Interview with Bill Geist on the Future of Destination Marketing and the Next Generation of DMOs

Bill Geist of destination consultancy DMOproz in the USA in this interview looks at the future of destination marketing and shares his thoughts on what the next generation of DMOs will (have to) look like, to succeed.

Bill, in your presentations you often stress that destinations should not be built for visitors. Why?

The easy answer is that, for all but those seeking theme-park like experiences, today’s consumer increasingly seeks authenticity in their experiences. Building assets for this consumer is patently not authentic.

But, the deeper answer, for Destination Marketing Organizations, lies in who the end customer is. It’s not our hospitality industry partners…and it is not the travel consumer. It is our fellow residents.

DMOs exist to enhance the quality of place and life for residents.

For those that still believe that DMOs exist to put “heads in beds,” I would suggest they look at DMOs through the eyes of a 4-year old that incessantly asks “why?” If we were to answer the “why” of DMOs with “heads in beds,” the child would ask “why” again. The answer would be “to make hotels profitable,” to which we would get another “why.” If you continue to ask “why” enough times, eventually you end up with the real answer: quality of life for residents.

Thus, what do residents want? Quality of place…and that is not an artificially constructed destination. It is an enhancement of what already exists.

Through your consulting business, DMOproz, you are in constant contact with destination marketing and management organizations. In your experience, how has the role of DMOs changed in recent years?

DMOs used to simply play the hand they were dealt; marketing the assets they possessed. Today’s top DMOs are actively engaged in enhancing the experience for visitors and residents alike.

From advocating for public infrastructure enhancements to working with hospitality partners to create unforgettable experiences, today’s DMOs are intimately involved with the things that make a community flourish.

Which are the main challenges agencies charged with marketing their destinations face today? And how are they overcoming them?

The primary challenge facing today’s DMOs is sustainable funding. As governments struggle with decreasing revenue streams, hospitality taxes are a delectable target. Regardless of the original intent of these taxes to being used to prime the tourism pump, today’s politicians are looking for expediency.

Smart DMOs are responding by identifying private sector revenue streams, such as tourism business improvement district assessment programs and providing marketing services to partner organizations to build community awareness and appreciation.

Private sector investment into destination marketing is the future.

Which will be the key characteristics of successful DMOs in the years to come?

Successful DMOs of the future will exhibit two key characteristics. First, they will understand that they are in business to enhance the quality of lives of residents (not fill hotel rooms, though that is the outcome we all want and need).

This will span from managing the visitor economy so that it is sustainable yet not onerous for our neighbors to advocating for quality of place amenities and developments that will appeal to both visitors and residents.

The other side of the equation will be having a professional staff that works hand in hand with its industry partners to develop the stories that will inspire visits. That will mean having more staff on the streets…not second-hand marketing based on a phone call or reading a news release.

I believe the next-gen DMO will have someone on the streets during the day and into the nighttime hours, identifying and curating all there is to see and do in a destination in real time. And, that content becomes evergreen on our websites.

In your view, what is destination marketing all about?

For the first metro DMO in America in 1896, it was about convincing meeting planners to choose Detroit for their national conventions. The business elite in Detroit knew most Americans wouldn’t travel to Detroit for leisure pursuits…but they were prescient in understanding that, as my friend Maura Gast famously said a decade ago, “it all starts with the visit.” If people were going to invest in Detroit, they had to experience Detroit…and that was only going to happen if they attended a convention there.

And, that’s still what it’s all about.

Destination marketing is about inspiring a visit. And, increasingly, I believe DMOs will be inviting everybody for every reason. A visit. Residency. Starting or expanding a business. Choosing a college. Everything.

But, that is going to require a greater infusion of marketing dollars. Smart communities will understand that restricting their investment in their DMO to hospitality taxes may not be enough to get the job done.

Whether they know it or not, cities and regions are in a serious competition with every other community for residents, businesses and talent. DMOs are their secret weapon in that battle.

How to engage the political and business community in the marketing and branding of a destination?

My favorite example is Visit Tulsa in Oklahoma. If you’ve never experienced Tulsa, you may believe it to be a dusty plains town in the middle of nowhere. That is the image that major corporations in Tulsa were facing every single day as they attempted to recruit companies and a talented workforce. The reality is quite different, as Tulsa is a sensationally cultured metro with a vibrant arts and music scene, great restaurants and amazing neighborhoods. But, for those that have never been, the notion of Tulsa as cool is a foreign concept.

To answer the corporate need for Tulsa to “look cool” to attract a quality workforce, over 50 companies collectively invested roughly $2 million in a Visit Tulsa image campaign to make the community attractive to potential residents. And, not just once…the campaign has been in play for seven years.

Do you have examples where destination marketing has led to tangible benefits beyond tourism, such as attracting talent, investment?

This question reminds me of a time in the early days of social media where a researcher claimed that only 8% of consumers said that social media influenced their choice of destination. The same study also revealed that 88% said that their friends and relatives influenced their travel decisions. But, who do we follow on social media but our friends and relatives? Clearly social media was having an influence by connecting the dots, but people didn’t see the platform as influential.

It’s the same here. We know through the “Halo Study” by Longwoods International that tourism marketing increases consumers’ interest in a destination for things like residency, going to college and starting a business. Can we prove that a community has seen significant economic development gains connected to destination marketing? Not yet. But, I’m pretty sure we will in the future, now that we know the question to ask.

Overcrowding in popular destinations is becoming a serious reputation and management challenge for local decision-makers. How can DMOs contribute to a solution and avoid being seen as part of the problem?

DMOs need to keep their fingers on the pulse of the community more than ever before. At the first hint of push-back, they’ll need to act quickly and decisively to mitigate the issue.

Thankfully, for most destinations, this dilemma is years off. Media exploitation of overtourism in cities where it has become untenable is causing a number of communities to wake-up to the challenge…and that’s a good thing to prepare us for the future.

I think the Netherlands has come forward with the best solution to overcrowding…de-emphasizing Amsterdam and working to move visitors to Rotterdam, Maastricht, The Hague and other destinations in country. Rather than saying “tourists go home,” as so many cities have done, spreading the wealth makes a lot of sense.

In a nutshell, what is your 2017 book Destination Leadership about? What does leadership mean in a destination context?

Destination Leadership is our attempt to explain the art and science of destination marketing to community and business leaders that want to see their communities thrive.

Our first book, Destination Leadership for Boards, was really written for DMO Boards and Executives. The second book expands the concepts from the first with the growing knowledge that one doesn’t need to be on a DMO board to be a destination leader. It hopefully inspires readers to understand and support their community’s DMO and become involved in moving destination development concepts forward.

What role does the use of video play in destination storytelling? Any best practice tips you could share with us?

Nothing grabs a consumer like video. Earlier today, I discovered Australia’s Lord Howe Island. The video on their home page pulled me in for a closer look, way more than words or images ever would have.

As to best practice tips…I can’t stress enough the power of diversity in images. As DMOs, we need to be intentional about projecting a welcoming message. This can’t be left to chance. I can’t tell you how many videos I’ve cringed at because all the faces are white.

And, while the common mantra regarding video and images is “show people enjoying the destination,” I saw a study recently that suggested that images of environmental beauty (with no people) generated more Facebook likes than those images with people, So, beauty is beauty…show ‘em your best side.

Thank you, Bill.

Connect with Bill Geist on LinkedIn or visit his website for further info on his research, work and available services.


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