City Nation Place Forum 2020: Recap and Key Takeaways

A few weeks ago the 2020 City Nation Place forum took place – this year virtually. Izaskun Zurbitu-Aldama, a lecturer at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian, Spain, was the lucky winner of a free pass offered by TPBO. Here she shares her reflections and key takeaways from the event.


With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging on, City Nation Place was one of the greatest virtual events that made me think about the knowledge opportunities that this pandemic is giving us.

It is a great time to rethink and rebuild. We need to “make places” or “remake” places in the most literal meaning. Where has the whole effort of “place branding” gone to?  Where did our customers go to? The City Nation Place conference brought some bright light in this pessimistic period. Here is some food for thought.

Reshaping place brands

City branding has always been a fascinating and complex issue. Attracting tourists is just one side of the coin. City branding includes managing people, challenges and crisis at the cities level.  In response to this new world we are living in, place branding has to be rethought and reshaped for the new post-pandemic reality.

The great panel discussion with Laura Aalto (London & Partners), Sharon Landes-Fischer (Tel Aviv Global), Wilfred Marube (KEPROBA), Stephane Paquet ( Montreal International) and Dana Young ( Visit Florida), gave us some interesting ideas about how to rebuild our brands from the marketing and destination agencies’ point of view.  It is worth noting some specific actions such as tracking local tourists in Florida, using digital tools in innovative ways and building new collaborations with entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv.

The role of citizens is changing

Locals are key to success, to create and re-make places.  Leading thinkers, explained Dan Holowack, co-founder and CEO of CrowdRiff in his presentation, recently introduced a new model where the locals act as ambassadors and co-create the harmony for destinations.  Exploring their own cities and championing their local businesses makes locals participate to a very powerful degree within their cities and be an essential part of the authentic ecosystems. Bottom-up approaches must gain ground in place branding – starting from the new consumers and locals and reflecting our new way to understand the world.  This was one interesting and much debated topic during the whole 6th annual City Nation Place conference.

Cooperation now more important than ever

Placemaking” needs cooperation between different agents, private, public and civil society, to understand what makes a place unique and attractive. Cooperation is also strongly needed in critical situations to reshape the region/ city brand. Keith Tan, CEO of Singapore Tourism, opened my eyes to understanding that place branding is not only about attracting investors, tourists, and talented people.  It is really about   creating and improving a place’s social, cultural, and environmental dimensions. Most consumers that are active nowadays are local and that gives us a new vision of our own countries and cities. It was great to be inspired by Singapore’s way of thinking and working in this pandemic on how to build confidence among the local actors and sectors. Learning from specific examples, such as the unique “Hong Kong – Singapore travel bubble”, was inspiring.

Confidence and trust are the priority

In this shaky environment, pillars of place branding are trembling. A simple but powerful concept like “safe destination” has a new and different meaning now than in 2018. Rebuilding trust and confidence within the new parameters is essential in the eyes of investors, visitors and locals.

Singapore is an extraordinary example of how to develop and build real actions and policy initiatives that regain trust and confidence from the public health perspective. Great examples were given on how the cruise and MICE sectors are piloting new experiences with real customers.

Prioritizing consumers’ needs as opposed to profits is a must for the long term.  Customers’ current trust is a powerful indicator for building future engagement and loyalty, said Shaun Loftman, Executive Creative Director CEMEA for LANDOR & FITCH, in his brilliant presentation on what the future of brand-centered placemaking should be.

Communication is key

One of the key lessons that must be learned is that creating simple and effective communication is essential. Forget about long protocols and encyclopaedias. Simple and compelling storytelling is key to create and keep awareness for our future tourists and current friends.

Food and wine play a strong connection role with locals through local businesses and consumption of local products. Furthermore, far-away potential tourists may also be connected with our cities and regions through exported gastronomic goods, which they can enjoy at home anywhere.

Leigh Dawber, CMO at Cape Town Tourism, showed how premium local food and great wine can inspire us to travel with our imagination in a way no other element can. No other city will tell the same enriching story than Cape Town. Adding a gastronomy story is also a key inspirational element to the “Motor Valley” storytelling in Emilia Romagna. In this case, Massimo Bottura, the three Michelin-star chef in Modena, adds additional value to an already extraordinary route among the most luxury motor car factories in Italy.

Furthermore, Jim Piercy, Creative Director, WSJ, explained the role of the partnerships with trustworthy media and highlighted the importance of quality content creation especially in this virtual world that we are living in.

Think about the future but act now

Jonathan Woetzel, Managing Director of the McKinsey Global Institute, in the webinar also pointed out that “a pandemic is a gateway before one world and the next” (A. Roy, Financial Times, 2020). Technology is the key to that gateway. Thinking about the future, he insists that cities need to innovate to sustain their economic growth in the next few years. COVID-19 is a real opportunity for cities to address problems with innovative solutions and business models, making their destinations more sustainable thanks to digitalization and contactless experiences.

Examples of what this can look like were shared in the interesting conversation among The Travel Foundation and Andrew Grossman (Colorado Tourism Office), Kevin Eshkawkogan (Indigenous Tourism Ontario), Patricia Maher (Grenada Tourism Authority) and Kim Robertson (Scottish Enterprise).


Did you miss City Nation Place 2020? Worry not – digital delegate packages are still available, allowing you to access all recorded presentations online. More info here.

The Place Brand Observer supported the City Nation Place congress as media partner.

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