Mariette du Toit-Helmbold on Destination Marketing Strategies, Travel Trends and Brand South Africa

Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, former CEO of Cape Town Tourism and owner of Destinate, an international marketing agency, in this interview discusses travel trends and how destination marketing organizations and practitioners respond to them by focusing on storytelling and influencer marketing. She also reflects on Brand South Africa and how the image of the country’s cities and urban destinations in particular has benefited from hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Some of the topics which Mariette addresses:

  • How the tourism landscape has changed over the last years;
  • Influencer marketing, storytelling and other trends in destination marketing;
  • How to succeed in destination marketing, and which pitfalls to avoid;
  • How Destinate measure the success of its destination marketing campaigns;
  • Brand South Africa: what it stands for and how it is evolving.

Mariette, having been the CEO of Cape Town Tourism for almost 10 years and an independent adviser since then, do you remember what first attracted your interest in the marketing and branding of places, such as cities and destinations?

Place marketing is complex, multi-dimensional and ever-changing, because places such as cities and countries are complex and constantly evolving by nature. This is what attracted me in the first place and what I love most about working in destination marketing – not one project or place is the same as another.

I love cities. Cities are dynamic places and urban tourism dominates the landscape. Over 30% of all global visitor revenue is expended in the top 150 visited cities and, taking tourism as a whole, over 70% of tourism spend occurs in urban areas. For most people to escape means to explore different and new cultures and for them cities are the epicenters of modern, living culture.

The development that has gone into South Africa’s cities and how it was leveraged for tourism, fast tracked in the run up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, distinguish us from many other developing countries.

It was not until the 2010 FIFA World Cup that South Africa’s urban centres received the necessary exposure needed to position South Africa as a multi-dimensional destination able to attract a larger percentage of the world’s fastest growing sector, namely urban travellers.

It was an honour to be part of the team that shaped a whole new way of doing destination marketing, embracing digital marketing and working with citizens and travellers to tell the stories about a wonderfully complex city like Cape Town.

As a professional with strong background in tourism and communication, what role do you think do marketing techniques play for the branding and reputation of places?

It is important to understand the state of tourism globally.

The reality remains that tourism is a vulnerable sector and that competition amongst destinations is tougher than ever before. With an increase in global security incidents and terrorism, safety and security remain a major challenge for the tourism sector.

Travel however remains a much-needed respite from daily life and travellers are desperate to escape their routines for memorable and meaningful travel and holiday experiences. It is crucial for destinations and marketers to understand the human psyche and to present moments of inspiration to travellers through effective marketing, good storytelling and visually creative travel propositions.

In your view, what does it take to create and maintain unique, memorable destination brands?

The single biggest trend in travel is experiential travel. Travellers increasingly want to experience a country, city or particular place by connecting to its history, people and culture and reconnecting with self. To keep up, destination marketing organisations need to adapt their strategy and double down on experience-driven marketing.

The core elements of destination marketing success? Recognize your strongest local experiences, have a unified vision of what your destination offers, and do not attempt to market everything you offer all at once.

In the case of Cape Town, our rich tourism offering is our greatest asset, but also our Achilles’ heel, making it tough to focus and be single-minded in our marketing.

To stand out it is important to focus and punch above the competition with brave, innovative marketing that truly understands the state of mind of our customers and offer visitors the opportunity to come and find their better selves.

We must be willing to let go of some old habits, to question the traditional role of a DMO and to take on a new role as curator of content and campaigns, taking hands with the local community and tapping into authentic and trustworthy content created by visitors and online influencers.

The web and social media have made it possible for smaller destinations to compete with well-known destinations. But as social media platforms tighten up their algorithms, demanding a more thoughtful and focused approach to digital marketing, we must invest in thumb-stopping content and visual storytelling, driven by an army of online ambassadors.

Which trends do you observe regarding destination marketing, likely to affect your work in South Africa?

Travellers as we know them have changed. No longer looking for the traditional one-dimensional holiday and no longer satisfied with merely relaxing, they search for authenticity and meaningful experiences that will enrich their lives and broaden their perspectives on the world.

Experience is everything and the traveller is looking for instant and total immersion.

Trust is now the most valuable commodity in travel, and it is the one thing that DMOs and tourism bodies do not have and cannot buy.

Investing in influencer marketing and tapping into local citizens’ passion and knowledge and sharing these personal insights with the world will give a destination a great competitive advantage.

