Destination Marketing: Why it's time for a rethink
Published on January 4, 2023
We’ve spent the last decade working with visitor economy stakeholders around destination marketing through our teaching, strategy development, workshops, keynotes.
However, the last couple of years has seen us undertake deep learning and reflections in the destination marketing space, which has given us pause for thought, and reconsider all we know about destination marketing due to the increasing number of challenges we are seeing on the ground in communities, many of which are made worse by the traditional "business as usual" demand marketing of state, regional and local tourism economy stakeholders.
Throw in an increasingly volatile, complex and uncertain world, it’s now more important than ever that we challenge the business as usual destination marketing tactics, and we consider alternative views on what successful destination marketing looks like in the future.
The Destination Marketing Issues
The common issues we are seeing in many corners of Australian in recent months (in no particular order) include…
Local Resident Fatigue
Some communities (regional and remote in particular) are questioning the value of some types of tourism in their local communities. They are at the front line of negative impacts of the post covid travel boom, such as visitors who overcrowd or even damage their local natural experiences, the use of their community's limited resources (eg water, food, petrol), long wait times in their local shops and cafes, and disrupting their quiet lifestyle they moved to a destination for.
Over promising brand marketing
Many tourism operators are struggling to find the staff to run their tourism experiences (thanks covid), impacting their opening hours and experience delivery. Yet many destination marketing custodians promising business as usual, which isn't reflecting these challenges in their marketing tactics, setting incorrect expectations about what visitors can expect in a destination, setting visitors up for a less than great experience.
We're seen and heard many stories of natural locations being swapped with visitor chasing the “Insta” famous photo. This photo demand continues to snowball through often un-aware media, visitors and even destination organisations who promote sensitive natural attractions that can’t meet the carrying capacity of the booming visitor demand. It's then left to local communities to work out how to fund/resource/manage/clean up at these sensitive natural sites.
Under-performing destination websites
Whilst a destination website is an incredibly important destination brand asset, often we find regional tourism bodies, councils and local tourism bodies each running their own destination websites. This can lead to diluted messaging and resources that could be united to manage a single, focused, higher performing destination website that supports all stakeholders.
Diluted Social Media
Social media channels are increasingly speeding up, are full of advertising and are encouraging “fast” consumption of our destination stories.
This makes it hard for destinations to share richer and more nuanced storytelling of people, place and landscapes, as these types of stories won't meet the requirements that allow for cut through on the ever-changing social media algorithms.
Boom and bust across the year
Many destinations are swamped with visitors at peak times of year, often experiencing too many visitors for what their local communities and natural attractions can cope with. Whilst quieter times of the year their visitor numbers drop right off. This has many impacts on communities, including being very challenging for maintaining sustainable businesses due to the inability to keep quality staff employed year round and/or keep their doors open year round.
Incorrect visitor assumptions
Many people travelling since covid are arriving to a destination with incorrect expectations such as:
- They can book experiences and accommodation on arrival as they think there will be availability, when the reality is businesses are often fully booked or not open.
- Expecting business to be open open 7 days. Yet business just can't manage this due to lack of staff or owner fatigue.
- Visitors stocking up on fuel and food before arrival, thinking things will not be available or more expensive in a destination.
All of these assumptions impact a destination’s ability to attract positive word of mouth (most valuable marketing for a destination), and also minimises the economic benefits of visitors in a local community.
A focus on destination marketing metrics that don't tell the full story – ATDW leads to local tourism businesses, social media community sizes, the reach of social media or media investments are an example of commonly reported destination marketing metrics.
Whilst these are important indicators of specific marketing tactic performance, they are not an accurate reflection on the true positive or negative impact of a visitor economy on a local community.
What’s the solution?
There is no one size fits all or quick solutions to these challenges, as they are often complex and multi-layered.
The solutions required depend the willingness, skills, data, insights and resources of a destination's local community - residents, tourism industry, councils and wider visitor economy stakeholders.
However key opportunities we recommend destinations consider building into their demand driving activities include:
Ongoing Local Community Engagement
Maintaining the social license around tourism in your local communities is incredibly important.
Do your local communities even want visitors? Do they have ways they can voice concerns around the visitor economy? Do they have a way to contribute and share their ideas of how to make things better in their local communities?
An ongoing engagement plan that allows community members to share their challenges and issues around visitors is key. This allows these issues to be raised with relevant stockholders on an ongoing basis. At the same time, having an ongoing education process around the positive social, economic and environmental value visitors can bring to a local communities is also important to maintain that social license.
