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WebinarsDestination Marketing

Destination Marketing Strategies to Counter COVID



Hello everyone and thank you for joining us today as we cover some destination marketing strategies to help our local restaurants, breweries, wineries, and so on through what’s projected to be a tough winter. This is a pretty ambitious webinar but COVID cases are climbing, which may push us to further restrictions at a time when it could hurt those businesses the most.

My name is Patrick King and I’m the founder of Imagine. Founded in 2004, we’re a multi-disciplinary branding and marketing firm that focuses on four main areas: research, strategy, branding, and execution. Within execution, we provide web development, social media management, email marketing, video production – essentially, we serve as a virtual marketing department to clients in the local tourism and hospitality space.

We have offices in Richmond, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia, so destinations in the Commonwealth are our primary focus. We’ve worked with establishments throughout the country, but we always bring what we’ve learned back home for clients within our own communities. You’ll see a couple of those businesses used as examples in today’s presentation.

Today’s talk will have three main areas: helping audiences move through their customer journey, enhancing promotion, building a strong brand, and finally, any questions that come up along the way. As questions come up, please feel free to throw them in the chat and we’ll get them all answered at the end.


Destination Marketing: The Customer Journey

Ok, the customer journey. Every business has one, whether they plan to or not. Today, we won’t just outline what that process typically is, we’re also going to talk about reducing or eliminating those points of friction where people tend to drop off. We’re starting here because when it’s time to go heavy on promotion, we want all of our other ducks in a row and have a strong foundation for destination marketing. It can be really disappointing to begin a big campaign, only to find out that maybe something was wrong on your menu or your customers aren’t leaving as many positive reviews as they could. So, let’s get that foundation first.

This is the usual flow. Our audience starts by becoming aware either through social, intentional search, word of mouth, and so on. Once they start to take action – check reviews, visit your website – they enter the activity phase. This point is crucial since it’s here that they decide whether or not to take action and it’s here where most people drop off – what we call the “conversion gap”. It’s the first real point of friction and an area to give particular attention.

When that gap does get crossed, our work isn’t done yet. We then need to encourage repeat business because, as we all know, it’s cheaper to keep a customer than to earn a new one.

Finally, we want to encourage advocacy – the intentional, positive promotion of the brand.


Don’t Just Get Customers. Get Advocates.

It’s during this advocacy phase that customers reach out to their friends, invest their social equity into sharing their experiences on social media, and you begin to reach new audiences that you may not have been able to before. The greater the advocacy, the greater the awareness, and that’s where your marketing efforts begin to deliver exponential results.

So now, a few things that are often overlooked that can make a big difference in setting our foundation.


Google My Business for Destinations

First, Google My Business. This resource can be used for much more than an initial awareness tool.

As I’m sure we’ve all seen but take for granted, a Google My Business listing, when set up properly, gets a ton of organic search visibility. You can see here how it dominates the search results. This is a listing for one of our clients in Charleston, South Carolina that has two locations and is in the process of opening their third.

When you log into your GMB account, there are a number of boxes for us to cover. First, your account is provided a posting ability similar to Facebook or any other social channel. However, the strategy for this shouldn’t be looked at the same way. These posts aren’t shared, seldom get likes or comments, but they do allow the business owner to share upcoming events or specials and it really stands out in the listing.

I know I just said that these posts are used for making announcements and that’s not the same as what other channels are for. When you post to other channels, you want shares and conversation – those are very important in other places. Here, it’s a more one-way focus with less discussion. And it helps to show Google that your business is active, so it improves your chances of the listing being shown higher up in places like Google Maps – as well as in your traditional search results.

Next, and possibly the most important, are your reviews. We live in a time of increasing uncertainty, so having a slew of recent, positive reviews can make the difference in whether or not someone tries you out. And once again, reviews play heavily into Google’s ranking algorithm, so consistent, recent, positive reviews from real users will have a profound impact on that conversion gap problem. We’ll talk a bit later about how to increase your reviews.


Using images for more than, well, images.

Finally, images. While having images of food makes perfect sense and your customers will often take care of this for you, this is also an area to showcase your new hours, upcoming entertainment, or ways that you and your staff are taking safety precautions. Remember, this can be used for sharing information as well – not just pretty pictures.

All in all, a GMB listing developed completely and with intention, and updated as part of your overall social strategy, will build awareness, improve action, and ultimately work to sustain your bottom line.

Speaking of updated business hours – which we can all agree are important, many destinations we see don’t take full advantage of their header images on their social accounts.

The space taken up at the top of social profiles is often wasted with a blown-up shot of an entrée or, in many cases, left blank. The business hours section, while visible, is easy to overlook. Take advantage of this header space by sharing a graphic of new hours, upcoming events, promotions, coupon codes, whatever. It can still be attractive and on-brand, but it can also help provide timely information.


