Earlier this month, Greg Marshall, senior vice president and director of marketing for Visit Rochester, celebrated his 40th anniversary with the organization. Marshall is a rarity—a lifelong resident of the city he represents who has a sense of intellectual curiosity, combined with a youthful sense of wonder at what it is he has learned over the years. INBOUND’s editor-in-chief and managing editor spoke with him not long after his 40th anniversary date in what turned out to be more of a colloquy in which he exhibited a wide breadth of knowledge about such matters as relationship marketing, receptive tour operators and the role of associations in the tour and travel industry. All along, he invited dialogue and discussion. To see what we mean, we present the following excerpts from our interview/discussion.
INBOUND: So, how did you get started in the business?
Marshall: I started when I was 15 at a hotel. (He explains that visitor traffic to the city had grown because of its corporate reputation. In 1970, Rochester was world headquarters of Eastman Kodak and Xerox, along with a number of other major companies.)
We had built a 500-room Holiday Inn. It was the third largest Holiday Inn in the world. My mom was in the accounting office before it was opened. And they needed somebody to build some cabinets. As you remember, like everybody in the hotel business, you had to hold folios for seven years for the IRS and all that kind of stuff. And my job was to come in after school for a few hours–I was in the 10th grade—and build cabinets. Eventually, I ended being the on-site resident manager at 23 years old.
And then, what happened was, I worked my way up through the ranks there and I loved Rochester. The person that hired me was Rick Rivers, who had just taken over at the bureau—it was called something different then—and Rick said to a friend of his “I want to start a tourism department,” because there had never been a focus on tourism before.
So, anyway, Rick said to somebody “I want to start a tourism program,” and they said, “you’ve gotta talk to Greg Marshall. Nobody loves this community more than Gregg Marshall. He’s over at the Holiday Inn. I was hired three months later—forty years ago yesterday. That’s how I got it.” We had four employees at that time. I was the fourth. Actually, I was the fourth and a half. And now we’re a big organization. We have close to 30 people.
INBOUND: Wow. It’s pretty incredible what you’ve seen, and you’ve been very active all along. You’ve been really active with Visit Rochester. And you’ve given Rochester a bigger presence than most destinations your size. For sure.
Marshall: I guess. You know, a big part of it is perception. Perception is great. But the reality is, you think that because I’ve been present. And we have this program that I was one of the founders of called Wine, Water & Wonders. (WW&W is a five-day itinerary featuring made and natural attractions of upstate New York State, ending with the Niagara Falls.) But, the fact of the matter is we are not as engaged in the international market as you might think. And I would not ever want anybody to be misled on that. We’re very proud of this Wine, Water & Wonders program of which we’re a part, but that’s kind of our sole engagement with the international market.
INBOUND: It’s more that you had the curiosity—
Marshall: Well, we had the curiosity, and we understand that international overseas inbound business – not counting Canada—is an important part of the market. And it doesn’t hurt that we’re 87 miles from Niagara Falls. Right? With people moving from New York City as a gateway or Boston as a gateway over to Niagara Falls, we’d be idiots to not try to get a share of that. But our presence overseas – we really tie in to the I Love New York program and what they’re trying to do overseas. And to a lesser degree, the New York City programs. Those two programs are not totally aligned, but they’re better than they used to be. New York State has a nice program. They have offices in six cities and we mirror those.
In fact, we have engaged the French M.I.C.E market. We have one of the foremost M.I.C.E guys coming in tonight for dinner. And we hosted a luncheon at IPW for 17 operators that are involved in the MICE market. But, I want to make sure you understand that international marketing is indeed part of the marketing mix.
Do Travel Associations Deliver Value?
INBOUND: INBOUND alludes to a recent travel trade article in Skift where the founding editor wrote that associations “do nothing” to help people increase their business.. ”Given this—the contention that associations don’t deliver value … that associations like NTA, ABA and US Travel don’t deliver value—what’s your take on this?
Marshall: I didn’t see that article, so I am just now digesting what you said. I have a different perspective because I pride myself on having a few skills here and there with association management.
So, I’ve always been fond of associations, generally. I have a bias towards associations. The question then becomes, I guess, one of relevancy. Right? I guess that’s what they’re talking about. Are they relevant in this day and age? I suppose, if a parallel were to be drawn, one could say that actual travel could be achieved by going online and virtual reality, etc. If actual travel is still delivering value, then why wouldn’t associations, in terms of bringing people together for that personal interaction and the aggregation of ideas and priorities and synergy, why would that not still be incredibly valuable?
