Had it been held at a standard-size hotel conference room, attendees at last Wednesday’s Connect with Brand Experts and DMOs from throughout the U.S. might have spilled out of the room and into a hallway. But since it was a “virtual roundtable” format, the 300 or so travel and tourism industry professionals who gathered for the Connect Travel event fit neatly into cyberspace as they discussed challenges that confront the travel and tourism industry, which awaits a reactivation of business.
Top Takeaway—A New Normal: Asked to offer some opening remarks for the session, Will Seccombe, president of Connect Travel, said: “We’re going to go into a new normal and the new normal is not going to be like the old normal, and for destination marketers that’s really important. We’re not going to be able to turn the switch and go back to doing the same things that we were doing prior and expect to be successful.”
He added, “I think there’s just there’s just no question that as tourism marketers—and we kind of have to think of where we can have been the last ten years—our organizations, our marketing plans, our organizational structures and our strategic plans are all really optimized based on 10 years of record month-over-month, year-over-year growth. I mean we’re optimized to perform at a really high level in a place where most of us were doing extraordinarily well and growing destinations all across the country were winning and growing and creating more economic impact for their communities, and at some point we’re gonna come back and then we’ll be in a new normal. We’re all gonna be starting at zero.”
The Top 5 Takeaways
# 1 (See above) Shift our mindset to this “new normal,” which will affect not only the travel industry, but our normal day-to-day. The “new normal” will not look like the “old normal.” It won’t look like anything we know. But with the “extraordinary luxury of time, we have the opportunity to start from scratch and re-think this way forward together.”
#2 Redefine our marketing message and audience (perhaps shift our message back to “safe, clean and affordable” and expand our drive market as examples).
#3 Now is the time to develop a first-party data strategy, and think about new ways to use old data sets. Begin by writing your questions down. Q: How do we define community? A: Let data show the way for new opportunities, community marketing, pent-up demand, road trippers and even day trippers to begin with.
#4 “Don’t come.” Whoever thought we’d be pushing that message out? But right now, paid media is tone-deaf.
#5 Virtual tours can be done by your attractions (let’s watch baby otters swimming) and with DMO’s amplification. Indeed, there are behind-the-scenes views being provided that visitors don’t normally get to see.
Notes to add about the other takeaways that one derived from the webinar:
During the current shutdown of travel, use the time to accumulate and study the data that track where people are staying overnight; communicate with peers and colleagues and find out what they are doing;
When travel opens up, it is probably better to focus on drive markets first; and
The road-taken-destinations are likely to benefit from people who want to “get out” and explore after being unable to travel for so long. (The last point syncs with the belief on the part of those who market internationally that there is already a pent-up demand for travel abroad.)
The Panel: Familiar to many in the business of destination and brand marketing, as well as its meeting and event management sector, the panel of experts included:
—Josh Collins, moderator, director destination activations and marketing, Streetsense;
—Zeek Coleman, director of data intelligence, Visit Savannah;
—Becca Smith, senior director of marketing & events, Connect Travel;
—Jeff Robinson, director of marketing, Visit Indy; and
—Will Seccombe, president, Connect Travel.
About those attending: Observed moderator Josh Collins, “You’re friends and colleagues and that’s the greatest thing about this industry is the people in the great relationships we build and we create that certainly invite people to experience the amazing places that we curate and market—to the world that fulfills that dream, that inspires the dream that people have to go and travel and experience the world in new ways and create new horizons for themselves and so on. So, we decided to throw up these webinars and over 300 of you registered for this one alone.”
Old Data = New Opportunities
Collins asked Zeek Coleman, who has been with Visit Savannah for nearly a decade, how the destination and its marketing team was doing in developing a strategic plan “to come out on the other side of this.”
“We’re looking at key statistics right now, and key things like search volume and just looking at demand,” Coleman responded, “but as we’re building out our plans to come out of this we’re just keeping our ears to the ground for new ways to use old data sets that you’ve had access to but haven’t really thought about how they could be useful at a time like this. Like writing out a list of the questions that you have and then figuring out how can the data be the answer.”
