Yesterday, I received word that we won a contract with a town that’s hours from any of our offices in Virginia. It’s a small contract, but cost or distance doesn’t change what we consider to be the first – and a very important – part of the client relationship: our Destination Immersion. This is quite different from your typical brand immersion in that the agency is the one being immersed – not the customer.
This part of the agency/client relationship is so important because, as destination marketers, we need to experience what we’re tasked to promote. We need to walk the main streets, talk with the shop owners (and other visitors), and really understand what our clients are so energized about. There’s no amount of research that can replace it. Besides, travel is something that’s inherent to our agency, so a chance to check out a new destination doesn’t feel like work.
Although this may seem like us making up a company-paid mini-vacation, it’s actually a very structured process. There are four steps to this Destination Immersion – steps that you can use to guide your next out-of-town agency.
Step 1: Cultural Immersion
The first step of the Immersion is what you’d likely expect: touring the downtown, stopping in the mom-and-pops, etc. to absorb the culture. We also like to talk with the locals about what they think to be some of the can’t-miss shops and sights. Some pretty interesting conversations usually result from those conversations.
If possible, checking out an event is very helpful. Most downtowns have a Fall Festival or Fourth of July, along with other celebrations that happen throughout the year. Scheduling visits during those times is very helpful.
Step 2: Roads Less Traveled
Once we’ve checked out what’s sure to be some of the main draws to a destination, we like to find those things that maybe only locals know about – the hidden gems that might attract a new type of visitor.
I wrote about the “destination life cycle” earlier and about how most places start off as a little-known secret. That “secret” doesn’t have to be the entire destination; it can be a less-known trail or building that has an audience – they just don’t know about it yet.
Step 3: Capture Everything
When learning about a destination from afar, we’re limited to seeing it through the eyes of someone else. Sure, they may be fantastic photographers, but we like to learn about places from our own perspective.
We also have an idea of how imagery is going to be used in whatever project we’re working on, so taking our own photos and videos will allow us the right framing, angles, pacing and so on to better fit the work. We use everything from simple landscape and architectural photography to drone videos (where allowed, of course).
Step 4: The Bad News
Finally, we want to learn about the inconveniences that visitors experience. In many areas, and usually in historic downtown areas, parking can be frustrating. Maybe there’s only one hotel within walking distance and it’s, well, less than a five-star experience. Or maybe there’s a bagpipe player that likes to play outside on Tuesdays at 2 am (that was really an issue).
We want to get the full picture of a place: the good, the bad, and the unfiltered truth about how visiting, living, and working there feels. From there – and only from there – can we do our best work, create brands that don’t come with caveats, and promote destinations with campaigns that really last.
Of course, all of the things I mention in these steps can be explained over the phone, email, or whatever. But that way of conveying concepts is done by words. Our role as a branding and creative agency is not to rely strictly on words. We need to communicate feelings and promote experiences.
I think that a lot of destination branding falls short because the agency clearly didn’t spend time in the location. When you bring on a new agency, insist on a Destination Immersion, and that they spend a few days in town. The experience is well worth it.