid metrics of website traffic, visitor guide requests, newsletter opt-ins and social media followers combined with the decision to continue marketing through the downturn would all lead to a swift and robust recovery. We will not know economic impact numbers for quite a while, but early indicators suggest that we were correct.
The Mikula-Harris team is just getting started on a branding project for the Town of Appomattox, VA. It’s a cool small town located east of Lynchburg. The drive between our office in Vinton and Appomattox is especially wonderful because most of the miles are in Bedford County. Returning from a meeting recently, I was driving west on Route 460. Once past the congestion of Lynchburg, you begin to see the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. As the sun slowly sank on the horizon, I was reminded where the inspiration for the ad campaign “Where Ordinary Ends, Bedford Begins” came from as well as the line of ad copy “To the east and west are bustling cities, but in between is pure bliss.”
The message perfectly hits the nail right on the head for Bedford. We knew instinctively that the branding and creative work we did for Destination Bedford was gold. Now that some time has passed, we’re able to see that it’s helping move the needle. All of the newly branded campaign materials hit the street in early 2020. The website launched in March and traffic grew steadily all through the year. There were three times as many users and page views in April 2021 than during the same period in 2020.
What are the reasons for this success? As with most tourism marketing success stories, it’s not a single magic thing. It’s a combination of things:
• The new website follows all best practices for SEO. Result: Organic Search as a source of traffic is up 490%.
• Social media as a source of traffic is way up because the team at Destination Bedford is working hard at consistently posting quality content.
• The management and marketing team at Destination Bedford is investing its advertising budget in the right places — building brand awareness and generating website traffic.
The future looks bright for tourism growth in Bedford County. In the meantime, the present is pure bliss.
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.