Reviews as Part of Overall Destination Marketing

I mentioned reviews earlier and it’s worth diving deeper into them. People are more inclined to post a review when something unusual happens and sadly, it’s often when things are unusually bad.

We’ve seen QR codes make a comeback as a contactless way to view the restaurant’s menu, so let’s leverage them to boost positive reviews. When your staff feels confident that a customer had a great experience, have a stack of business card-sized review requests on hand. These can be cheaply printed and have 2-3 QR codes on them for customers to easily leave a positive review before leaving. They can also take it with them if they’re in a hurry, to remind them to do so later.

And since I mentioned restaurant menus, I’d also like to point out that many restaurants have their menus posted in multiple locations. Make sure that, when a menu item is modified, added, or removed, that you’ve covered everywhere your menu is shown. If an entrée is listed to be served with mashed cauliflower and the customer gets mashed potatoes, that could be a problem – one that’s easy to avoid.


Google Ads: a Little Can Go a Long Way

A couple more points to enhance the customer journey. It’s no surprise that searches for food delivery have more than quadrupled during this year, and the results are often dominated by DoorDash, Grubhub, and others. For a small Google Ads spend of $10 a day, you can improve your business’s visibility on maps and organic search. If customers go to your website instead of those other guys, you have better control of which service they use, ultimately saving you money on delivery expenses.


Social Media Best Practices

Before we move to the promotion – the real strategies of destination marketing, I want to go over some social media best practices that we talked about in a recent webinar for this same industry. If you missed the social media webinar, you can find it on YouTube or email me and I’ll send you a copy. It’s a very deep dive into how social media has changed, which practices still prove to be effective, and a step-by-step process to overhaul your social media program.

Ok, while I’m sure that felt like a marketing strategy, that was just the groundwork. Doing what I’ve covered so far may not make a significant change on its own, but it’ll make the work we’re about to cover far more. effective.

In this next section, we’re going to work on making your establishment hard to ignore.


Promoting Your Destination: Be Hard to Ignore

Every establishment that’s successful on social media has one or two ambassadors in their team. This is a person that has a significant active following and shares the personality of the business in a way that’s fun and conversational.

Assign at least one social media champion – the more, the better. The owner or owners would be ideal, but anyone with a following would work. Make sure the content is personal but on-brand.

These are posts for a couple of restaurants near our Manassas office. In fact, CJ Finz is directly downstairs. They’re fortunate to have multiple social media champions that have large followings. The reason why I say that the owner or owners would be ideal is, well, you can see from the owner on the right how much more engagement they can get if they’ve cultivated their own audience. Chris Sellers does a great job of sharing short, conversational videos to keep his customers engaged. They’re not well-produced and they don’t have to be. In fact, the simpler the video, the better that people can relate.


Email Marketing: Often Ignored

Next, and I know this isn’t a secret, but hardly any restaurants email regularly. This is a massive missed opportunity. You don’t need to send emails weekly, but every other week can go a long way.

I understand that I’m covering a lot of additional things that an already-busy business owner could do. But beyond the argument that you can work smarter and be more effective by using the same hours in a day, you don’t want to wait until you have plenty of time to do this because it’s when you have plenty of time that it’s too late.

A MailChimp account is free to start, and it’s super easy to use. We can help any business get set up with it and provide training to help them make it part of their marketing program.


Destination Marketing via Employer Outreach

Another destination marketing strategy that’s proven successful is active outreach to major employers. When we were helping Cuban Gypsy Pantry open their second location, the first place we went to is to the major employers in their area. There were three: the Boeing plant, the Bosch plant, and the local military base. Each opportunity needed its own approach, but by focusing on three areas, we got in front of 33,000 people that need to eat lunch every day. Provide an introductory discount, host an employee after-hours, or contact their HR department to research catering opportunities.

Next, and I know this slide is hard to read, is to leverage your positive reviews. Don’t limit the visibility of these to the platform where they were posted. Instead, get more miles out of them by cross-posting them to all of your channels. Not only are they effective in getting new customers, but you’re providing the original reviewer a bit of a celebrity moment and that does encourage repeat business.

You can also get other free resources to share your reviews.


Google Marketing Kit

My favorite is the Google Marketing Kit. You can get free social graphics, printed posters, table tents, stickers – really tons of stuff – printed with your customer reviews. It’s really easy – just go to this website and get started. All you need is a Google My Business account with a couple of positive reviews. That’s it – you don’t even pay for shipping.


Influencer Dinners

If you want to boost your social audience, one of the best ways I’ve seen this done is by hosting “influencer dinners”. Every community has social media users with large active followings and this concept works – even if you don’t have a social media champion on staff.