“One thing that you can do is if think about when you buy something on Amazon or from eBay or whatever, and if you happen to have to get a refund what you’ll see on your credit card statement or online is a negative transaction to show that refund you can actually use that to, perhaps, target people who have a negative transaction from a cruise line or a flight to target people who had vacations back in February/March—maybe even April—and give them an alternative. Especially those that are in your local market. So, we’re looking at things like that, and that we will at least explore doing in the future … to speak to people who may be looking for options but really, honestly, may have changed what they want to do in the future.”
Added Coleman, “I don’t want to sound like we’re not sympathetic or opportunistic but just being realistic. you have to think about these sorts of things.”
Promoting Positivity: The discussion produced a unanimous consensus that the pandemic’s shutdown of so many businesses that depend on visitor-driven income and jobs has presented the travel and tourism industry with an opportunity to build support. Some ways in which that can be done are evident in the example of Visit Indy, whose long-time (14 years) director of marketing Jeff Robinson, explained in a detailed response to a question.
Robinson pointed to a March 2015 law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which allows individuals and companies to assert as a defense in legal proceedings that their exercise of religion has been, or is likely to be, substantially burdened. Considered by many to be an attack on LGBTQ people, the law generated substantial opposition among groups who had scheduled conventions in Indianapolis, as well as other entities, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which is headquartered in the city.
Without declaring it as a politically driven campaign. Visit Indy began producing visual testimonials to the city by its residents, and selling t-shirts with the Visit Indy logo; they quickly sold out an inventory of more than 12,000 t-shirts at $10 apiece. (Within a week, an additional bill acting as an amendment intended to protect LGBTQ people was signed into law on April 2, 2015.)
“We urged our locals, our biggest fans, to talk about what they love about our city and how welcoming it is and the response was really through the roof right so getting through that that crisis was all about mobilizing our fans,” explained Robinson. “I think as DMOs, like our locals generally, feel very affectionate about the products that we represent restaurants attractions right they have an affinity for that and are eager to help us.”
Robinson added, “What that showed us is that people—our locals in particular—they’re eager to show how they can help. So, if as destinations we can be savvy about giving them a platform, a pulpit, to stand up on and declare what they love about our destinations, we have that content when it’s time to invite visitors back. It’s not we’re not telling people to come visit; we’re simply putting up great content from our locals who are talking about what they love. So, it’s safe content; it’s not marketing. People can sniff out advertising pretty quick, but this is user-generated content. It’s genuine and, yes, it’s something that I think we can feel safe pushing out at a time when we can’t spend media.”
(Note: Again, every other panelist, as well as those who wrote comments in the “Chat” section of the webinar, agreed with what Robinson said, or with the notion that now is a good opportunity to seed support for travel and tourism in their destinations.)
Virtual Tours Have Virtue: All the panelists were upbeat and positive in their regard for the way in which destination attractions and activities have filled a void for prospective visitors. Instead of actually visiting them, those interested can visit virtually: Cited as good examples of this practice were the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago (see its penguins taking a tour of a closed, empty facility by clicking here); the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (https://www.childrensmuseum.org/); and, especially the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
As Robinson pointed out, since the museum began using its security guy, Seth, as a spokesman/guide for the attraction, “they went from 7,000 followers to over 250,000 followers on Twitter in like two weeks. simply by harnessing you know talent that was in-house.” (You can see the cowboy security guard here.)
What Does Zeek’s Crystal Ball Say? At one point, Josh Collins asked Zeek Coleman, “if you could look into your crystal ball Zeek, what do you think is going to happen to the way that destination marketers think about video content and virtual content and this kind of stuff as we move forward. Any thoughts or ideas?” In response, Coleman had this say:
“I think what we’re probably going to learn is that it’s going be really important to have things ready that can speak to people appropriately and then targeted—like very specifically, like immediately. When this happens, you won’t have everyone saying the same thing and so, as you re retool, as you as you get going, you’re going to have great content opportunities. If someone is ready when we hit go, I think we were all talking about who’s going be the first one to take the risk to go out and market it who is going to do the paid stuff first.
