Providing Value to Members of Destination Marketing Organizations
Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) and Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVBs) are tasked with promoting a destination (region, city, state, country, etc.) to potential travelers. But what is a destination without the businesses, attractions, events, and landmarks that make and shape its unique identity? DMOs and CVBs are part of a complex and synergistic relationship with their location’s points of interest that involves boosting economic development within their destination, as well as marketing and shaping the outward brand and sense of place as a whole. The businesses and organizations contribute and help create the sense of place and make it something marketable, while also being served by the larger marketing efforts and vision of the DMO or CVB.
It’s a complex process, made even more so in member-based and member-driven DMOs and CVBs, where restaurants, hotels, attractions, activities, and other points of interest pay dues in order to be a part of the “official” organization. Sometimes this funding is membership dues; sometimes it manifests itself in the form of things like a percentage of a hotel tax. However members are determined, it’s understandable that local businesses expect — and deserve — value from DMOs/CVBs for their membership and contributions to the local community, and participate in how it is represented.
What becomes challenging, as you can imagine, is balancing the complex internal political landscape of many types and sizes of businesses, organizations, and locations while navigating major marketing initiatives for DMOs and CVBs. When DMOs and CVBs consider their website initiatives, how can they offer substantial value to their members, while staying true to the vision for the destination marketing as a whole?
Let’s travel back in time to a pre-internet era, when print destination travel guides were a primary resource for finding hotels, restaurants, and attractions. Sometimes these were put out by the destination; sometimes they were put out by a company like Rand McNally. It was a book of basic information about a destination, some maps, alphabetized lists of points of interest, and some ads (often for the members listed in the book). If you’re old enough, maybe you remember paging through one. Maybe you had a TripTik from AAA to go alongside it.
These travel guides were incredibly important to local businesses; if you weren’t listed in it, people wouldn’t know to include your business in their plans. This is where being a member in a member-driven organization had clear benefits — members might receive larger listings, or be listed first. Or sometimes members were the only ones listed, as non-members may not have been included in the travel guide. The value that DMOs and CVBs could provide was visibility. And for many small businesses that relied on tourism, being a member was less expensive than taking on a marketing or advertising campaign by themselves. (This is often still a factor in member-driven organizations.) Travel guides were putting a business name in front of people who were already considering coming to the destination — a specific and targeted audience.
But anytime someone is paying for something, they expect something in return. Members paid membership fees to DMOs and CVBs, and these organizations had an obligation to provide value to their members for this money, making sure they were being promoted. It didn’t matter if the members were the best restaurants, attractions, and hotels. It only mattered that they were members. And this is arguably where a distrust of DMOs and CVBs started to happen… in a pay-to-play situation, how could travelers trust that the resources they were seeing in the travel guide were good? Was the travel guide even a comprehensive list of what a destination had to offer?
The internet, obviously, changed things. It created new ways to find information about hotels, restaurants, attractions, and activities. Businesses can create their own website to promote themselves, and reach as large an audience as DMOs and CVBs. Platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor have popularized user-rated recommendation engines, with large audiences and significant numbers of contributors. Online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Orbitz, and Kayak provide ways to easily compare rates and book hotels rooms, car rentals, and flights. The rise of social media has created the opportunity to solicit friends and family on their experiences and opinions about different destinations. However, the DMOs and CVBs who are still following their past relationships with print marketing and pre-internet audiences continue to treat their online web presence much like TripTiks or printed guides: featured listings of paid member businesses. Yet the world, and their audience, has changed…
Midway through 2016, fewer than 25% of travelers are “always using or usually using” official DMO websites, and about 40% of that group “always or usually” finds them trustworthy (Destination Analytics, State of the American Traveler, April 2016). It’s pretty easy math to see that about 60% have a level of mistrust towards DMOs and CVBs. Why don’t people trust DMOs/CVBs? Is it because of the pay-to-play model that historically has been a part of these organizations? Is it because DMOs and CVBs have a hard time competing with Yelp and TripAdvisor in providing comprehensive, up-to-date lists of points of interest in a destination, or any reason or rating to choose one over another? Do travelers rely more on their social networks of friends and family to ask for personal recommendations over the impersonal suggestions a DMO may provide?
Yes, yes, and yes. According to the “Trust Me, Use Me, Value Me” chart above, sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp are both more important and more frequently used than official DMO sites. Levels of trust and frequency of use are higher with friends and family online, and especially in person. There is little reason to trust a DMO site that is simply a list of member businesses. Taking a print travel guide concept and translating it to the web is not the solution. (Well, it is a solution, but not a good one.)
Travelers aren’t looking for a subset of member-only businesses. They are likely oblivious to the member-driven structure of DMOs and thereby only see the result as something getting in the way of finding relevant information. In fact, they may be more suspicious of members if they recognize that some business appear to be getting perks, like an advertiser paying to be listed. With all of the other sources of information online, and the fact that fewer than 25% of potential visitors are always or usually using DMO/CVB websites, what is the marketing value for membership now? There is absolutely the benefit of civic involvement by being a member, and DMOs/CVBs support members in many ways beyond marketing. How can DMOs create marketing value for all members, especially when marketing value may differ depending on the size of the member business? How can DMOs and CVBs be more transparent in order to build trust?
Visitors need reasons to visit DMO/CVB websites, and when they arrive there, they need to be able to trust the content.
Opportunities for DMOs and CVBs
What are the opportunities for DMOs and CVBs to help differentiate them from review websites (Yelp, TripAdvisor) and OTAs (Expedia, Orbitz)? What role can the DMO play if they can’t be the exhaustive list of places to eat, things to do, and places to stay? DMOs shouldn’t try and compete against those sites. They’re all part of a traveler’s planning ecosystem — in 2013, people were visiting 38 websites when planning a trip before booking a vacation (according to a Expedia Media Solutions study as reported by Skift).
