Many colleagues, clients and friends are aware of the unique relationship that Mikula-Harris has had with the Bath County Office of Tourism in recent years. Some have watched with interest to see what this partnership achieved for the county to see if there might be implications for similar collaboration in the future. There have been recent developments in the county. This is the perfect time for an update and a look at the past and future of tourism marketing in Bath County.

In the spring of 2019, Bath County tourism was in a slump. Frankly, that’s putting it mildly. The county had been without a tourism director for a while and lost significant momentum. Local businesses were feeling the sting because the previous tourism director was a dynamic and hard-working professional who created a fantastic program. The long vacancy in the department is what caused the slump. Thankfully, we had worked with the previous director years earlier who helped us understand the people and assets that make Bath County special. We built the website and designed their visitor guide. When the county hired us to handle pretty much every aspect of tourism marketing, we were prepared to hit the ground running.

What Bath County needed from Mikula-Harris was not like a typical client-agency relationship. It placed the entire burden of succeeding squarely on our shoulders. The truth is, we liked that. It allowed us to emulate every successful tactic we’d observed over our careers and, more importantly, to avoid every mistake that we had seen tourism offices make.

Here is some of what we did:

• We developed a balanced media plan that included print, digital, social media and a small amount of broadcast. Balance is critical. We chose media outlets based on their demographics and reach. Bath County isn’t exactly as well-known as Richmond or Virginia Beach, so building brand awareness was a key objective.

• We launched an e-newsletter so that we could re-market to hot prospects. We hoped this tool would convert prospects into actual visitors, as well as turn visitors into repeat customers. We designed the newsletter to be more than a list of upcoming events, which is a common format for destination newsletters. The newsletter actually helps to reinforce the core brand messages. It communicates the main reasons why Bath County is special and worth visiting. Of course, it promotes events, too.

• We were determined to make maximum use of social media. Even with a large following, social media isn’t free, but it is affordable. We budgeted accordingly to ensure that our messages were widely seen. That message, much like the newsletter, is more than blatant marketing. We strived to offer a variety of content that was interesting, informative and consistent with other brand messaging. Social media grew to become the third leading source of website clicks, usually behind organic search and paid search.

• Because content is so important to social media success, we added a few new things to the website and shared them generously. The new blog has been wildly successful. We added themed itineraries and a page to feature package deals offered by lodging properties. Among the top 50 most viewed pages on the website, 16 of them didn’t exist prior to our partnership.

• We identified the motorcycle touring and scenic drives market as an area for growth. We developed a brochure that features five loop rides. We put all five rides and some additional information on a robust scenic drives page on the website. Then, we promoted the niche with some advertising and social media exposure. The online version of the brochure gets tons of views and we have had to reprint the paper brochure. Perhaps the best indication of the success of this initiative is that the scenic drives page has been the second most viewed page of the website, second only to the homepage.

That is a pretty solid list of marketing achievements. How can we measure if they have brought about real results? That can be difficult, especially with an unprecedented global pandemic in the mix. Some things can be measured. Website traffic during the final six months of FY22 averaged 2.4x more than the six months prior to the start of our partnership with Bath County. There have been months where the traffic is more than triple where we started, but a six-month average seems like a fair, if not conservative, measure of how far the program has come.

Website traffic, along with inquiries and social media engagement, are good indicators of the caliber of the marketing. Does that put heads in beds, as tourism folks like to say? Eventually, it does. No one ever emerged from the marketing funnel as a customer without first going into the top of the funnel. The annual Economic Impact Report for 2021 was just released. The report measures direct visitor spending in each county and independent city in Virginia. The travel industry is rebounding from a terrible year in 2020. The average year over year increase across the Commonwealth was 44%. Direct visitor spending in Bath County exceeded that with a 60.3% increase. Only seven communities out of the 133 measured saw an increase of 60% or more.

While we’re proud of what we have done for Bath County over the past three years, change is inevitable. The growth of tourism in the county — and the desire to have greater local control over how occupancy tax dollars are spent — have lead community leaders to form a tourism board and hire a full-time president. It’s a logical step in the evolution of the program. The new team inherits a solid destination marketing program. As the recovery continues and more occupancy tax dollars become available for marketing, their objective is to take the program to new heights.

The future is bright for Bath County. The historic Jefferson Pools, which have been closed for several years, are being meticulously restored. They will be re-opening soon. The Omni Homestead Resort is in the midst of a major renovation that will make the grand resort one of the finest in the nation. There has been a renaissance in family farming, which pleases local chefs offering farm-to-table dining experiences. We predict continued success for Bath County tourism.

