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.

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.

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.

The Mikula-Harris team is just getting started on a branding project for the Town of Appomattox, VA. It’s a cool small town located east of Lynchburg. The drive between our office in Vinton and Appomattox is especially wonderful because most of the miles are in Bedford County. Returning from a meeting recently, I was driving west on Route 460. Once past the congestion of Lynchburg, you begin to see the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. As the sun slowly sank on the horizon, I was reminded where the inspiration for the ad campaign “Where Ordinary Ends, Bedford Begins” came from as well as the line of ad copy “To the east and west are bustling cities, but in between is pure bliss.”

The message perfectly hits the nail right on the head for Bedford. We knew instinctively that the branding and creative work we did for Destination Bedford was gold. Now that some time has passed, we’re able to see that it’s helping move the needle. All of the newly branded campaign materials hit the street in early 2020. The website launched in March and traffic grew steadily all through the year. There were three times as many users and page views in April 2021 than during the same period in 2020.

What are the reasons for this success? As with most tourism marketing success stories, it’s not a single magic thing. It’s a combination of things:

• The new website follows all best practices for SEO. Result: Organic Search as a source of traffic is up 490%.

• Social media as a source of traffic is way up because the team at Destination Bedford is working hard at consistently posting quality content.

• The management and marketing team at Destination Bedford is investing its advertising budget in the right places — building brand awareness and generating website traffic.

The future looks bright for tourism growth in Bedford County. In the meantime, the present is pure bliss.

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.


6 Walnut Avenue • Vinton, Virginia 24179

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