We have written two previous blogs encouraging communities to find ways to make travel and tourism part of the economic recovery in 2021. Our rationale in those earlier blogs was not to offer loans or grants to tourism businesses, although they have certainly been hit hard and deserve some relief. We want to see more travel. We want shops, museums, inns, restaurants, outfitters and hotels to thrive from serving more visitors than ever before. Make the economy work for them better and stronger than ever before.

In those earlier blog posts, we called upon communities to invest in their tourism economy by getting behind their local Destination Marketing Organization and increasing funding not decreasing it. In most cases tourism marketing budgets are dependent on lodging taxes, which have been weak during the pandemic. We continue to believe that the cities, towns and counties who zig when everyone else zags, and find a creative though temporary way to boost tourism marketing will reap the benefits.

Recently we read about another way that one destination is supporting its tourism economy — by paying people to travel. It’s a stimulus plan worth considering. The Falkland Islands is encouraging domestic travel by offering vouchers up to 500 pounds (more than $650 US) per adult and 250 pounds for children.

Could this idea work in the United States? Every time the government offers a stimulus plan, they hope citizens will spend it on retail or travel. Often recipients use it to pay down debt. Why not offer an incentive to travel? Whether it’s a direct payment like a voucher or a tax deduction. It would make a powerful impact on the economy, but the benefits of travel go far beyond economics, which makes the case for an incentive even more compelling.

• Travel brings people closer together — friends, couples, families, even multiple generations of family — through shared experiences and memories.

• It’s always a learning experience. Even if the itinerary doesn’t seem educational like visiting museums, people still learn just by being on the road. They learn about geography by getting a firsthand look at different landscapes or grasping the distances between places; and history by understanding how a place was influenced by it settlers, location and events.

• It fosters understanding between people of different cultures and backgrounds.

Anything that encourages travel sounds like a decent idea to us. What do you think? Would you travel within the U.S. if offered a voucher or a tax deduction?

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.

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.

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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