Interview with Antonios Giannopoulos on Destination Branding, Tourism and Innovation

Antonios Giannopoulos is an expert in marketing and communication, specialising in the services industry with accumulated experience in marketing strategy and implementation. Antonios currently serves as the Programme Manager of BA/MA at the Hotel and Tourism Management Department of the Business College of Athens (BCA). He is also an adjunct faculty member at the Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB) and founder of The Voyager Voice. 

Learn about:

  • Opportunities for innovation in tourism;
  • The differences between destination marketing and destination management;
  • Some of the common mistakes in tourism communication;
  • Three skills needed for tourism managers to be successful.

Antonios, do you remember who or what triggered your initial interest in place marketing and place branding?

I have always liked the picture of people with somewhere to go. Seeking the new place, the new destination did actually challenge me the most; many different places, names with little or no differentiation, with various backgrounds and communication efforts.

My initial interest found its way through my first steps in travel journalism in Greece and abroad. Later on, during my MBA, I focused on the measurement of destination image. Although my Ph.D. was in hospitality marketing, I never ceased to deal with the parallel investigation of place and destination branding as well as public and cultural diplomacy.

I travel to explore and accumulate experiences from people and places, which helps me better understand the reality of place marketing and place branding, coupled with their very essence through scholarly research.

Based on your experience as an academic and practitioner, where does the biggest gap lie when it comes to research and practice on place branding?

I still remember a discussion I had with members of our research team a few years ago — while at the Athens Laboratory of Research in Marketing. How could we officially start talking about branding Greece as a nation? The need and the opportunities already existed, but how can a nation be perceived as a “product”? Would it be interesting to read such an article in a Sunday newspaper?

Nowadays, it is considered a promising area in such a way that place branding has become the central part of the agenda in business articles, seminars, and conferences. But the question remains: what do we really mean by place branding? Is it a communication-only activity?

Throughout my career, I have been involved in business marketing (as a marketing and communication manager), many tourism projects (such as the Tourism Satellite Account) and reviews in the hospitality industry (e.g. hotels, restaurants). I would certainly say that the implementation of the marketing concept (and branding, of course) is largely connected with market orientation.

Slogans and glossy papers don’t make a company, business, country or place more market-oriented.

Back in 1980, Shapiro very well highlighted that “it takes a philosophy and culture to go deep in the organization”; let alone the more complicated notion of a place.

Dr Antonios GiannopoulosWhat is the role of innovation in tourism marketing and place branding? Is there room for innovation in the sector and where exactly do you see such opportunities?

Strange as it may sound, marketing and innovation ignite cross-fertilisations that contribute to the overall positive performance of tourism destinations and place brands. They produce results, while all the rest are costs, as Peter Drucker profoundly stated (1974). The activities falling under the umbrella of tourism marketing and place branding require a number of service performances.

By its nature, service looks like a theatrical performance with the interaction of players (service providers) and audience (other stakeholders) acting for the success of make-believe. The people element is omnipresent either in everyday interactions or those encounters that turn out to be small miracles.

Irrespective of the objective of innovation (product, process, etc.), tourism marketing and place branding innovations can largely benefit from their focal element, namely people. Dividing the place branding and tourism marketing strategy into the invisible (internal systems, processes, operations) and visible part (external activities, applications, outcomes), human-intensive operations take place behind the scenes, while human capital for frontline positions is indispensable.

Thriving creative industries also impact tourism and place branding with the aid of innovation ecosystems, which foster tourism and cultural development through the growing market of the app economy.

Notwithstanding the high-tech momentum, we should not neglect that the people element lies beneath. This is the reason why IoT and smart tourism solutions should not be viewed from their high adoption level of new technology but the required level of market competence.

It is the humanization of technology, which reinforces the ease of use and responsiveness in the service delivery process in the hospitality and tourism industry (e.g. from travel search, booking, through check-in, in-flight to baggage collection in airline services).

To your mind, which elements render a place branding initiative effective? How would you describe success in place branding and could you give us an example?

In a recent work, we tried to examine the common elements that characterize strong place brands; the analysis of field interviews resulted in a framework, which rests on the pillars of brand development and brand maintenance over time. The stages that lead to a successful strategy were further classified; it is fascinating to see the esprit de corps in almost all the activities undertaken, as well as the need for coordination and commitment enhance the process toward an additional and distinct form of sustainable, competitive advantage.

Place branding is an exceptionally complicated task based on the synchronization of a myriad of experiences, products, and services.

Since we are talking about places, we should take multiple stakeholders with various interests into account. In later research, we investigated place branding effectiveness applying this model to the field of countries as destination brands. The cases of France (Rendez-Vous en France) and Greece (a variety of brand messages studied over a defined period) were discussed by researchers and practitioners in the frame of the implementation and evaluation of a destination branding success story. This study received fruitful feedback during a conference which was held in a region, which now has become a very significant branding initiative, namely Greater Copenhagen.

Even though we usually discuss the internationally established image of countries and cities as examples of place branding, it is also the context (time, space and culture) that may make such a case worth mentioning.

In the era of the “closing-borders syndrome,” cross-border joint forces between Denmark and Sweden set up a new cooperation to leverage extroversion and competitiveness, improve the business environment and boost excellence. The project develops and promotes the metropolitan region that spans Eastern Denmark and Skåne in Southern Sweden (including both Copenhagen and Malmö) as the epitome of business, live, work, study and visit in Northern Europe.