Host a quarterly, invitation-only dinner for less than 12 influencers in your area. You’ll need the meals to be free, but this is a destination marketing investment that pays off. Provide an impeccable experience and they’ll share it with their followers. At the end of the event, ask them who they’d recommend attending the next one and cycle through influencers.

To show that this concept works, one restaurateur gave it a brand of its own and now holds these events in three countries. There’s a whole platform designed around it and you can find it on Facebook. You don’t have to expand it to something like this, but the growth of this program was based on the power of influencers. You can develop a manageable program like this for your business.


Destination Marketing via SMS

The final destination marketing strategy is SMS or text marketing. Emails are great but not everyone interacts with them. Text marketing gets a 99% open rate and an ROI that makes it worth considering. It’s low-cost, high-touch, and as complicated as sending out a text-only email.

The platform we recommend is EZTexting. They have a pay-as-you-go plan so there’s no big upfront cost or long-term commitment.


You Can’t Do It All – We Don’t Expect You To.

Of course, we know that these can’t all be done. Some will make sense for your business while others may not. It really takes a strategy of 4-5 elements to grow your business over the winter.

You may remember Chris Sellers from earlier. His social media activity, combined with 2-3 other tactics, has given him his best 2nd and 3rd quarters ever. To be growing in a time when other restaurants are barely holding on is remarkable and it’s due to employing only a handful of tools and doing them consistently.

And consistency is vital to your strategy. Even when your destination marketing is working, do not slow down. You need to build momentum to get you through harder times. So don’t pump the brakes.


Branding: Elevate the Experience

Ok, let’s talk about branding. Yes, we know it’s important but it’s even more important – and harder to manage – nowadays when your expertly-prepared meals look great in the restaurant but look like this in their kitchen. The delivery process can be messy and when your packaging looks like everyone else’s, you can’t provide an elevated brand experience.

I’ve seen some creative – and cost-effective – approaches to bringing a brand into the homes of customers. Many restaurants provide recipes and ingredients for people to recreate their meals at home, which is surprisingly popular during this time of increased DIY.

I recently attended a bartending class via Zoom where I learned how to make a half-dozen different variations of an old-fashioned. I learned about whiskey types, dark rum recipes, all at home. It cost me $10 and the Zoom meeting was packed. If you have the talent on staff, this is a great opportunity to project your brand into the homes – and lifestyles – of your customers. Simply deliver the ingredients shortly before the meeting and they’re all set.

Next, think about when you get a delivery order at home. And it’s not just food. Many Amazon shippers like to add a little something extra to their orders to improve the customer experience. A quick handwritten thank you can go a long way, but it doesn’t need to stop there. Pack some crayons and coloring pages if a kid’s meal was in the order. The sky is the limit and it doesn’t have to be expensive – just something unexpected that delights the customer.


Restaurants: Change Up Your Menu

This is more of a hack than a tactic. Since the pandemic started, baked goods and dessert sales have gone through the roof. Many restaurants are reporting increased dessert sales, which usually have a higher sales margin. People are less inclined to order dessert when they’ve already eaten their meal, but they order them more often when they’re still hungry.

Are your desserts sales up? Put them at the top of your menu instead of the bottom. Organize the rest of the menu this way as well. You don’t have to stick to the same old “appetizer”, “entrée”, “dessert” format.


Share Your Story.

Next, take a look at your website. This can often be the biggest opportunity for brand experience for carryout or delivery customers. For the Gypsy Pantry, we wanted to tell the story of the restaurant and put the owners front and center. This is an approach that doesn’t work with Domino’s or the big guys. Showing that the people in the kitchen are members of the same community and people just like the rest of us can create an instinctive connection that goes a long way in building a brand.


Your website is also a place for more than food. Many restaurants, like our client Zandra’s here, adds merchandise options to their online ordering. You can have one or two items like t-shirts or masks that you have on hand.

Or you can run with the idea like we have at Imagine. You may make a little bit of money from this approach but it’s the brand presence that really pays off. With dropshippers popping up left and right, you can set up on-demand printing and shipping that you don’t have to manage. Someone orders a piece of merch and the dropshipper takes care of the rest. These are two different destination marketing approaches that can help keep your brand out in the world.


Conclusion: Don’t Be Ordinary

Finally, keep it fun. Stay creative and stay passionate about doing things differently. In one of our recent podcast episodes, our guest Allen Adamson shared four words that resonate throughout everything I’ve covered today.

People don’t share “ordinary”. They share emotional experiences – things they want others to see. Don’t settle for “ordinary” – constantly pursue extraordinary.

Speaking of podcast, I’d be a poor promoter if I didn’t share our podcast, the Imagine Nation Podcast. It’s available pretty much anywhere you listen to podcasts and our most recent episode just dropped an hour ago. We publish an episode every other week and it’s designed to help businesses to continue thinking differently and moving from ordinary to extraordinary.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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