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Destinations Have Mixed Success Turning Celebrities Into Tourism Influencers

Feb 12, 2015 5:00 pm

Skift Take

Influencers should matter to the visitors a destination is trying to reach, not locals. Another good rule? Never, ever hire Tori Spelling.

— Jason Clampet

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Greg Allen  / Associated Press

Taylor Swift became a global welcome ambassador for New York City after moving there and launching her “Welcome to New York” hit song. Greg Allen / Associated Press


Dolly Parton promoting her Tennessee hometown? Of course. Taylor Swift promoting New York? That takes a little explaining, but OK, we get it.

Brad Pitt promoting Manitoba? Definitely not.

Destinations are carefully cultivating relationships with celebrities whose fans are seen as potential visitors. But the connection between famous people and the places they promote is not always obvious. Celebs have always endorsed products, but it’s easier to appear in an ad for a credit card than to represent a place you don’t know much about. And that’s when things get interesting.

It’s obvious why Dolly Parton promotes Sevierville, Tennessee: The famous country singer grew up there. But New York tourism officials took some guff when Taylor Swift became the city’s global welcome ambassador last fall. Critics said she was a bland, inauthentic representative for a city known for bagels, hip-hop and opinionated locals. City officials said it was a great way for New York to woo Swift’s millennial fans.

Another unlikely partnership was floated in a spoof claiming Manitoba tourism had spent $1 million to recruit Brad Pitt. The item, which ran last fall on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s “This is That” program, suggested Manitoba might get “international recognition” if Pitt were to mention the province “in an interview with a Hollywood magazine or website.”

The joke led to inquiries from folks who didn’t realize it was satire. Tourism Manitoba spokeswoman Cathy Senecal confirmed that while Pitt “would be welcome any time,” the region has not recruited him. She hastened to add that celebrities sometimes visit the region on their own, usually to watch polar bears.

In 2012, actress Tori Spelling was hired to connect Newport Beach, California, to her Twitter followers. Spelling didn’t have to visit Newport Beach or say anything special about it. But she did tweet photos and links as part of a tourism giveaway in a campaign organized by IZEA, a company that helps to connect social media influencers and destinations.

A recent visit to Hong Kong by actor Chris Noth of “Sex and the City” and “Good Wife” fame led tourism officials there to say in an email that Noth could help Hong Kong target “achievers in New York.”

Some campaigns do employ locals. Turismo de Portugal works with mega-soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo to promote his native Portugal in China, where he’s known as C Luo. His picture appears on posters with messages in Chinese that Portugal is “world famous” and “full of spectacular places.”

Other campaigns have a specific theme. Santa Monica, California, gets more foreign tourists from Australia than any other country, so the local Convention & Visitors Bureau recruited a pair of Australian TV personalities, Luke Hines and Scott Gooding, as ambassadors. Hines and Gooding are celebrity chefs, cookbook authors, trainers and outdoor types, so their healthy lifestyle message meshes with Santa Monica’s image. The partnership “has been an absolute home run for us,” said Santa Monica CVB spokeswoman Jackie Alvarez.

New York officials say their partnership with Swift has also been enormously successful, generating free publicity for the city worth well over $25 million. “Even the pushback we got from the locals was a good thing because people felt passionate about New York,” said NYC & Company CEO Fred Dixon. “It was part of the dialogue, and kept the story alive and kept it going. It generated so much excitement and talk all over the world in interesting ways.”

Swift took no fee for her services, and her spokeswoman declined to comment on what’s in the arrangement for the famous singer. But it’s not hard to imagine how the wholesome Swift, a tween favorite, might benefit from branding herself as a New Yorker. Helen Firth of Added Value, a strategic marketing consulting firm, says it may be a way of “ramping up her cool-factor, giving her saccharine appeal a little edge.”

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