Have either of you read “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” by Robert Putnam?
It talks about the relevancy of associations, and do people still need togetherness more–not so much on a professional level, but on a social level. I see my staff, that I send to these conferences—whether it’s Destinations International or US Travel’s ESTO—come back incredibly energized, and having an entirely new perspective on the purpose of their work. I believe that that can only be delivered in some type of a forum.
Now, associations as they relate to Greg Marshall are still very, very relevant. Having said that, I would say there is without question duplication. And there needs to be a reality check among organizations about …. Are they as aligned with each other as they need to be to make the best uses of resources that are available to fund them? So, you have two organizations—Destinations International and US Travel—that probably could talk to each other a little bit more-as well as ABA and NTA. And it’s been going on for decades.
I think it’s time, maybe, for a transformation of associations, but I disagree with the rap that they are not relevant and that they have no purpose. In sum, you said that whoever did this article was that they (associations) don’t help anybody with business. That would be like saying that institutions of higher learning don’t have a role. I think they do. I believe that they have a role in education, business exchange and in aggregating opinion and… That’s my opinion.
The Role of the Receptive: Don’t Ask them to Create Demand
INBOUND: So, what’s your take on the domestic tour operator market—from the perspective of a DMO that has had to sell to them for 40 years?
Marshall: I think what is more evident to me than ever before is that tour operators do not have the ability to create the demand for a destination and that the destinations are responsible for creating the demand. They are always going to work to meet demand vs. create demand. So, the whole concept of introducing new destinations and new travel options is a long drink of water. The fact of the matter is that people have so much information available to them about where they can go and what they can do and how they can do it and the role of the media of driving demand and awareness are increasing the ability of the domestic tour operator to help a destination create demand.
Now, there is a way around that, and that is a strong collaboration between destinations and tour operators. The problem is there are more tour operators than any destination has money or resources to enter into cooperative agreements with. I‘d probably enter into cooperative agreements with 50 tour operators tomorrow if I had the money. I don’t have it.
So, what does that mean?
I think the tour operator is always going to mirror the popular destination, unless these tour operators are doing more segmented tours. I’m probably one who is crying into the wind here, but I’ve always said that tour operators have to get away from geography and get into experiences. They’re doing it more and more. I still don’t think it’s that much, though. People and their time and resources are dedicated to what they want to do, not where they want to go. I think it’s an ongoing thing. I don’t think it’s a sea change or a tsunami washing over; I just think it’s an evolution of all the factors—
INBOUND: Yes, but it’s at a snail’s pace—
Marshall: Well, yes. It’s at a snail’s pace. Maybe I should know this a little bit more, but I’d be interested in seeing some amazing new tour operators that are doing some really, really innovative stuff to create some new markets. Right?
INBOUND: They’re out there, but they’re not really part of the associations. You don’t find them at ABA and NTA. These are people who you find through Airbnb, who are creating experiences in cities that can be customized. They’ve been unearthing really unique attractions that have come into the market. What’s happened is that none of the tour operators that go to the shows (we’re not the party being interviewed here, so interjecting our opinion perhaps shouldn’t even be noted), but from what we see—there are three companies that organize meals in people’s homes. These are ideal companies to partner with for unique experiences that would make a week-long trip that’s been sold basically the same umpteen years, but make it different if you just added that element. There are all these other things out there.
So, give them unique experiences.
Marshall: I’m just saying that, for a certain segment of the business world, they (associations) are relevant, And I think one of the great areas of relevancy is in-person education and interaction. But the challenge is, inevitably, they are going to need to adapt and they are, inevitably—probably, going to get a little bit smaller, and the way to counteract the challenge that they face is to combine resources. And there are not a lot of people in this world who love the idea of talking to somebody about a merger or an alliance or a takeover prospect—
INBOUND: Or there’s a financial desperation …
Marshall: Oh that’s for sure. But, sometimes it doesn’t need to get to a point of financial desperation. If financial desperation comes about, it usually is because nobody was proactive and projected far enough out of what the future held. The winners are the ones that are looking at the inevitable future.
