I was recently flipping through the January issue of a travel magazine that serves the mid-Atlantic region. Most of the ads and editorial content focused on snow sports like skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and tubing. Keep in mind that I love winter sports. Those ads and articles appeal to me. Still, one ad in the issue practically jumped off the page. It was an ad for whitewater rafting, whose season begins late spring and runs through the summer.

Kudos to this advertiser for understanding two things:

  • Lead times for booking getaways may be getting shorter, but people are still researching — or at least browsing for ideas — far in advance of their trip
  • Remaining top-of-mind means keeping up the marketing all the time

We are looking forward to participating in the Virginia Association of Destination Marketing Organization’s 2018 Tourism Symposium next week in Charlottesville. As a corporate supporter of the organization we will be sponsoring a breakout speaker and both breakfasts.

The session we are sponsoring is a natural fit for us. It is about getting the most out of Google Analytics. As a firm that provides strategic guidance and creative services, generating results for our clients is our highest priority. The goals can vary widely from one campaign to another, so any tool that helps measure and quantify the results is helpful. Our team is creative and analytical at the same time. An unusual combination, I know.

Marketing tourism is quite different from marketing other products. For example, consumers don’t choose a destination the same way they would select a piece of equipment — based on statistics, horsepower, hard drive space, available warranty or even solely on price. People choose where to travel based on the destination’s uniqueness, its story and how powerfully it is presented.

As awesome as Google Analytics is — and we use it every day — here are some things it can’t measure:

  • Enthusiasm – Analytics measures a users time on site, but it can’t see if that person has a big smile on her face or calls out to family and friends “Hey, take a look at this.”
  • Awareness – How many times did a consumer see a print ad, online ad, video, billboard, social media post or bus wrap before finally taking action?
  • Inspiration – Potential visitors need more than to be informed. They need to be inspired. All marketing material, not just websites, need to feature concepts, words and imagery that make people say, “I want to experience that.”

We believe in the importance of all these things in conjunction with having the knowledge and ability to measure that which is measurable. That’s why we’re sponsoring this informative session.

We’re sponsoring breakfast because who doesn’t love bacon?

If you watch news on two different networks you might conclude that they are living in completely different worlds. Sometimes I like the idea of residing in a place where I make the decisions. In the ideal world that exists only in my imagination, here is how things would be for tourism marketers.

• Employers would encourage their workers to take time off. In America alone, 662 million earned vacation days off were left on the table last year. I don't know if employees choose to give up those days in order to ingratiate themselves to the boss to get ahead. I wonder if bosses subtly encourage such behavior. Ideally, bosses would understand that time off results in rejuvenated, hard-working, productive employees.

• By the time someone has earned enough time off from work to go on a vacation, his or her bank account will have accrued precisely the amount needed for a getaway. As long as this whole discussion is based on being in the perfect world let’s take this point a step further. If people can put pre-tax money into a healthcare or retirement account, why not allow tax-advantaged accounts for travel? The benefits for individuals and the economy are well-known.

• Elected officials would have a sophisticated enough understanding of economics to know that tourism marketing is more than just an expense item in the city/county/state budget. It's an investment that when done properly generates way more in economic impact and local tax receipts than the initial outlay. The same cannot be said of all government spending.

• Tourism offices would be adequately funded to effectively market their destination. This should especially apply to the smaller communities that often have rich histories and ultra-cool little-known stories but rarely have the resources to get the word out. These destinations need a fair chance not only to buy ad media but to develop high quality content and advertising materials.

• Businesses that traditionally rely on tourism — such as museums, resorts, hotels, restaurants, outfitters and guides — would realize that they are not in this alone. Local tourism offices are working on their behalf. Marketing a community is a team sport. They should support the official tourism office by staying in touch and helping out when possible.

• Consumers would be savvy enough to be able to see right through bland, misleading and uncreative marketing messages like "You'll find something for everyone."

* Note: That last one was a trick. Consumers are way too smart to fall for lame advertising. Most consumers are open-minded. They want to be inspired to visit unique, off-the-beaten-path places. But they're definitely not gullible.

"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."

I don't know precisely when John Wanamaker uttered this famous quote. He built his retail empire in the late 1800s so he said it long before terms like content marketing, search engine marketing, pay-per-click, or even television had entered the advertising industry consciousness.

Fast forward to 2017… specifically focusing on the destination marketing world… more precisely small to medium-sized destinations that don't enjoy universal brand recognition. I know that far too many communities are wasting money. How? By boring the general public with incredibly banal advertising.

