The New Role of the Destination Marketing Organization
Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) have traditionally served one primary role during their history: sales and marketing of the destination, usually in order to help area hoteliers fill beds. This sales and marketing function usually extended to the operation of visitor centers in the community, but that was as close to bricks-and-mortar development as most DMO’s ever got. The idea of product development or destination “management” (working with various local stakeholders to enhance the appeal of the destination and its ability to generate revenue for the community) was a mostly foreign notion.
That’s all changing in the 21st century. An effective DMO now takes an active role in the management of the destination, rather than passively waiting for someone else—private or public—to step forward and identify opportunities which enhance the visitor experience and the local tax base. In particular, the new DMO is a catalyst for product development which could include both “soft” products (events, thematic trails, etc.) and bricks-and-mortar projects. This active participation in the enhancement of the destination experience may include recruiting developers and investors; identifying sources of funding; working closely with local, state, and federal government leaders; and bringing area stakeholders together for the mutual benefit of the community and themselves.
A 2008 survey of 244 DMO executives by the Cheyenne Area CVB showed that 40% of DMOs are engaged in “active” product development, while another 10% are taking a “major” role in destination management by helping finance or overseeing development of significant visit experience products. This is in addition to the traditional responsibility assigned to the DMO of destination sales and marketing. Such levels of engagement by the DMO would have been rare a generation ago. Much of this trend reflects the increasing recognition of travel and tourism as a significant form of economic development, and the support it provides to small businesses.
This issue will feature one such case, an innovative approach to destination management in St. Johns County, Florida. PGAV Destinations recently completed a destination master plan there, encompassing all facets of destination management.
Q&A with Glenn Hastings
Executive Director, St. Johns County Tourism Development Council
What is the future of tourism development?
For years, tourism development meant advertising and promotion. That’s changing to be more holistic and comprehensive. It now means managing not just your current assets but what you will need to economically sustain tourism in the future. You must monitor the health of your industry, in terms of reinvestment and revenue generated, and weigh the benefits against all impacts. New product development goes along with being proactive. Even in a historic destination, the way you present your destination is constantly evolving with technology and expectations.
How do you make changes?
Consider the life cycle of your market: owners of an aging hotel or attraction may or may not reinvest in their product. In today’s competitive environment, you need new investment with new products, such as venues for sporting events, and interactive experiences rather than static displays. These are the tourism development tools that make the difference, more so than the most expensive advertising campaigns and brochure designs.
Too often, this responsibility for developing a destination has been left to the private sector. Not every investor is in it for the long haul. Let’s say, we have a water park, and the CVB’s role is to advertise the water park. This scenario keeps the CVB at the mercy of others. As tourism managers, we can look at ways to put together public/private partnerships to create the image and maintain the products and experiences that visitors are looking for.
Explain being visitor-centric.
It’s a different mindset. You need to continuously look at the changing expectations of visitors and whether you meet those expectations. If you are not visitor-centric, you need to be. You’ve got to do whatever you can to meet the expectations of your customers, rather than working so hard to adapt the customer to the destination.
There is a changing profile of travelers. They want us to spark their interests and enjoy being educated while on vacation. Maybe it’s a reaction to homogenization and big box businesses, the same ones on every corner in every city. Dare to be different.
You need to be honest and consistent with visitors. Your destination and your stories need to be authentic, unless you are Orlando or Las Vegas. Visitors tell their friends and relatives about their experiences. They get on Facebook and repeat the whole story. That’s the best, that’s the value of management versus marketing.
Describe the master planning process.
We have an opportunity ahead with our historic celebration, and we want to take full advantage of it. It’s so important to have a planner from the outside look at qualities we have and evaluate how complete or incomplete they are. That’s tourism management.
We have a great story line, but throughout the experience, there were broken links. Because we didn’t have the complete product, the visitor would leave disappointed. In our situation, authenticity is king. You have to be a real destination with real history. But when it is more common to see the private sector offering products made in China rather than locally relevant arts and crafts, our value as a great historical destination becomes diminished. We have some great walking tours, but some are admittedly a bit cheesy. The stories aren’t always real. We have a lot of romance here, but something could come along and take you out of the mood. We’re fixing all of these things.
