Early in the spring of 2019, Mikula-Harris entered into a unique partnership with Bath County to provide strategic and creative guidance to its office of tourism. The relationship allowed us to steer the tourism program in a few significant ways:

• exercise creative influence over the advertising, messaging and design

• build a media plan for advertising and marketing

• bring all aspects of the Bath County tourism brand into alignment, including social media

• establish priorities by launching new initiatives and scaling back others

We were given a budget and tasked with getting maximum impact for the county, its citizens and its tourism-related businesses. We began planning and negotiating immediately even though our budget didn’t become available until the start of a new fiscal year on July 1, 2019. We began to see modest results sooner mostly because of our social media activity driving some web traffic. After July 1, things kicked into higher gear. Here are some insights on what has happened and why:

• The media plan contains a mix of print and digital advertising, but definitely more digital than previous years. Print is needed to build brand awareness, which is not easy to measure, while digital advertising builds awareness while also delivering traffic to the website. All our advertising is as targeted as possible, whether by interest, location within driving distance of Bath County, or some other criteria.

• Using recent research, we identified some key areas that we believe could be strong growth areas for tourism in the county and we committed to pursuing them relentlessly. One is scenic drives including motorcycle riders. Second is building upon the county’s growing reputation for great fishing, which got a boost in spring of 2019 when some entrepreneurs launched a fly-fishing festival.

• We designed and printed a Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure that includes details on five routes that begin and end in Bath County. It is displayed at select Virginia Welcome Centers and certain local visitor centers. The online flipbook version has been promoted on social media. It has been viewed online 550 times with an average read time of 2:13 since it launched in September. More marketing to support this niche is scheduled for the spring.

• In September, we sent the first ever consumer e-newsletter to keep in touch with people who have opted-in through the website. At first this e-newsletter will be published quarterly but that may change depending on its popularity. The newsletter offers insights and ideas about why to visit Bath County and what to do when here. It’s filled with links to the website, including the lodging and dining pages to make it easy for people to plan a trip. The first issue had a 28% Open Rate and a staggering 24% Click Rate.

• Between July 1 and October 31, website traffic to the official tourism site of discoverbath.com is up about 30% over the same period in 2018. Website analytics can confirm that the traffic is resulting from our initiatives and viewing the pages we want them to view. For example, online ads for scenic drives and fishing lead directly to relevant landing pages. They are the second and third most viewed pages on the website behind only the Home page.

Those are just a few specific examples of propelling the brand forward and achieving measurable results. Other good things are happening, too. We have had regular meetings with tourism stakeholders to report on everything being done to promote the county. Keeping the lines of communication open is helping to build strong partnerships. There is a wonderful sense of teamwork between the office of tourism and local businesses. We also applied for and received a grant from Virginia Tourism Corporation that will allow even more marketing opportunities. Finally, Hot Springs was recently awarded Top Adventure Town status by Blue Ridge outdoors magazine. A lot of people voted for Hot Springs, but I believe in my heart that the official tourism social media outlets lead the get out the vote drive.

Now that we have shared some specific accomplishments and statistics, the third and final post on this subject will offer some thoughts on the strategy and guiding principles behind the decisions that produce the results.

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.” 

A few days ago was World Photography Day, marking 177 years of the art and science of photography. The value of photography is of special importance to those of us in advertising. The chances of an ad capturing attention and then stirring up emotions are a thousand times more likely with great imagery (this applies to both photo and video images). You might think this is something that everyone can agree on. However, the prevalence of digital cameras, iPhones and YouTube has lowered many people's standard of what is acceptable. To us, anything less than professional photo and video work is, well, unprofessional.

I'd like to take this discussion even a step further. There is one thing — and only one thing — that moves advertising photography and video from good to great, or from great to greater. That one thing is art direction by an advertising professional. Art directors are not on site to second guess the photographer or force them to compromise on their talents. An art director looking over Ansel Adams’ shoulder would not have made his work more breathtaking. In the field of advertising, however, where a photo or video is being shot not just as art but as a means to communicate a message, an art director is vital. After all, the very message being communicated and the vision for the campaign may have originated with him or her. On location an art director is thinking ahead to details that most people would never consider. Are the proportions correct? Is there space for a headline or other content? Does a product need to be shown in a very precise way because of brand standards? Are we getting the right emotions from the talent in front of the camera? These are just a few issues in a list that could go on and on.

What makes me so certain about the roles of professional photographer and art directors? For one thing, I've seen it happen far too many times. The client wants to cut corners to save a few dollars so they have a less skilled photographer shoot a scene, or worse, shoots it himself with his digital camera. After all, it captures 20 megapixels just like the pros. The results are average, but who is striving for average? Please refer back to the opening paragraph and the discussion of lowered standards. Another reason I know the value of art direction is the same reason I know that Eric Clapton can handle a guitar — because I can't do it. But I can certainly appreciate it. Thankfully, I have colleagues who definitely have the skills to art direct any situation. I've been on location as an observer and watched them work. I've also seen the difference it makes in the quality of the final product. I'm content to let my creative team members work with talented photographers and videographers to get great results. I'll be in my office listening to "Layla."

I had the great pleasure of speaking to a breakout session at the Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association Spring Meeting yesterday on the subject of Branding for Tourism. It was a lot of fun to present to such a lively group. I encouraged the participants to turn the session into a dialogue instead of a lecture by asking questions and sharing their thoughts all throughout the session instead of waiting until the end. It turned out exactly as I’d hoped with lots of thought-provoking discussion.