Travelers have a lot of choices. Visitors need to be inspired to take action. Even people who have an innate sense of curiosity and a love for discovery need to be convinced to choose one destination over another. It’s a greater challenge for small and medium-sized communities because they are not likely on anyone’s Bucket List. Not to mention, they usually have smaller budgets. But that is exactly the reason why they can't afford to waste anything.

I have a feeling that Wanamaker’s famous quote is probably a lament about the inability to track results of ads in different media outlets, like magazines and newspapers considering the era in which he lived. Today, I’m applying his point to the creative work. If a destination is putting out advertising that does not make potential visitors gasp, they are wasting money. Print, digital, social or video advertising that does not make people stop in their tracks to read or watch is wasting money. If the message doesn’t make people think “Hmm, I need to know more,” it’s wasting money. If the imagery and style doesn’t make people think “I need to see and experience that with my own eyes,” it’s wasting money. I have never understood why a marketer would invest significant money buying media space only to run amateur ad content. No one is inspired by “Eat Stay Play” as an advertising message.

The hashtag #IfIHadMyWay was trending the other morning. As with every topic on Twitter, some comments were sweet, some were clever and quite a few were political. I chose not to comment at the time, especially with an opinion on politics because I've learned that is one area where I have little chance of ever having it my way. The subject got me thinking about our work as a creative firm serving the tourism marketing industry.

If I had my way, no destination would use "Eat, Stay, Play" ever again in their marketing message. Ever.

If I had my way, tourism promotion budgets would be determined by how cool the destination's story is and not by the unfortunate circumstance of its local or county tax revenue. In other words, small towns with awesome attractions and fascinating tales to tell would have budgets commensurate with larger personality-lacking cities.

If I had my way, tourism marketing professionals would understand that adequate is not OK. Mundane is not acceptable. Mediocrity is actually damaging to your brand. In an industry where people daydream about their next vacation, your marketing material had better be equal to their dream. An ad written and designed by the boss' niece because she's "good at art" is not OK. A Visitor Guide with headlines in Comic Sans portrays a destination as, well, a joke. A shaky, YouTube-quality video does not appeal to someone dreaming of a fun-filled getaway.

If I had my way, travel expenses for at least one leisure trip per year would be tax deductible. Why not? The reason politicians argue for reducing taxes is that it puts more disposable income into people's pockets that they can inject into the economy. Why not encourage folks to take a nice getaway and spend their money in hotels, spas, restaurants, gift shops, theme parks, campgrounds and museums. Not to mention buying gas, souvenirs, camping supplies, concert tickets, beer & wine and other things that all generate tax revenue.

A platform like that just might get me elected.

Continuing our look back on favorite ADDY Award winners over the years, today we look at a campaign chosen by Art Director Heather Young.

Abingdon, Virginia is located about two hours southwest of Roanoke, where our office is located and about 30 minutes from the Virginia-Tennessee border. It's a small town of about 8,000 residents in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. From that quick description you might assume it is a sleepy little town with not much to do. You would be very wrong.

Abingdon is home to three extraordinary tourism draws that a city of any size would love to have.

• The Virginia Creeper Trail – a great rails-to-trails conversion that offers a scenic 35 mile route through the mountains.

• The Barter Theatre – a historic playhouse where stars like Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal and Ernest Borgnine performed.

• The Martha Washington Inn and Spa – a historic property that once served as a private residence, then a make-shift hospital during the Civil War and is currently a four-star hotel located on Abingdon's charming Main Street.

The 2014 award-winning entry that Heather chose is an integrated campaign that utilized several media. The creative work on this campaign was a follow-up to the branding strategy that we had recently completed, so our team had an in-depth understanding of the brand, its goals, its personality and all of the research behind it. The underlying message “It’s always play time in Abingdon” perfectly turns the truth of the brand into a fun consumer message. Reflecting on the campaign, Heather commented, “The Abingdon tourism campaign utilized a wide variety of Mikula-Harris’ capabilities – strategy, branding, print, web, online, out of home, video, etc. The different elements incorporated clever copy with vivid, energetic design,” she said.

There is one more reason why this creative work is a favorite of our talented Art Director. “This is very dear to my heart because it showcases the region where I grew up and lets others see some of the hidden gems of Southwest Virginia that I have always known and loved."

Note: Check out the branding case study and see the award-winning work on our website.

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