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.

A major objective of both a marketing program and retirement planning is growth. Both short-term and long-term. It’s easier to measure the growth in your investments because the results show up on your statement each month. Sometimes the balance goes up and sometimes it decreases, but it’s always there and crystal clear. In marketing, however, some advertising options are chosen for maximum impressions to build brand awareness. It’s not so easy to measure but definitely important. 

The first comparison to make is diversification. With a marketing program and an investment strategy, you don’t want all your eggs in one basket. Every expert will say that’s risky. A balanced marketing plan may include some effort or spending in social media, print publications, targeted online display ads, Search Engine Marketing (SEM), re-targeting efforts like newsletters, and depending upon the budget possibly television, radio or out-of-home advertising. The exact right balance of all those media depends on your product, feeder markets and visitor demographics. The important point is that balance is best.

Can you spread your marketing too thin? Yes you can. This is where the diversification metaphor is slightly imperfect. You can diversify too much. For example, it’s not reasonable to place an ad in a single issue of a magazine (because you’re trying to spread your limited budget to include ads in as many places as possible) and then wonder why there wasn’t a spike in phone calls and website clicks. You’ll be much better off zeroing in on fewer publications that are the absolute best for reaching your target demographic, and advertising consistently throughout the year.

There is yet another way in which a marketing program is like an investment plan, one that way too many marketers overlook. Even after protecting yourself with the right degree of diversification, don’t you still want every single marketing initiative to be performing at the highest possible level?

Ideally, every stock or mutual fund in your 401K is not just growing, but outperforming the market in general. In marketing, you need every advantage to ensure that each initiative is getting the best results possible. One key is quality creative work that gets noticed, clicked and remembered. Another is the best possible targeting and keywords. Metrics like click-thru-rates (CTR) measure the efficiency of a campaign. In other words, more bang for the buck. With e-mail marketing, the click-thrus and open rates are the key metrics. The quality of the content, design, subject line, and smart use of links can increase performance in email.

Now that your destination marketing plan has balance and consists of a variety of tools, all of which were well researched first, its time to monitor the results. Have realistic expectations. Some initiatives should start to show website clicks promptly while others take longer to work. Before throwing in the towel on any of the tools, ask if there is anything you can do to make them perform better. For example, can the creative work be better? Is the landing page truly designed for conversions? Can the online and social media targeting be improved? Tinker with all these things and more to make each and every marketing project a star performer. 

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.

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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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.

540.774.9932

6 Walnut Avenue • Vinton, Virginia 24179

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