Destination Marketing is Changing – And Here’s How

Joanie Flynn, a true travel professional, helps us understand the new challenges of consumer behavior, the sharing economy, review sites and the growing number of marketing channels.  Joanie, Vice President of Marketing for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism along the Alabama Gulf Coast, has spent her entire career working in all phases of travel and tourism marketing with major players Hilton, Four Seasons, Resort Quest, and Gaylord. 
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1.      How has destination marketing changed in the past five years?  
There are a myriad of ways that destination marketing has changed in the past five years.  Some of the changes include the behavioral changes consumers are undertaking by searching travel topics and destinations online, visiting review sites and blogs as well as being more active in social media, and valuing family and friend travel recommendations on sites like TripAdvisor.  Our destination is dominated by vacation rentals even as our hotel offerings expand, so we are facing the need to educate customers about our lodging inventory while also learning to deal with changing dynamics of social sharing economy companies like HomeAway and AirBnB. 
Our world is more data driven than it was before.  We communicate with our past visitors and potential visitors in a host of ways.  We serve a different customer each season, so our communications are segmented too.  As a result the marketing approach has to be more integrated and cut across all the distribution options and channels where a potential customer might be active and engaged.  We spend time creating and re-purposing content, striving to always be relevant to our customer’s needs. So our team and its skill sets have broadened.  We still do print, TV and radio advertising plus produce both print and digital vacation guides annually in addition to all the social, email, content and digital marketing we carry out.  We have content calendars, send emails, create banner ads and content campaigns, and search for new ways to present our 32 miles of sugar white sand and turquoise water in appealing and engaging ways.
So it used to be an EITHER/OR world – run an ad or send a direct mail piece.  Now it’s become a BOTH/& world where we have to undertake all of the above to service our guests and meet our destination marketing needs.

 2.      Tell us about your target audiences.  Are women still making the travel decisions in their households?

Our audience is primarily families based on what our destination offers – a great and safe beach experience with a host of lodging choices, lots of restaurants and attractions to help families relax, reconnect and make wonderful vacation memories.  Families make more joint vacation decisions today – the kids definitely have an influence on the WHERE and WHAT decisions.  We find that the woman brings up the WHO, WHEN and HOW issues of trip planning, while the men often have concerns to be addressed about COST.  Many of our families that travel here are multi-generational, pursuing a host of activities and interests.  The extended family will break up to sample activities and then come back together for beach time, swimming, meals and evening activities.  Mom or the baby boomer grandmother usually is the research gatherer, and then everyone gets together and gives their input.  The female is still our influencer.

This is still true too for couples get-aways and girlfriend getaways.  And the wife in our many snow bird couples figures prominently in the winter stay visitors that we host, though her husband wants to know there will be plenty of activities to please him too.  The guys tend to research and plan their fishing and golf getaways, but often deputize one of the guys to do the research and serve as the booking coordinator.

We have a few new segments, namely home-schooled families and nature travelers.  The former finds all the nature, history, cultural and arts activities in our area make for a great edutainment vacation where some curriculum goals can be met while the family still finds time to relax.  The latter group is discovering our bike and hiking trails, our canoe and kayak blueways as well as our fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving attractions.  Increasingly we see all visitors making decisions based on the broad roster of events that happen throughout the year in our destination, from culture, arts, music concerts and live music venues, culinary, shopping, sports events, history and nature events – there is something to draw interested parties every month of the year.  So one of the biggest changes is that, while summer is still our biggest season, we are becoming more of a year-round destination over time as we showcase and draw people based on their needs and interests.

3.  What is the most interesting marketing initiative you have implemented recently?

In 2014 we undertook a special content distribution campaign with several content distributors that helped underscore the value of content – articles, blogs, photography and video.  With some we created the content, while with others we worked

with some of their writers to create the articles that were placed.  The articles were made visible based on the search terms that people used.  Our articles would appear next to their normal search results in a “you might also be interested in these” 
section.  That drove a lot of new qualified visitors to our brand new responsive design website.  Once there, people explored and found out more about what we have to offer; many decided to book a visit!  Once these people visited our website, we also re-
targeted them with special ads to bring them back to our website to explore more.

At the heart of making this a successful venture was relevant, engaging, interesting content that met a host of audience needs and interests.  We have also learned how to take content that has proven itself and to push it out via promoted posts on Facebook or on different of our social media platforms, of course, adjusting and making it appealing and engaging for each platform’s audience.  All of these strategies and tactics have pulled our entire team into becoming content creators and specialists in repurposed content.  To accomplish this we had to be highly focused; we had to understand our customers wants and needs, and many on our team had to become better at understanding website flows, consumption and metrics.

4.  How does storytelling become part of marketing a destination?

Storytelling has become the price of admission to interacting with a potential visitor.  We truly became convinced of this once we integrated our library of blogs, that had lived on a separate site, into our new website.  The organic search traffic from that step alone has driven an incredible rise in our destination site visits.  In many ways it is how people find us now, and once they do, we can retarget them.  And each time they come back, they can engage in great content, view a digital version of our vacation guide or register to receive a mailed printed copy.  Some people decide to subscribe to our monthly email newsletter with the inside scoop on events, seasonal offerings and great things to do.  It doesn’t hurt that at every touch point, they can see beautiful, scenic photos, watch a short video, or maybe share a blog post or a social media post with anticipated travel companions.  Once you create the stories, you will figure out ways to weave it all together in a unique tapestry of discovery,  If you do it right, you will be creating a customer for life. 

5.  What are you still learning in your career?

 I learn every day and always will.  Marketing changes all the time; the skill set has to expand.  I learn about my destination and what our visitors appreciate about our destination.  Media and technology habits are changing all the time. The audiences we serve are changing all the time too.  It is a lot to keep up with, so it is important to invest in reading – newsletters, blogs, books – and attending conferences and professional development seminars to network, see what’s working for others and what is on the horizon.  You have to sharpen your toolset continuously or you will get rusty and out-of-date.  And you have to remain inquisitive in every definition of that word.  It energizes me because travel is my personal passion, and helping visitors have a wonderful, relaxing and memorable vacation is my professional passion!

 6.  Is a Monday at the beach still better than a Monday anywhere else?

Definitely!  Even it is raining or cold, the beach and its many moods will never disappoint.  There is always a new sunrise or sunset to savor.  Or a new walk to take.  Layer in the nature interactions that help to bring the beach alive, and there is nothing that compares.  Hurry on down for a visit; we would love to show you around our little corner of paradise!

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