Why the Mustard Doesn’t Make the Cut
INBOUND: One of the things we’ve noticed about the industry that we wanted to ask you about quickly is: When you’re dealing with the tour operator trade—domestic and international—and travel agents, there are different phases. The first phase is awareness; you’re just trying to create awareness, but there’s gotta be some way that you help them sell the product through.
Marshall: I want to take it away from the travel and tourism industry for a second and put it in another industry that we know very well here in the East: supermarkets. We have a nine-billion-dollar family-owned supermarket chain on the East Coast that Forbes says is the best place to work in the United States for years running called Wegmans.
I use this as an example. Here’s the grocery store model. “ I’ve created a brand new mustard. Would you put my mustard on the shelf? This beautiful mustard. Here, taste my mustard. Taste my mustard. Wegman says, ‘all right, that’s good mustard. We’re going to put it on the shelf.’ Nobody buys the mustard, because nobody’s ever heard of the mustard. Nobody has ever seen the label. There’s no brand recognition. There’s no logo recognition. And, even if you’re paying for shelf space, nobody’s ever heard of you, Wegman finally says, ‘You know what. We’re throwing away a lot of your mustard on the expiration date because nobody’s ever heard of your mustard. We love your mustard, but unless you tell the market about your mustard, we don’t have room for you on our shelves. And we’re not part of your chain of distribution.’ “
That exact same thing happened, unfortunately, over here, with New York state wines although it’s getting much better. Restaurants say, “We would love to serve New York state wines, but the public has no demand for New York state wines. They don’t know about them.” And the wineries say, “We don’t have enough money to push the brand out.”
Take it out of the travel industry, but the element remains. Unless the consumer is aware and desires it, it is not the travel trade’s goal to create the market. So, that’s the issue that destinations need to realize. And once destinations and products understand that, the tour operator can be much more helpful.
How Do You Help Lesser Known Destinations?
INBOUND: Let’s talk about the budget that these destinations have that they can dedicate to this kind of consumer marketing. Domestic marketing is one thing, because you know where your core markets are and how you market to them. When you get beyond the core markets—you’re talking about tour operators now—how do you help them market. Take Rochester, for example. I am not aware of Rochester itself. But It’s close to Niagara Falls and you have a corporate niche. Right? You have this proximity to the Falls. You have the Finger Lakes area. With the limited budget you have to help tour operators, the question is: How do you help them? The answer is: Your social media department has to be involved.
What I see happening with Faisal Sublaban, president and CEO of the receptive tour operator Bonotel Exclusive Travel, who puts out a regularly broadcast blog on YouTube called “The Hotel Boss”—where he helps promote their hotels. He’s got a model that DMOs can use as well, because he is creating awareness among the international trade—tour operators and their constituents—about upscale hotels and what they have for international travelers using social media tools. It has to be through free channels, because very few have the money to do consumer advertising, and the tour operators don’t know how to do it themselves. This is how I see DMOs helping the trade. You have a tour operator coming to your area, and you start doing Facebook marketing in the regions that he or she is selling—instead of giving him money, you basically promote the hell out of their tour program on social media for about $300. And then the operators becomes the call to action.
Marshall: OK. Yes, there is a social media component. But there is also something like what we’re doing with Wine, Water & Wonders. We have an RFP to tour operators in overseas markets that says: “Give us access to your consumer base. Tell us something where we can meet your consumer base, through you. We’re paying you. And we’ll do that.” And to be honest with you, that’s probably a very good format. It says, OK, you’re out there doing direct marketing and social media. So, let us buy into that information stream for your consumer market and we will create awareness of New York state together.” That is our approach; it’s relatively new—a couple of years—and I’ll tell you what: We can’t keep up with the operator interest in doing that, because there’s money in it. Right?
When I think about my conversation on the mustard, it was really about the domestic market. My philosophy is that the overseas visitor coming to the United States who has the proclivity or tendency to want to see things that they don’t know about are pretty open to suggestion. They will use the travel professional and recommendations, and direct media, etc., to buy into. I know I do. I’m a little bit of a different kind of a traveler but I’m somebody who seeks advice.
Does Anyone have Time for Relationship Marketing?
INBOUND: You go by their advice, for sure. So, what’s your take on relationship marketing—the importance of it?