“You don’t have to book all the business on day one. You just need the people who are willing to travel and so, maybe, targeting people who are typing in searches for your destination or a nearby similar destination and just targeting those folks. Then you could even match in data with people who visited last year. Remember, this means that their devices came to your destination last year—all those sorts of things will help you to really speak to people who are already looking for you. For instance, one of the things we didn’t turn off was SEM. If people are searching things to do in Savannah, they’re the ones that are prompting.
“And so, it’s not really a hard sell by us; it’s just you’re looking for it. We want to be ahead of TripAdvisor. Just thinking about the different data pieces that you have to leverage all the video and all the different content things will be really important to speak more specifically, and compassionately to people where they are yeah that’s really good.”
Coleman also spoke to the need, when traveling returns, to be more sensitive to the wants and feelings of the travelers because, for nearly everyone, a return to traveling to, or visiting, someplace will be a new and different experience.
Jeff Robinson followed up with an answer to this question: “As you’re thinking email, and if you’ve got a great locals-based insider email program that you’ve done—I know you’ve presented on in the past at industry events and things like that—are you seeing even now ways that you can enhance that content moving forward with the things that we’re experiencing with content now … are you thinking about that at all?”
He continued: “Yes, and we have. We launched The Weekend 5; that is what we call it, The Weekend Five—Top Five Activities to do at Home This Weekend. This was easily five six years ago now and it’s huge locally. A lot of companies even will put it up on their bulletin boards right. In this way, the companies or their employees can all know what to do over the weekend. We’ve had to get really creative but obviously with (so many) events to go attend out in the city, we’ve had to retool that. This is where we can all leverage our partners. We also have a group that we call a tourism think-tank in the city. Once a month, we pull together a large group of people from all of our attractions—really, anyone involved in the tourism landscape to come together—and share ideas.
“Again, it helps us build connections with our partners right as DMOs. This is as important as ever. They’re able to share out all the things that they’re doing and then we just become amplifiers of their content during this. A lot of them are doing some pretty innovative programming in the face of all that’s been happening. It could be the symphony doing concerts with Zoom—right where you can tune in and see the different musicians at home all playing together.
“I think the big thing we have to do right now is be good listeners as DMO marketers—you know, talk to our partners and make sure we’re in tune with what they’re doing, and that we’re showing them all the love that we can right now, because they all need it.
When We Re-start: Who Comes First—Locals? A question posed by one of the attendees was this: Do you see recovery starting locally? How should we be thinking about audience when quarantines and travel restrictions and bans end?
Will Seccombe: “Absolutely start locally. I think when we start talking about opportunities the first group that we’re going to want to really engage should be our locals—our community. Build our communities. They are hurting, so I think there’s just a huge opportunity to do that. How do we get people back in the restaurants?
“I can just imagine that communities are going to do big events. They’ll say safe distancing and all that stuff, but bringing people out, I think, is really important. There’s a new Harris study that I am not sure if you all have seen but I definitely take a look at it. It was done March 28th to the 30th and it has some really interesting material. For instance, on going out to dinner, fifty percent of people want to go out to dinner immediately when this pandemic is done. About 40 percent want to do that within the first 30 days. It also says 60 percent are a little bit scared and that’s going to take them more than a month to get out. Seven percent said they’re going to go out immediately, and 80 percent expect to be in a hotel in the first 18 days. As for flying a plane, five percent said immediately; 15 percent said in the next 30 days. So, you can see that there’s a very clear pattern that we’re going to want to get out locally and experience and be free to enjoy our communities again.
“I think that’s a huge opportunity to help engage people to help. First, we have to get the restaurants open and make them more successful and then we’re going to want to have local events and local functions on local properties and get people starting to work there. As you can see, we’re going to have a really interesting opportunity as destination marketers to kind of help reactivate it again. We’re starting at zero and all of our businesses are small business or small shopping venues. I think be the messages will be hyper localized.”
