One day last week while sitting at my desk in Virginia, I enjoyed a virtual tour of some tourist hot spots in New Hampshire. The production value was barely adequate — looked like much of it was filmed on a phone. The tour guide’s authenticity and love for the state was abundantly clear. The guide happened to be the Governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu. The entire, action-packed day was chronicled on Twitter under the hashtag #Super603day. If you’re wondering, 603 is the area code that covers the entire state.

Full disclosure, I was raised in New Hampshire and have spent time in many of the places featured during #Super603day. I actually grew up in the same town as the governor. I’ve never met him, but I did vote for his father who was the governor more than 30 years earlier.

Obviously, I love to see all governors support tourism. During my career in tourism marketing in Virginia, our governors have all supported tourism, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Sununu, though, takes it to new heights — almost 6,000 feet above sea level to be exact. One of the coolest parts of his trip was hiking into and then skiing Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. I have hiked the trail several times, but never skied it. The journey continued south to Lake Winnipesaukee for boating and fishing. The Roanoke region of Virginia shares a special connection to Lake Winnipesaukee. The movie “What About Bob” with Bill Murray is set on the NH lake, but was filmed at Smith Mountain Lake. I can say from personal experience, that they are quite different but both very beautiful lakes. The governor’s day ended with a swim in the frigid ocean water at Hampton Beach. Many people don’t even realize that New Hampshire has beaches. The NH seacoast is only 18 miles, but it’s beautiful from Seabrook to Portsmouth.

As a tourism marketer, I enjoyed following the governor’s journey. No social media “influencer” could have brought as much sincerity. As a transplanted Yankee, it was a walk down memory lane. 

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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.

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