Successful DMO websites (or at least “The 25 Best Tourism Sites In the World” according to Skift) are shifting from listings to storytelling. And this is one of the key areas where DMOs and CVBs can differentiate themselves from the OTAs and review sites.
“The big trend in front-end design and content management over the last few years is a shift from static “billboard” websites — promoting tourism and hospitality partners with lots of banner ads and generic descriptions — to more organic story-driven portals that resemble travel media websites.
– Skift, “The 25 Best Tourism Sites In the World”
Not coincidentally, the “billboard” websites sound remarkably similar to the old school print travel guides. This method of promoting members simply doesn’t work anymore. Visitors are too savvy. Alternative sources of information are plentiful and more robust. Listings of members on DMO/CVB sites become confusing when members are listed alphabetically before non-members, or more information is provided about members than non-members. There is a lack of trust because of pay-to-play practices. Website visitors used to the established review and OTA sites expect that when they have a large swath of data to be provided useful ways to dig in and find what they may be looking for clearly. If they don’t find these means in a user-understood and intuitive way (probably knowing nothing about potential membership structure or meaning behind “featured” listings), they know just how to bounce and use other familiar web services to meet their needs.
Long lists of members also create the “paradox of choice,” which Barry Schwartz addresses in his book of the same name. Schwartz’s premise is that while people say they like choices, giving them too many choices can be so overwhelming they choose nothing at all. One study in the book is about a sampling of gourmet jams… when were given the choice of 6 jams to sample, they were 10 times more likely to purchase a jam than when given a choice of 24 jams. Further research on Schwartz’s theory has shown that when people are knowledgeable about a subject, they prefer more choices. But in the case of DMOs and CVBs, where travelers are learning about a destination, they are in the position of not having the subject knowledge yet; it is the opportunity for the DMO/CVB to provide this education. A long list of members doesn’t educate. It overwhelms.
So what are some ways that members can be promoted instead of in a long list format? Visit Santa Barbara’s website provides two examples of this.
Next Month in Santa Barbara
Visit Santa Barbara highlights interesting things to do and see in the upcoming month through their “Next Month in Santa Barbara” section of their site. By creating an editorial perspective around timely events and activities, they’re focusing on the travelers who are researching and planning their upcoming trips. It also provides an opportunity to highlight different Visit Santa Barbara members over the course of the year, depending on their relevancy to the upcoming month and editorial focus selected for that month.
In this example, let’s assume the Santa Barbara Adventure Company is a member. They’re highlighted in the month of September not necessarily just because they may be a member, but because September is a great time to visit the Channel Islands (Santa Barbara Adventure Company happens to be a resource that offers guided kayaking tours of the islands). Member or not, this is a relevant and contextual display of a business that will help travelers in experiencing a unique aspect of Santa Barbara.
Island Hopping on the Channel Islands Itinerary
Continuing with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company as an example member, another way that Visit Santa Barbara can feature these businesses and activities are through suggested itineraries. If you’re interested in “island hopping on the Channel Islands,” this itinerary offers a wealth of information about the different islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, as well as the ways to explore them.
In this instance, the majority of the itinerary is about the islands themselves — why they’re special and what travelers can expect when visiting them. Supplementing this information are a number of businesses who can guide your trip to the islands. This is another way to provide context around members not because they’re members, but because they are businesses who can enable you to have this adventure.
Story-driven portals (much like the Visit Santa Barbara examples above, and executable in a myriad of other ways that we will explore and discuss in future posts) require content strategy: a comprehensive plan to create and publish relevant content that inspires travelers to visit and the resources and information to plan their trip. And marketing and promoting members should be a part of this content strategy. Content strategy begins and extends beyond the web presence of a DMO alone; it can be the driving vision and context of what ties together seemingly disparate members of a destination and helps them become a part of a symbiotic positive feedback loop where one business’ success catalyzes another’s. This is where DMOs shine — when they can help provide a destination’s point-of-view and continuity that a single business alone could never achieve.
Context, perspective, and narrative are the strengths of great DMO sites; they’re the pillars on which engaging story-driven sites are built. It’s on these pillars that the marketing and promotion of both dues-paying members and non-members must be built in order to create trust and value to prospective travelers. Without trust, there is little value; without value there is nothing to trust.
Easier Said Than Done
Admittedly, it’s easier to say all of this than it is to do all of this. In the upcoming weeks we’ll explore the bigger picture of content strategy for DMOs and CVBs and more examples and ways that content strategy can earn trust and support DMO/member politics. We’ll look at how transparency in sponsored content and native advertising can contribute to trusting DMOs. And we’ll share content strategy ideas for DMOs and CVBs to become “more organic story-driven portals.”
We’ll also discuss ways that change management can integrate your members into the website redesign process so that everyone understands the objectives and key performance indicators for a new site. This often overlooked aspect of site redesigns is crucial in setting expectations when introducing new ideas around content strategy to a constituency previously using pageviews and clickthroughs as metrics.
About The Forest
The Forest For The Trees Interactive Ltd. conceptualizes and builds content-driven websites for brands that cultivate experiences. We believe in the idea that people are happier when they have experiences over things, and we’ve made it our mission to help people discover experiences that will enrich their lives. Because of this, we focus on travel and tourism clients, having a passion for travel combined with the shared experience of creating solutions for clients in these industries.
To talk more about how The Forest can help with your website, email us at email@example.com.
This essay was originally written for The Forest For The Trees website as a joint post by Stephen Landau and Annie Gilbert.