One important point that I included in my prepared presentation drew a few laughs and groans. I knew it would get a reaction and it’s why I worded it as I did. I offered this key insight on branding: “It never ends.”

The audience groans were light-hearted, of course, because everyone in the room was involved in marketing or executive leadership of a DMO, attraction, or some other business. But it’s a serious point that I hope was clearly understood. Even though one may lead their community or organization through a branding process, following through on the details, remaining true to the brand strategy and always delivering the brand promise are actions that never end. Once a brand is well established it’s more important than ever to be vigilant about the consistency of the message and image being portrayed through advertising and PR so as to not diminish the power of the brand that you’ve worked so hard to achieve. That’s what I mean by “It never ends” not that you can’t get some sleep at night and take a vacation once in a while. You’ve earned it.

For thousands of years, humans have pondered the greatest unanswered question of our time: are we alone in the universe? Is there intelligent life out there and if so, will we ever find it or will they find us? With the exception of the occasional tabloid story of alien abduction and the mystery surrounding Area 51, there is no hard evidence that earth has ever played host to life from another planet.

All I can say is, if alien life ever finds its way here, I hope they land in the South. Why?:

• Weary travelers have always been greeted with warmth and hospitality in the South. Set some aliens on a front porch with some sweet tea and in less than two hours any Southern lady will know their entire life story.

• Whatever subject interests our inter-galactic visitors, we can help. Southerners have opinions on everything and an innate gift for conversation.

• If they experienced mechanical trouble with their ship, I'm certain that some good ole boy could get under the hood and not only get it running again but actually make it go faster.

• Up to now we have assumed that our space travelers are friendly. In the event that they harbor hostile intentions, the best way to turn someone from grumpy to genial is with food. On this subject, Southern culture is second to no one!

If intelligent life visits our planet and experiences the true South, they are sure to go home happy. Who knows, many years from now when we master space travel we may find civilizations across the universe eating deep fried pickles and putting slaw on their sandwiches. That would be just fine with me.

I haven't compiled a Christmas list since I was a little kid, so writing this was a lot of fun. It’s much easier to create a wish list as a kid because kids want everything and they don’t know what’s possible. So why not wish for more snow days or x-ray vision. It doesn't hurt to ask. As I recall, my lists were generally filled with toys and I usually got most of what I wanted, like a 5-speed Schwin bike, a toy helicopter, maybe a street hockey stick. We played a lot of street hockey when I was a kid in New England. We all wanted to be Bobby Orr. Unfortunately, talent for hockey is a gift I never got. 

This year I thought it would be fun to compile an updated list. One that's more appropriate for a, let's say middle-aged, guy like me.

For me:

• An opportunity to see more of this great country. I've been blessed to be able to visit a lot of places that most Americans would consider highlights: the Grand Canyon, the Tetons, the Rocky Mountains, LA, New York, New Orleans, Graceland, the rocky coast of Maine and more. Now I'm interested in seeing smaller towns, coastal islands, and other places off the well-worn tourist path. Places that leave an indelible mark on your memory.
• That I find the exact right balance in my life between all the things that are important — faith, work, family, friends, volunteering. All are important to me and I can't imagine life without one of them, but when the proportions get out of whack it just doesn’t feel right. Even if I manage to get it just right, it always seems to slip over time. I'll keep working on it.

For Inprint:

• High standards. We tend hold ourselves to a very high standard for creativity and quality. One of the hallmarks of our agency is the amount of attention we pay to very small details. That degree of attention, however, is the difference between good and great creative work. To be honest, my colleagues here are better at the details than I am. I hope that we, as a group, never let those high standards slip.
• Fun and interesting clients. Life is too short to toil away the days in drudgery. When the subject matter is interesting and the client values creativity, it makes it easier to fire on all cylinders. Thankfully, we have a roster of wonderful clients in tourism and foodservice. We also treasure our longstanding relationships with great clients in higher education, non-profit, professional services and more.
• A few more tourism clients. We've had much fun and success in this industry and want to see it continue and grow. Not only do we enjoy doing destination marketing for communities or counties, we also like to help brand and promote trails. At the very top of the list would be a culinary trail followed closely by any sort of outdoor recreation trail like a blueway for canoeing and kayaking. Don't forget wine trails, golf trails, history/heritage trails. The sky is the limit.
• Vail Resorts as a client. OK, that may be a bit much to ask, but any client in the ski industry would be fun — a small resort or an equipment manufacturer, for instance. I'd almost be willing to work for lift tickets. Almost.
• Good health and happiness for my co-workers and that they derive some personal and professional satisfaction from doing their jobs well.

For everyone:

• The gift of generosity. I'm not talking about someone being generous to you. My wish for everyone reading this is that you give generously of yourself to others. It doesn't have to be a lot. It doesn't even have to cost a nickel. Give your time or talents to a worthy group or individual. It's a gift that you can give yourself and it's the perfect way to celebrate the season.
• Make some special memories of Christmas 2010 that you, your family and friends will never, ever forget. Do something unique. Act like a kid again. Go out into the yard and make snow angels with the kids (or grandkids). Prepare a dish you've never attempted before. Don't worry if it doesn't turn out perfect. You'll get a chuckle out of it and do better next time. Start a new tradition.
• Peace and prosperity


6 Walnut Avenue • Vinton, Virginia 24179

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