Also, current turbulence after BREXIT unveils a new case worth monitoring over the next few years with the primary focus on the significant challenges posed to the UK in the field of nation branding.

What role do hotels have within the tourism industry and in destination branding?

A primary concern for tourism managers stems from the interdependence of tourism products and services. As part of the tourism value chain, hotel management has only low-level control over destination accessibility, image, everyday life, etc. However, as part of destination brand development, hotels can be useful as the main source of market intelligence (e.g. get to know tourists’ needs against competitive brand offerings). Additionally, hotels should be considered as advocates of destination brand values (e.g. security, authenticity, hospitality, elegance, etc.).

Hotels are the links in the story of destination branding, where they should be transformed from storytellers to story doers. It is their contribution in the very essence of the process, which makes them active, although not unique, players. They are the ones who will ask to learn, transfer, and diffuse the knowledge in a two-way path of intelligence, to and from the market and their counterparts at the destination level to achieve consistency and competitiveness.

Doug Lansky in his interview stressed the need to move from destination marketing to destination management. What is your opinion on this matter?

As one of the primary drivers of the economy with the ever-growing and challenging role of the coordinator, facilitator, and representative of a destination, DMOs are steadily perceived as organizations with a holistic strategy for tourism development, which may incorporate aspects of sustainability, public or cultural diplomacy, etc.

In my very first lectures of the semester on marketing and management for hospitality and tourism, the “M” of the DMO-term is put forward as a matter of discussion with explicit references to the role of both management and marketing.

From the definitions given by the UNWTO to an array of practical examples from around the world, we conclude on the dominance of the term “Destination Management Organisation.” This discussion is a participative exercise of high value, always keeping in mind that “marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department,” as Packard characteristically mentioned a few years ago.

Therefore, the debate should not just be focused on the name, but rather on the core of destination management as an integrated activity of tourism development, where marketing has a vital role. All members of a DMO are marketers, in nature, directly or indirectly reflecting the destination image; nevertheless, the marketing department consists of the full-time marketers only responsible for the marketing activities described in the annual strategy and the roles clearly explained on the organizational chart.

In any case, it is all about “market+ing”; it could not be otherwise.

From your experience, which is the most common mistake in tourism communication and place branding strategies?

Branding maintenance over time is very frequently overlooked in tourism communication and place branding. The reason might be that the principal stakeholders consider it very similar to the traditional, corporate branding, which is more flexible and less complex. Take for example the advertising campaigns of Greece:

  • “Beyond words” (2002-2003),
  • “Your best time yet” (2004),
  • “Live your myth in Greece” (2005-2006),
  • “Starring You” (2006),
  • “Greece – Explore your senses” (2007),
  • “Greece —The True Experience” (2008),
  • “Greece 5000 years old—a masterpiece you can afford” (2009),
  • “Kalimera” (2009-2010),
  • “You in Greece” (2010-2011),
  • “Greece all time classic” (2012-2016).

Apart from the slogan used in the past 3-4 years, the rest changed every 1-2 years, making it almost impossible for the message to permeate its audience effectively.

Another, similar example is the region of Burgundy in France, which had previously developed a communication strategy under the concept of “no tourists here” (pas de touristes ici). The communication mix included magazine ads, outdoor advertising (metro in Paris), a Facebook page, badges, even a direct URL that no longer exists.

The fact is, it takes more than a web banner, a leaflet, an outdoor ad or a catchy slogan to get the attention of the global community and compete successfully against other countries, nations, regions, and destinations.

The Voyager Voice Instagram

Based on your experience in reviewing successful cases of the hospitality and tourism industry as the Founder and Editor of “The Voyager Voice,” which three skills do you consider necessary for future tourism managers?

Future tourism managers should possess the following three attributes:

Flexibility: Managers must have a passion for travel and be ready to move, talk to the people, hear what they say about your brand and get prepared for amendments, strive to receive feedback on your decisions and tactics.

Persistence: Tourism is not an ad hoc phenomenon, and as such, it requires the development and support of a long-term strategy, the consistent implementation of coherent decisions over time.

Cognitive and emotional intelligence: It is impossible to develop strategies to make others feel welcome if you are not able to understand what they want, how they feel and how you will be useful to them. Managers can use cognitive and emotional intelligence to guide attitude and behavior, and adapt environments to achieve their goals both internally (within the organization) and externally (to the market).

Travel and tourism should not be viewed as an optional or opportunistic activity. As an interdisciplinary field with significant extroversion and strategic importance for the local, regional, national and global community, tourism and hospitality should attract the interest of the highly skilled and best positioned.

Today, you cannot be an academic without working closely with the tourism market, whereas you cannot be a tourism practitioner and rest on previous experience or what is usually done. I feel very lucky that I cooperate with successful business practitioners, establish linkages with the market, undertake reviews, provide content development and transfer this knowledge in-class, co-creating the lecture sessions with the students, the new age, talented ambassadors for hospitality and tourism.

Thank you, Antonios.

Connect with Antonios on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter or on Academia. Learn more about The Voyager Voice or visit the website of the Business College of Athens (BCA).


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