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How Destination Marketing Can Backfire – and What to Do About It

How Destination Marketing Can Backfire

Every conversation I’ve had with destinations over this summer has had an air of exhausted optimism. Recovery is clearly here and as the throngs of travelers visit our cities and towns over the summer, it can be easy to get swept away. The to-do list has become a thing of nightmares and good-to-haves are often forgotten in the presence of the here-and-now.

Now’s probably a good time to mention the Destination Life Cycle and growth’s impact on it. I won’t talk about it here – after all, I wrote a full article about it. Check it out if you haven’t already – I’ll wait.

Don’t get me wrong: wanting growth isn’t a bad thing. After all, that’s the goal, right? The more visitors you attract, the greater the chance your population grows, more businesses find the area attractive, and the destination prospers.

However, destination marketing can be a double-edged sword. The more effective it is, the more of the “other stuff” you need to do, and the more problems appear that you didn’t have before. Here are a few of the issues that I’ve seen stem from rapid growth – and how to prevent them from working against you.

Reactionary Recruitment. Leading up to this summer, many destinations had a skeleton crew or worse: a department of one. With increased hotel tax revenue, ARPA funding and other sources, there are some options for hiring some relief.

The problem I’ve seen with that is a rampant case of reactionary recruitment. There’s not a lot of time to recruit, interview, onboard, etc. Many DMOs are hiring from the bargain bin to save money. Others are simply hiring people that are only good at being interviewed.

There are many ways to avoid getting caught in this trap. My favorite – and probably most obvious – is to lean on your board, which probably has business owners on it; people who do a lot of hiring. It’s better to ask them for help than having to report a lousy hire.

Unprepared Infrastructure. We all know how much of a toll that events can take on a destination. Staff and volunteers can get burned out, trash cans are overflowing, natural beauty becomes less beautiful, greenscapes are a bit less green – you get the idea.

What often goes unnoticed is the damage done outside of the events. The wear-and-tear that can happen to places over time in the form of damage to cultural and heritage sites, littering, graffiti, ignoring community design guidelines – the list goes on.

To keep an eye on this, consider forming a community design committee (many communities have a review board to govern changes to building facades and public areas, but this is a bit different). This group of community advocates keeps an eye on how the community is being used, sets safeguards in place to prevent irreparable damage, and works toward making the community ready for higher numbers of visitors. The things they notice can help the messaging in your destination marketing as well.

They may be seen as a “downtown HOA”, so make sure that you make their mission known and what locals can – or can’t – do ahead of time.

Also, work on some best practices for sustainable tourism. I know, we seem to hear that phrase at least twice a week. But it’s important.

Citizen Revolt. This is one of the more immediate consequences. Residents complain about the overcrowded sidewalks, lack of parking, rowdy tourists, etc. Many people move to smaller destinations to escape all of that, so you’ll be sure to hear from them.

And it’ll come from your businesses, too. They’re not happy with the types of customers they get in, they’re upset that people want to shop more than dine (or vice versa), they need to stay open later and staffing is tough – all legitimate reasons.

In fact, mostly all the complaints are probably legitimate. But if growth is the goal, how can you accomplish this while keeping the natives from burning down the visitor center?

The answer lies in smart growth. Be particular early in the marketing planning process with clearly defining who the right visitors are and create a plan to only attract them. Boosting posts on Facebook to stuff your sidewalks will not get you there. You need to be able to target, message, promote and attract different audience segments for different reasons.

Yes, this process is slower and should be done while visitation is in decent shape. But it’ll transform your operation and provide a great addition to the traditional pillar approach.

Ignoring Your Marketing. This is one of the most insidious repercussions of explosive visitation. You’re overwhelmed with tourism, your infrastructure needs attention – shoot, everything seems to need attention. The last two words on your mind are “destination marketing”.

And that’s when things begin to slip. Events or their details are loaded on the website at the last minute, the creative spark starts to fade, social media becomes repetitive and uninspired, yadda yadda. The problem with this is that people are still watching. The steps you took to get people into town aren’t being taken and the eventual effect of inaction on your end is, well, inaction on their end.

The solution to this is simple: keep destination marketing a priority. Develop a committee (board members, volunteers, business owners, whoever) to keep an eye on promotions and make sure that the same level of outreach is maintained.

Incorporate systems to simplify where you can with social media publishing, email automation, bulk loading of events and even bulk designing of your event collateral. It takes a good amount of front-loading, but it can be done during the slower seasons or with the use of an agency or freelancers.

Neglecting your communication with your audience is the #1 cause of death in not just tourism marketing, but in all forms of marketing.

In conclusion, it’s not lost on me that this article has been full of more things for you to do. But I don’t expect you to do them know. When your off-season comes (and unless you’re Las Vegas or New York, it will), make these things a priority. This summer is the result of what you did months ago – there’s little to change that now. Do these things as you plan for the next travel season; you’ll be glad you did.

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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