Have you faced resistance?
Sure, there are cases of the private sector being more interested in short term gain than long-term strategy. However, there is great interest in our new approach because of the history and uniqueness of our destination. We have to convince people that they are stewards of this history, teach them about their responsibility, and convey how their thinking affects business down the road. If they’re hawking tee shirts on the street, it takes away from our authenticity brand. Remember, it’s much harder to market your way out of problems, because your budget will probably never be big enough.
We’re solving problems by marketing our brand to our private sector and developers. One concept that came out of the master plan is the idea of an Outfitter Center, as a place for tour guides and entrepreneurs to in effect have a storefront and a staff they can afford. If you are a one-man-band you can’t be leading a kayaking tour and taking reservations at the same time. This provides a convenience for visitors, but is also about creating jobs through tourism. Encouraging people who are passionate about the outdoors and wildlife to share their passion with visitors will result in both a better visitor experience and economic development.
We’re tying together our assets – history, golf and agriculture – in new ways to be the authentic framework of our brand. It seems to be a natural fit.
Your advice to other destinations?
Go out and talk to people. The tourism industry has not been the best about communicating, because we assumed we were stuck with what local business provided. We’ve got to be proactive and educate businesses to do things differently. Again, be the voice of the visitors in telling your businesses what your visitors want. That’s how you will sustain tourism.
Product Development for America’s First Coast
St. Johns County sits in the northeastern corner of Florida, where some of the earliest European settlers first set foot on what would become the continental United States. Nearly 450 years ago, Spanish explorers founded the City of St. Augustine there, creating one of the most unique and varied destinations in America. Today the County maintains a powerful connection to its heritage, as well as exceptional beaches, golf, and resorts centered around the Ponte Vedra Beach area.
Drawing from the County’s inherent core strengths, underutilized assets, brand strategy, and potential growth audiences, PGAV developed a series of new product concepts. These concepts were developed through extensive consultation with County residents and stakeholders, all of whom spoke passionately about the future of the County and its tourism industry. All of these concepts were validated through multiple phases of consumer testing to affirm their potential to generate tourism growth, including focus groups in a major feeder market (Atlanta), an online quantitative survey focused in the Southeast and New York City, and a panel of meeting planners located east of the Mississippi.
Some of what we learned:
Not surprisingly, new products that were unique to the County’s heritage, setting, or natural assets fared much better than products that could be found elsewhere.
We found that there was significant potential to develop cultural attractions that would enable the County to “own” the authentic family destination market in the region (as opposed to the family market in Orlando/Central Florida). This would be reinforced by the development of such products as an interactive aquarium that emphasizes the area’s natural assets and marine life.
We found that the County could become known as a destination for African American and Hispanic audiences by investing in experiences interpreting these aspects of its heritage.
The County’s exceptional outdoor nature and recreational assets have great potential, but require a significant investment in a “big move” such as a “Destination Outfitter Center” or “Florida Nature Center.”
Arts and culture already thrive in St. Johns County, but the County does not have a signature style or type. Consumer research showed that specific investments in the development of cohesive, pedestrian-friendly arts districts would be very popular, and enhance the County’s profile as an arts destination.
Culinary tourism, while a major trend in the US, is not currently well represented in St. Johns County. Survey respondents were favorable towards food-centered events, such as an Aspen-style food and wine festival, and an emphasis upon local foods.
PGAV Destinations, along with Magellan Strategy Group and The Marketing Workshop, was retained by the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council (TDC) to develop a destination master plan. This plan was conceived to outline a course for the growth of the County’s tourism economy.
Key points of the PGAV plan include:
- Nine brand strategies to distinguish the County from other Southeastern destinations.
- Six strategic growth opportunities, based on the County’s core strengths. Six infrastructure elements to create a consistent in-market experience.
- Marketing and promotional strategies that clearly communicate the County’s unique tourism assets.
- More than thirty-five growth initiatives that are prioritized for implementation.