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.

Bath County video from WDBJ7

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.

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.

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.

The definition of Brand Essence is “a brand’s fundamental nature or quality.” In other words, it’s the heart and soul of a brand. I’ve also heard it defined as the reason the brand exists in the first place, which may be accurate for corporate brands but is a bit of stretch for community or destination brands.

To really understand the concept, consider what some famous brands say is their essence. Hallmark: Caring Shared. The Nature Conservancy: Saving Great Places. Nike: Authentic Athletic Performance. A Brand Essence is not always written in flowery marketing language. It’s not always meant for the consumer. It does, however, keep the brand itself and all who speak for it focused on what matters. Once in a while it can be for both internal and external audiences. The Nature Conservancy uses Saving Great Places as its consumer messaging, too.

Why is a Brand Essence important to a community or tourism destination brand? Communities are a lot more complex than businesses, which are created by people for the purpose of filling a niche. A business’ Brand Essence is pretty much known when it’s founded. Communities are more diverse. They contain lots of groups with individual agendas. While all are valid and contribute something to the community, some have a greater impact on the personality of the place. Let’s face it, some have the potential to draw more visitors an economic activity than others. That’s what makes finding the Brand Essence difficult while at the same time demonstrating how critical it is. Marketers, including tourism marketers, have a natural predisposition to want to appeal to everyone. Unfortunately, that approach leads to weaker brands not strong ones. So, destinations have to determine what makes them unique and special. Finding those differentiators and putting them into a Brand Essence defines for everyone the “fundamental nature or quality” of the place.

With the recent passing of former President George H. W. Bush we heard a lot about the many virtues that he embodied in his daily life — service, decency, civility, gratitude and humility. What a great example to emulate as individuals and as businesses. As the year comes to an end, I’d like to reflect on how two of them in particular relate to Mikula-Harris.

We are profoundly grateful for our wonderful clients. We remind ourselves daily that our clients have placed a great deal of trust in us. In some instances the marketing decision maker is staking his or her job on their decision to choose us as their agency. In the case of an entrepreneur/business owner, he or she may be placing the future of their business in our hands. It’s a heavy burden but we are strengthened by their confidence. We’re also grateful to our clients for their willingness to invest in creativity. We appreciate how they listen to our ideas and let us run with them. Their willingness to hear our most creative ideas is directly tied to their confidence in us. Double the gratitude.

Being humble and being in the advertising industry are difficult to reconcile. Our job is to boast on behalf of our clients. Occasionally, we even have to boast about ourselves. Thankfully, I have no qualms about bragging about our team. I can rationalize that it’s not quite the same as bragging about me personally. As 2018 comes to an end, I don’t mind telling everyone that our amazing creative team — in collaboration with some incredibly talented partners like photographers, videographers, programmers and printers — have produced some very impressive work.

Highlights include:

  • Our work for the Shenandoah Valley was part of the peer-voted Best in Show winner at the VADMO Virgo Awards. The award went to the Shenandoah Valley partnership on the merits of their program and numerous accomplishments, but we’re still proud that our creative work played a part of the overall judging.
  • A series of videos supporting the “More of what matters” campaign for Mecklenburg County Tourism hit in the middle of the year. That one is doubly satisfying because that campaign won peer-voted Best in Show in the Virgo Awards a couple of years ago.
  • Branding work completed late in 2017 for Winchester, Virginia, has started to appear in media outlets. The full impact of that brand strategy is still being implemented. The tourism office in Winchester continues to build the brand by telling the many stories of people, places and events that make Winchester special.
  • A cool new video describing why Halifax County in southern Virginia is a wonderful place to call home. It will be used by major employers and economic development groups to recruit talent to the region. The video is unpretentious, creative, friendly and beautiful. In other words, it captures the essence of Halifax County.
  • Finally, our team spent a lot of time during 2018 on three great branding projects — two in Virginia and one in Tennessee. The results are being implemented right now but are not quite ready to be revealed. Look for case studies and blog posts on these projects soon.

Happy New Year! We hope your 2019 is filled with happiness and prosperity.

540.774.9932

6 Walnut Avenue • Vinton, Virginia 24179

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