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Tourism Marketing Trends for Small Destinations in 2023

Tourism Marketing for Small Destinations

As November and December wore on, the predictable slew of articles on tourism marketing trends filled my news feed, as I’m sure it did for many others in the DMO space. Sadly, I didn’t see a lot of attention given to the small towns and destinations off the beaten path. I think that’s just plain rude as I have a particular affinity for them, so I’ve developed recommendations of my own for those areas that have more or less defined travel for the past couple of years.

Trend #1: The Pursuit of the Weird

Trips are still few and far between, so the experiences that travelers are looking for need to be extraordinary. DMOs should look to promote the locations and attractions that make them truly unique by going with the traditional options. Every town has a brewery. Every town has a fall festival. Provide something to the visitor that they can’t find anywhere else.

For example, Alexandria, IN proudly boasts the world’s largest ball of paint, and Pensacola, FL has been running its Annual Mullet Toss event for decades (with dead fish, not hairstyles – although I’m game to see both). These experiences make for some amazing post-vacation stories, and people are looking to tell them. Don’t be afraid to be different – let your freak flag fly.

Trend #2: Room to Breathe

This one is a bit of a mainstay of the pandemic but it’s not going away any time soon. While people are beginning to re-visit urban centers for all of their hustle and nightlife, bookings around state parks and beaches are still among the most popular. In fact, outdoor destinations were leading Kayak’s top-trending list at the end of 2021, with Colorado and Montana making up four of the top 10 trending destinations for 2022. New York City didn’t even make the list.

For smaller destinations, consider using words like “untouched”, “spacious” and “secluded” in your messaging, and promote the attractions that provide that sense of space. There was a time when these words didn’t carry as much weight, but we’re living in interesting times.

Trend #3: The Impulse Traveler

It’s far simpler to just throw some bags in the trunk and hit the open road. And with a new COVID variant every few months, it’s also safer. We saw this become a trend as road trip weekends made an early resurgence during the pre-vaccination summer of 2020, and the trend is now extending into trips with more remote destinations.

Kayak recently reported a 50% increase in searches for trips within seven days. People just aren’t planning as far ahead. And with the convenience of OTAs, they really don’t need to.

To take advantage of this trend, there are a number of strategies. First, make sure that your hotels (or B&Bs, yurts, whatever) are taking advantage of last-minute offers on OTAs and have a strategy for last-minute searches in their mix. Second, make sure that you’re on the up-and-up in the search engines and re-visit your SEO plan. These impulse trips are all developed online (mostly on mobile devices), so prepare for that type of immediate presence.

Trend #4: Feel-Good Tourism

Prior to the pandemic (which feels like 250 years ago), the concept of over-tourism was taking serious shape around the country. Some of our most-loved travel destinations — like Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and even a staircase in New York City — are starting the experience the effects of hosting too many visitors over too much time. And people are taking notice.

Travelers are booking trips with that awareness in mind, and are looking for destinations that are making efforts to reduce their environmental impact. There are some marketing strategies to counter the effects of over-tourism, but making tourism as sustainable as possible does need to include working with your municipality to make a solid long-term plan. This trend isn’t going anywhere.

Travel Trend #5: Wellness Getaways

I think we can all agree that daily life, with all of its conveniences, is seemingly more difficult. Stress and mental health are so prevalent that they don’t seem to make headlines anymore.  A study by the American Psychological Association found that nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, while 3 in 5 (60%) say the number of issues America faces is overwhelming to them.

So it’s no surprise that travelers have a heightened appreciation for vacations. Some destinations like Berkeley Springs, West Virginia are positioned perfectly for this type of traveler. The town is a community that was literally built around a natural spring, and every form of relaxation can be found within ten miles of town. In fact, they have an annual Renewal Festival that showcases and provides discounts for these offerings.

To attract this visitor, consider an itinerary on your website and in your marketing that highlights offerings that restore mind, body, and spirit like hiking retreats, spas, meditation centers, etc.

Travel Trend #6: Unique Accommodations

Maybe it’s the fact that hotel rooms don’t align with visitors’ pursuit of the weird, or maybe because hotels are literally buildings packed with people, but travelers are increasingly looking for alternatives to this:

Travelers are looking for the out-of-the-ordinary, even the extraordinary: cabins, resorts, beachfront houses, and yes, even yurts. They want their in-room experience to be as remarkable and story-worthy as the rest of their trip.

Look for unique accommodations in your area and showcase them. You’ll be surprised at the attention they receive.

Travel Trend #7: The Confidence Boost

Even with the abundance of information and every tool for researching and booking travel available to practically everyone, there is now increased popularity in the concept of a “travel expert”. Brought on by the lack of certainty provided to us in recent years, people are leaning more on experienced local resources to give them the confidence to comfortably book a trip.

If you’ve ever been to London, then you’re familiar with the black cabs and their ridiculously erudite drivers. To be a cabbie in London, you need to undergo a four-year learning process known as “The Knowledge”, where you learn every street’s location, as well as the quickest and most efficient ways to get virtually anywhere in the city.

In a time where GPS is commonplace, it’s easy to ask why “The Knowledge” is even relevant, and here’s where this rambling makes sense. If your driver has invested years of their life in their profession, carries an unmatched knowledge of their surroundings, and can be trusted to give you an optimal experience, can technology really compete?

Of course not. And as destination marketers, you’ve invested years into your profession, carry unmatched knowledge, and can be trusted for an optimal experience. And people are being reminded of that.

To take advantage of this trend, position your organization as the expert that it is. Use the blog section of your website (I’m sure you have one) to provide insider tips and advice, and serve as a source of information for COVID restrictions and any significant events within your community.

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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