Marshall: The big issue is that time has superseded money as a commodity now. Relationship marketing is a wonderful concept, but you’re up against a time restraint. We have a very interesting thing we’re doing here in Rochester. I was so tired of putting out co-op opportunities for our hotels and attractions to sell with us—Come on this sales mission. Come to this convention with us. Etc.—and we heard: “We don’t have the money. We don’t have the money.” We even abolished our travel and tourism department. A major component of that reality was money. We said, “We’re eliminating the argument of we don’t have money. We’re now paying now for you to go.”
Visit Rochester is the only city I know in the United States that has a fund that, if a hotel or an attraction says “I want to go to ABA,” or “I want to a sales mission in New York City,” that we have money to pay for them to go. Now, there are some criteria, but we’re not saying that we’ll give you 50 percent. I’m saying we pay for their airfare, their hotel, their registration. All of that. They have to share leads with us.
Guess what? I still don’t have a go. “We can’t afford the time,” when say, “We can’t afford the time.” So, that’s the elephant in the middle of the room. Because relationship selling would take time. I can provide financial resources, but I sure can’t give someone more time.
I’m going through a transition here at Visit Rochester now. I’m leaving my position at the end of next year. What am I gonna do? The best thing I could do for Visit Rochester is to say I’m gonna be out of town 80 percent of the time showing my face and raising the Rochester banner. So, I’m a true believer in relationship selling, but the fact of the matter is that, in the corporate structure, the time allocation is not there.
So, I think relationship selling is great. And for those that allocate the time to do it, it’s even better. The question is—and I’m way too old to know the answer to this—can relationship marketing be accomplished through intimate social media? I am not the one to answer that. But that would be a good question: Can relationship marketing face-to-face in creating a professional relationship be accomplished through elevated social media?
Taming the Big Apple
INBOUND: By elevated social media, you mean FaceTime and Skype and things like that?
Marshall: Yes. Yes. I don’t see it, but maybe that’s something that somebody else could respond to.
We have a program called New York City Presence. It goes directly to relationship marketing. New York City, you know, is a hotbed for meetings and conventions, film, sports, media, everything—tour and travel, all of that.
We were intimidated by New York City for … forever. Can’t break into New York City. And we used to do receptions down there. It was like — Oh, meeting planners. $10,000 receptions for meeting planners … and media. And, you know, you’d get a few, but you would never get the ones you want. There would be a million reasons. They got other obligations, or they don’t know anybody.
Five years ago, I said, “The heck with this!!” We’re going to start buying tickets to where we wanna be. So, instead of us ever doing functions in New York City, we just go. So, next week, I’m going to three Chamber events in New York City, a luncheon at the Broadway Association, which is comprised of real estate owners and others, and I end up knowing more people when I walk into a room in Midtown Manhattan in a business environment—not only the travel and tourism environment; I mean a business environment—I know so many people. “Oh Greg” someone will say, and my name has become synonymous with Rochester. And it’s costing me a fraction—a fraction of what it used to cost me.
Now, I’ve got people saying, “Hey, would you sponsor the beverages. We just need some wine and beer” … for 200 mega-millionaire real estate people down there. Several of them came up to me and “hey, we’re looking for a distribution center. Do you have available upstate?” So we’re doing some crossover.
INBOUND: You’re probably right about the whole time structure issue, but the travel industry itself has been built on relationships—it’s basically relationships and turf wars. That’s what I see. It’s all about that and showing up. I know that after the financial crisis hit in 2008. I had been looking at other industries to get into in 2007. I was bored. Things were going well, even with me. I was looking at clean energy, for instance. Suddenly, the financial crisis hit, and I said, Damn! This is going to be really tough for people.
I decided that I was going to go to everything. So, for two years, I went to 22 shows a year—to places I’d never been. All these group tour operator shows, international shows. And do you know, that in that time, our business increased 25 percent—just by me showing up at these places. Because I knew that our competitors wouldn’t be able to travel to do that. Everybody was cutting back on all that. There were fewer people to do all this. So, I know that relationships are important.
Marshall: It’s interesting to hear that, you know, because I wonder if an emerging tendency is emerging in the banking industry. Don’t the people at Chase banks now call their people “relationship managers”? Isn’t that their title?
INBOUND: Yeah, that’s a euphemism for a sales person.
Marshall: Well, whoever came up probably knew what the hell they were talking about. Relationship is like accessibility. Relationship is in the eye of the beholder. What’s relationship marketing? Who decides what the definition of that is?