Commenting on Seccombe’s remark, Josh Collins said, “I couldn’t agree more. I would say what we’re seeing on the consumer mindset side and, certainly what my company has observed and based on the intelligence we receive from CBRE and others and in the space, that the consumer mindset will shift and, in fact, already has shifted to be thinking about questions like cleanliness and coming out of quarantine.
Just like you would in every industry you’ve got your early adopters.”
“You’ve got your five percent that are gonna go to a hotel they’re gonna jump on an airplane. Right? But the majority, your mass market, your locals are gonna be itching to get out but they’re gonna ask, “Do I know this person? Do I know the owner of this restaurant? Can I trust that they have been cleaning this place? Or can I trust that this hotel lobby or this coffee bar or whatever it is doing those things around safety, cleanliness, transparency, and authenticity? A sudden, it takes on take a whole new context.”
A question from another attendee: How do we define the local audience? What are we talking about? We’re talking about fifty miles, a hundred miles and up to zip codes 200 miles. How would you approach that? And in an answer that Josh Collins called “pure gold,” Zeek Coleman had this to say:
“That’s a great question. One of the things everyone may not know is that you’re you have a little tracking device on you 24/7 and you don’t think about this, probably, but it sleeps in the same address every single night. You plug it in next to your bed or whatever, you pick it up, you lay it down and then it stays put for six hours or eight hours. or maybe for some of you ten hours. However you do it is tracked. And then when that device has been somewhere, that is also tracked and that is communicated to the weather app or whatever app you’re constantly letting ping your device for accurate information. And that is passed to the world and to marketers.
“And so, the question of how would you know who’s local and who’s not—it really depends. Does it even really matter, and would it matter, if someone is 25 miles away but they stay in your hotel; they stay overnight in a certain part of your town or district—it would be helpful to know who doesn’t stay in that district but has in the last year, and to retarget those very people you can upload it to Facebook.
“It would lower your prices and it would be cheaper, and when we’ve done that, we’ve seen kind of a mixed response. It’s kind of interesting—you have to be careful because some of those people, for example, if we target people who came here last year but do not live here now, some of those people moved. They used to live in your city and they moved, so you have to kind of tweak the data to get the right folks. It’s been phenomenal in the past, obviously, to the target those folks and see the positive response both when you’re retargeting past visitors and when you’re targeting look-alike audiences, but that’s a great way to segment it all up. Look at devices that slept somewhere other than your destination, but slept in your destination overnight recently. You know the timeframe, so here’s what a lot of us those of us who didn’t have our budgets our media budgets necessarily cut and are just holding it right now.
“I think as we look towards late in the summer when we do deploy these tactics, we might be expanding our drive market area knowing that, rather than sort of serving within our predetermined geographic area, we might just take that out further and use this occasion as an opportunity to maybe try some new markets that we hadn’t touched before and spread that money as wide as we can—instead of trying to be like Lombardi with frequency and maybe see if we can discover new opportunities so this (tactic) is perfect.”
Following a short series of remarks in which all panelists affirmed the need for, and importance of, maintaining communications channels with local tourism industry professionals, Will Seccombe closed out comments with this:
“I think the two things are going happen out of all this are: first, people are going to see and recognize how critically important tourism is to their economies again we’re coming off of you know 10 years of record growth and you know everybody’s expecting anticipating and then there was some pushback to overcrowding and things like that how quickly times change. I guarantee that we will be welcoming visitors every community around the country with open arms.
And second, the new normal will be very different. You will have the cleaning of things everywhere, more hand sanitizer everywhere, and we’re going to be seated further apart. Things like that are going to happen and become the new normal and I think with that that’s going to make us as humans more comfortable going out and about, as well as making us more comfortable when we travel. But I think that, at the end of the day, we’re going to see our communities embracing tourism more than ever before—because it’s not just the restaurants and the hotels is and all that the employees and shops that count; our governments depend on them for funding from the taxes that are levied on our activity. It’s been taken for granted for an awful long time. Not anymore.”