It is all about the heart

One trend holds the key to standing out over the next few years.

The world wants meaningful experiences, they want to pause, not merely meet, but connect with the people behind the stories. They want to sit down and break bread with ordinary people. They want to go beyond the well-known and obvious attractions and find out from locals in the know what the real gems of the region are. Developing a network of good homestays, community tourism initiatives and local knowledge will be key.

A connected world

Recent innovations, such as the social web and smart mobile technology, have meant that anybody and everybody with access to a computer is a writer, journalist, publisher, critic, social commentator and travel agent.

Word of mouth through social media is the most powerful and cost-effective tool for any destination marketer today.

For destinations, the connected world offers an opportunity to unlock the potential of various locations and sites across the region, through clever use of technology, digital marketing, innovative influencer marketing and local storytelling.


A far cry from the penniless back-packer of youth travel gone by, the Millennial is prepared to spend – not on souvenirs, but on adventures and experiences.

Millennials are our frontline marketers, driven by a desire to share their experiences on multiple platforms. Enabling this with free wireless and easy access to social details is a worthwhile investment for every tourism and tourism-related business.

Keeping alert to what your visitors are saying about you on social media also generates honest feedback, a chance to fix problems and an instant, possibly enduring, relationship with customers.

It’s all about food

Food is fast becoming the lens through which travellers are experiencing their destinations. It unlocks the cultural narrative and lets people connect with that story through the senses. Food travellers are looking to do more than just eat at a nice restaurant. They want to understand food, where it was caught or how it is grown and how local people like to eat it. They want to meet the chef, see the kitchen, get involved in the cooking and learn how to make a dish from scratch.

Whilst older travellers have always been food travellers, the millennials have been behind the shift to food as an engaged experience. Iconic local foods must be celebrated, made accessible to travellers and local communities must be involved in presenting unique food experiences.

How can place branding and destination marketing techniques support the sustainable development of destinations? Where’s the link?

It is no longer about the destination or your unique selling points…it is about the story. Destinations brim with unique stories and these stories are best told by locals and by travellers themselves, so destinations should create platforms for locals and visitors to tell the region’s story from a variety of perspectives and through a diversity of voices.

It is important to take the visitor deeper into the heart of the destination, beyond the well-known tourism façade, to meet the real destination and its people. This is good for travellers and the local destination – in essence, it is sustainable tourism in practice without the academics.

Consumer interest now dictates a more caring and committed culture where travellers, in general, want to experience the authentic daily life of locals and want to see their money make a difference to the lives of people in the places they visit.

How to measure the success or effectiveness of place branding programs?

Measuring and reporting on the impact of place branding programmes can be tricky, but it is essential. One of the most powerful aspects of digital marketing is that you are able to measure it and see the impact, far more accurately than for traditional media campaigns.

For our digital campaigns we use to track the impact of campaigns and measure the online value as well as engagement on the campaign.

In your view, what does “Brand South Africa” stand for today, and how has it changed during the last years?

South Africa had long positioned itself as a country with abundant wildlife and great scenic beauty. Most marketing campaigns were somewhat one dimensionally developed around these themes and the urban centres of the country were underutilised as brand strengths in marketing efforts before 2010.

There is little doubt that well-entrenched, often negative, perceptions about South Africa, and, in particular its cities, combined with the lack of a compelling urban marketing strategy had a negative impact on the number of potential visitors to South Africa.

As a result, international markets had a limited knowledge of South Africa’s cities and few people are aware of its comprehensive proposition, value, or experiences.

The World Cup, hosted in cities in 2010, gave the world a glimpse of the country’s vibrant urban environment and the livability of its cities; the feedback was substantive and glowing.

Since then, the country’s marketing took a different angle, building upon the awareness created for Brand South Africa. South Africa Tourism now works closely together with cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban to showcase South Africa’s vibrant living centres of culture.

The South African travel and tourism sector continues to register positive growth in international tourist arrivals despite tough economic times globally and political uncertainty in the country.

I would like to argue that the positive tourism growth in South Africa has a lot to do with the exposure the country and its cities received before, during and immediately after the World Cup.

Most importantly, I believe that there is a direct link between the more prominent positioning of cities and neighbourhoods in marketing campaigns, appealing directly to the growing number of global urban travellers, many unaware of the deeper appeal of South Africa before.

Thank you, Mariette.

Connect with Mariette du Toit-Helmbold on LinkedIn or learn more about her work at Destinate here.

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