Responsible Visitor Messaging
Helping set the right expectations and encouraging positive behaviours from visitors is a key opportunity for destination marketing and visitor servicing custodians.
What does it means to be a good visitors in your destination?
Collecting insights from locals and industry, refining key messages around the behaviours they would like to see and then communicating these widely and consistently across all visitors touchpoints is a quick win opportunity we see for all destinations.
Experience development focus
A visitor’s experience (either positive or negative) is the most effective, trusted, low cost and sustainable form of destination marketing.
Therefore supporting local tourism businesses to gain the skills and knowledge deliver a high quality experience, even during the current market challenges (eg lack of workforce, high input costs etc), will help ensure a community has businesses delivering quality experiences that drive the all important organic and sustainable word of mouth marketing for a destination.
High Value Visitor Focus
A destination isn’t the right fit for all visitors. Therefore destination brand custodians must narrow their focus to visitors who provide a net positive social, economic and environmental benefit to a destination.
To do this, a destination needs to use visitor data, consumer research and community and industry insights to match their unique mix of experiences and their destination's carrying capacity (eg for accommodation and natural attractions) with the highest value visitor groups for their destination.
Storytelling, not Advertising
It’s time to retire the idea that destination's need to be running dedicated campaigns or advertising, especially when many destinations struggle with resourcing and budgets.
Instead, work with the local tourism industry and communities, identify the people, place and experience stories that make your destination unique. Then elevate and amplify these stories through a destination's always on brand activities (owned website/social media/visitor servicing) and partnerships with the right organisations and brands who reach your high value visitors.
Seasonal Messaging Focus
If a destination consistently sees strong visitation from the right visitors at a certain time of year, then shifting to a management focus over peaks season is highly recommended.
Advocate and support initiatives that help local communities and the environment see a net benefit for that time of the year.
Then get clear on the stories and experiences at other times of the year, and focus on sharing these stories via always on channels, and partnership marketing, to help spread visitor demand across the year.
Focused destination website
Focus on uniting the destination website custodians behind a single, high performing destination website for your region.
Make the website focused on inspirational stories + itineraries aimed at a destination's High Value Visitors. Communicate those responsible visitor behavior messages. Direct website users to local tourism experiences, and share call to actions for more support through to your local Visitor Servicing teams.
Don't be afraid to thoroughly review the business case of managing online booking functionality (if you have it). The business case of managing online bookings on a destination website rarely stack up in the many destination website's we've audited. Instead of offering a live booking functionality (which often has a poor user experience), focus on directing destination website visitors directly to local businesses via their ATDW listings or to your local Visitor Servicing teams if they need in-person booking support.
Pragmatic Social Media
Social media can quickly suck resources, time and money.
Yes, destinations must be on social media, but we encourage very pragmatic and minimum viable use only.
Keep it organic only, and don't be tempted to “pay to play”, as people ignore most ads. Only be on the social media channels of where your high value visitor are (we'd question if this is TikTok?). Post less often, but do those posts well (optimise, optimise + optimise). Keep an eye on the algorithm of your social media channels – things change quickly of what's getting the best reach, eg vertical short videos are the current hot trend across many channels.
Have a strong amplification focus – encourage visitors and locals to tag your channels, and amplify only responsible social media photos + videos (avoid sharing posts that encourages poor visitor behaviour or "Insta" over-tourism).
If resources and budgets are tight, we also recommend you don't get caught up in feeding the social media beast with more and more low quality storytelling, which can actually devalue what the destination is about.
Also consider avoiding geo-tagging sensitive natural attractions, so you avoid attracting the “Insta” fame crowd.
Finally be very mindful if you are working with Digital Influencers that they are very well briefed what positive visitor behaviors you want to showcase, they are speading the love away from over-tourismed hot spots, and they are setting the correct expectations with what visitors can expect in a destination.
Finally, the traditional marketing metrics of clicks, reach, view, impressions, circulation etc are only indicators of a visitors path to travel.
Metrics we increasingly build into our destination marketing plans you may like to consider include:
- Community Sentiment - How are locals feeling about visitors? What are the issues they are seeing on the ground? What channels and processes are in place to have these identified and addressed?
- Visitor Sentiment – What are visitors staying about a destination and it's businesses and natural attractions? Is it positive or negative? What are these insights telling us and how do we address them?
- Business Sentiment – How are businesses going? Are they seeing visitors at times of they year they really need them? Are they happy with the visitor mix? What's else do they need support with?
- Local Environment Impacts – How are local natural experiences holding up at peak times of the year? How are local resources coping (water, food security etc)? What’s working/not working? Where are there opportunities for visitors and community to help leave these areas better than they found them?