No one knows quite like ad agencies, how important every single word can be. We give extensive thought to every word and phrase. We choose words carefully because what we’re writing has to be descriptive yet concise. It has to impress the reader even though we’re writing for a wide audience with differing levels of reading comprehension. We also consider pace, cadence and alliteration, especially if we’re writing a script that will be read by professional voice talent.

So far in Mikula-Harris’ 30 year history, our choice of words in an ad has not caused an international incident. That was not the case when Turkey recently launched a tourism campaign. To most Americans, the TurkAegean campaign seems harmless. It’s a made up word formed by combining two others, like advertorial or frenemy. Not to mention, Turkey’s west coast is on the eastern side of the Aegean Sea. In some parts of the world where centuries old disagreements exist, a single word can cause tension. The campaign stirred up old feelings about control of the Aegean.

Not only has Mikula-Harris avoided causing any geo-political tension, we actually helped ease some. Well, actually they’re more local, but still passionate positions that needed to be handled deftly. While doing a tourism branding project in West Virginia, we learned that the county that hired us had three distinct areas. One was the county seat where most of the local commerce was located. Another was an area known as the Lost River Valley. It’s a picturesque region with mountains, rolling farmland, and a few high-end B&Bs. The third was a small but growing town that was located on a busy road that a lot of visitors traveled on their way through this county to nearby ski resorts. In this small town, some local businesses had recently popped up using the name Lost River. That did not sit well with the purists in the Lost River Valley. It wasn’t truthful and genuine, they thought, since the town was literally on the other side of a mountain and thus not located in the valley. After assessing the big picture, we advised the client that visitors are not concerned with artificial boundaries like town or county lines and most certainly do not care about what constitutes a valley. We assured them all that with the town serving as a gateway to the Lost River Valley it genuinely helped support and promote the brand. We saw it as a win-win. A few months later at a wonderful dinner at one of those charming B&Bs, a group of local business owners from both the valley and the nearby town all dined together and actually raised a glass to toast Mikula-Harris as the peacemaker. All they needed was an outside expert with no pre-conceived bias, to point out that they’re stronger together. That branding work won some awards, yet the Nobel still eludes us.

Q. The business is 30 years old. To what do you attribute the longevity?

A. So many factors come to mind. Here are a few, not in any particular order of importance.

• Perseverance. It definitely sucks to hear “no” when you submit a proposal or make a great pitch, but you just have to move on to the next opportunity.

• Sacrifice. Many times you work late, arrive early, work weekends, spend time away from family and friends. Not to mention, during some slow periods you might get by with less. During those tough times, you can have confidence that things will improve because it’s in your hands not someone else’s.

• Partnership. Much of the stress and sacrifice I just mentioned are shared because I have a business partner. The weight is distributed over multiple sets of shoulders. We all know how mush easier it is for two people to wrangle heavy furniture up a flight of stairs than it is for one. Come to think of it, we’ve actually done that a few time. Plus, separately we’re bound to make our share of mistakes, but when we make major decisions about the direction of the business together, we get it right more often than not.

• Stubbornness. After 30 years of being a business co-owner, I can’t imagine ever working for someone else in a traditional boss-employee relationship.

Q. How has the business evolved?

A. Keep in mind that our business launched in 1992. Technology has changed every aspect of life and business since then. The original name of our firm was Inprint. We chose that name because we were experts at all facets of print media, from concept through ink on paper. We bought a lot of printing on behalf of clients. Thirty years later, the notion of a firm specializing in print media sounds quaint and perhaps a bit absurd. In 1992, the internet was in its infancy. Websites were not common.

Our firm grew into a full-service ad agency. Today, print media is a relatively small percentage of our business. We have found great success with branding. We help clients with strategic direction, including developing media plans. We provide creative services for every imaginable end use — print, online, social media, out-of-home, and broadcast and video.

Q. What are some memorable projects?

A. There were some great projects for U.S. Foods, like food shows that had themes like Mardi Gras, Wild West or Hollywood. We really had a chance to get super creative with those. In the early years of our business, we created logos and other things for performances at Mill Mountain Theatre. Of course, the actual logo designs were done entirely by my business partner and creative director, but I got to interact with the marketing people at the theater who were all incredibly fun and creative personalities. More recently, we have done some exceptional work for local tourism offices. It’s gratifying to see it succeed and increase visitation. Obviously, I have a unique and biased perspective on this, but I think our team has helped to launch some of the strongest local tourism brands in the mid-Atlantic.

Q. How did your agency’s specialty in travel and tourism develop?

A. Over the course of 30 years, we have had clients in tourism, foodservice, higher education, assisted living, non-profit, automotive and many more. All of those industries are interesting and we have learned much about each of them, but we really wanted to be able to supply expert and nuanced guidance to our clients. Tourism is an industry in which creativity really matters. We chose to really work hard to serve the travel and tourism sector and develop a reputation as a firm that gets results by using research, data, experience and exceptional creative work. Our entire team has learned a lot about destination marketing. I have genuinely immersed myself in it and I still find it fun and challenging every single day. I have attended more tourism industry events than advertising industry events. I have even had the pleasure to speak at industry conferences and conduct educational webinars, something I would not have predicted 30 years ago.

Q. What’s next for Mikula-Harris?

A. I hope it doesn’t sound corny, because I think it’s true, that we are producing some of our best work ever right now. Creatively, our current team is firing on all cylinders. We are hyper-focused on continuing to produce nothing but great work. We want clients who agree that quality and creativity move the needle in advertising.

Q. What advice do you have for young people?

A. Let me answer this in multiple parts.

First, to young people beginning their career with a graphic design firm or agency, your talent and creativity is what will make you valuable to your employer. Don’t be shy about sharing ideas even if they’re spur-of-the-moment and not highly polished. Be bizarrely, weirdly, wildly creative in all things. Imagine how strange the conversation must have been in the conference room when someone said, “I got it, let’s use a talking gecko that walks upright to sell insurance.” Think like that. At the same time, expand your abilities by constantly learning from those around you.

Second, the entrepreneurial spirit is wonderful but it’s not for everyone. As a business owner, you carry some weight on your shoulders and put a lot at risk. I would never discourage anyone from launching a business, but I suggest giving serious consideration to how you’d handle stress and responsibility. Not only is your own income and future in your hands, so is that of the people who work for you. After very careful thought, if you’re comfortable accepting the stress, supremely confident in your skills and the thought of being your own boss is appealing, then go for it.

Finally, enjoy every minute of your career because it goes by fast.

In an episode of the great TV series The West Wing, a former staffer had written a tell-all book that included some stories that were totally fabricated. The media loved interviewing the author who gladly repeated his false claims on every show to sell more book. Most of the remaining White House staffers thought it was a minor story from a low-level assistant getting his 15 minutes of fame and thought the best course of action was to ignore it. One lone presidential advisor was outraged and wanted to fight back. He wanted to aggressively counter every false story with the facts and ruin the author’s credibility. Finally, near the end of the episode, the President asked the aide why he was so bothered by what everyone else thought was insignificant. He said, “I just don’t think we should be so cavalier with the truth.”

Brands, and those responsible for building brands, should feel the same way. Brands have to be built upon a foundation of truth. Destination branding is not the place to be aspirational. A community should not brand itself as the biggest and greatest of something simply because they have a long-term goal to achieve it years down the road. The general public will not hold back on sharing its thoughts on how the community doesn’t live up to what it claims to be. That’s a branding fail.

I don’t think it happens as much as it once did. By now most people know the importance of basing a brand strategy on good research. That’s only part of the story. Smaller untruths or exaggerations will nibble away at a brand’s credibility. We see it happen all the time. For example, every tourism office needs to mention their dining, shopping, arts and other things on its website and visitor guide. It’s in marketer’s DNA to want to enthusiastically sell their community’s assets. Just use caution with over-the-top claims about world-class this and epic that, and never say you have something for everyone. Save the superlatives for what your destination truly is the best at. Rest easy knowing it doesn’t have to be the best at everything. Before making a huge claim, ask “can we really deliver on this promise?” In other words, don’t be cavalier with the truth.

Here at Mikula-Harris we took a little time off from blogging. We have written consistently for our clients — blogs, e-newsletters and other content, but we have enjoyed a bit of a break from posting on our own blog. We’re refreshed and returning to regular posting. And believe me, we have a lot of things on our minds that we want to talk about.

In the coming days, weeks and months, we will:

• Take you behind the scenes on some interesting campaigns and projects

• Comment on important developments and trends in advertising, branding, tourism and more

• Tackle complicated and perhaps controversial topics, including the idea of outsourcing some functions of a tourism program. You may know that we have a unique perspective on this subject.

• Share lessons we have learned over our 30 years in business. Some of those lessons may be surprising to our readers.

• Most likely veer off subject occasionally to tell you about some wonderful people and places. Will our perspective be influenced by whether these places are clients? Maybe, but we’ll be accurate and not embellish the truth.

What you will not find in this space: Politics. Negativity. Meanness.

If you have topics that you’d like to see covered by a member of our team, please let us know. Our years in business and the breadth of our team members’ experiences means we have opinions on issues of branding, marketing, management, technology, communication, the creative process and much more.

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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