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Resonance Consultancy unveiled its new Top 50 U.S. Destinations 2014 report at the annual Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) last month in Las Vegas.
Los Angeles, New York, and surprisingly even to them, Dallas, ranked as the top three.
Resonance is a paid consultant for destination marketing organizations and visitor bureaus, so its reports, while insightful, are first and foremost a selling tool to reach future clients.
The summaries for each city highlight standard metrics such as visitation numbers and infrastructure development that have traditionally been used to evaluate tourism destinations and destination marketing organizations (DMOs) in the past. However, there’s equal focus on the tourism experiences themselves that help differentiate each city to forge their identities in the tourism marketplace.
While DMOs have been marketing their cities as “travel experiences” over the last decade, they now have new destination marketing partners in the form of their customers, who are sharing their travel experiences digitally among myriad channels. Meaning, DMOs today have to embrace their new consumer partners and develop experiences that are both shareable and aligned with the destination’s identity.
We were interested in how this destination placemaking and place branding are impacting destination marketing strategy today, while shifting the discussion about the very role of DMOs in general.
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Chris Fair, president/CEO of Resonance Consultancy, discussed his company’s Top 50 U.S. Destinations 2014 report with us. We also talked about the launch of DMAI’s DestinationNEXT report [click here for our review], which parallels some of the themes in the Resonance Report.
Skift: What was your methodology behind this report?
Chris Fair: What we wanted to do is create a model that took core tourism products, statistics on things such as size of convention center and number of direct flights, and marry that with the quality of reviews from sources like TripAdvisor or Yelp to create an overall benchmarking model that would allow destinations to understand where their strengths and weaknesses are from a product perspective. And then, see how they compare from a product perspective within their competitive set.
Skift: Were there any surprises for you coming out of the report?
Chris Fair: I think the biggest surprise for us was Dallas coming in at number three. If I said Chicago, everyone would have a clear picture of the tourism product that’s available there, and their museums, restaurants, sports teams, etc. I don’t think people have the same perception of Dallas. And I think when we dig beneath the surface there’s been a lot of tourism-related development in the Dallas/Forth Worth area over the last few years in terms of new attractions and restaurants, etc., so you start to see some of these things where it’s not the usual suspects.
Like Orlando for example, comes in at number 15, and you probably would have expected that to be in the top five. It is in terms of visitor numbers, but what brings Orlando down in our ranking methodology is the lack of diversity of product. Orlando has some fantastic, very big things that cater to large audiences like Disney or Universal. But it doesn’t have a diversity of experiences, and we think for a destination like Orlando that’s something that’s actually important to note.
They might be doing great today, but if you’re not offering the products and experiences that the visitor of tomorrow is looking for, that could really handicap a destination in the future, and that’s really what we’re trying to get at here.
Skift: We’ve been hearing about placemaking more and more over the last couple years. How do you define that?
Chris Fair: I think placemaking really is born out of urban planning and planners themselves, and refers to creating places for people to gather. So when you think about Times Square in New York years ago, it was really a place just to pass through. All of the initiatives over the recent years are all placemaking initiatives that have turned Times Square into quite a vibrant place to hang out and meet people.
We think placemaking is a core part of our tourism development plans for cities and destinations in terms of the growing interest and desire to live like a local, if you will. So placemaking helps create opportunities for tourists to feel like a local because they’re intermingling with locals, whether that’s in parks, public squares, etc. So we’ve always seen placemaking as an important part of any tourism development plan, regarding opportunities to create a sense of place.
Because that’s ultimately what a visitor is looking for when they visit a destination, to feel that unique sense of place, and sense of place is shaped by placemaking.
Skift: So placemaking happens internally in a destination, whereas place branding is how a DMO packages and positions that to the world. How is that evolving?
Chris Fair: As you saw in DMAI’s DestinationNEXT, managing and developing brands was number three in terms of the most important trends that DMOs need to be engaged in. I think what they’re just awakening to, and there’s different schools of thought about this, but we come from the school that you have to look beyond just tourism.
The brand of a destination is what attracts people to live in a city, it’s what attracts companies to invest in a city, and it’s what attracts people to visit a city. And you can’t just look at those as individual silos in terms of tourism has one brand, economic development has another brand, and the community has another brand.
If those three aren’t aligned then you haven’t really created an effective place brand that will resonate with any of those three audiences. And in fact, you might have one undermine the other. If economic development is putting out a message that does one thing for a city, and tourism is putting out something that is potentially at conflict with that, you’re really at cross purposes.
Skift: So the goal is to align DMOs more with a city’s economic development department and the community itself?
Chris Fair: Our philosophy is really to develop a place brand by looking at a destination from all three of those viewpoints, which work together. And I think sometimes that happens organically. For example, with Positively Cleveland and MMGY [marketing agency], there’s a new brand and a good campaign. It was driven by tourism but it’s now been adopted by the community and economic development, and it’s being adopted by the city. More serendipitously than strategically, but at least the goal and objective is being met there under one umbrella brand.
Visitors aren’t just going based on marketing messages that DMOs put out in the marketplace. As we know all too well now, visitor decisions on where they go are much more shaped by the ratings and reviews of peers and colleagues, and the reputation of a destination. And that’s not easily influenced in the short term by a destination marketing organization.
Skift: What are some of the biggest challenges for DMOs today?
Chris Fair: I think relevance is what I would say is the number one challenge for DMOs. I think it was interesting at DMAI that in all of those scenarios in the DestinationNEXT project, it presumes that a destination marketing organization is the best structural organization for destinations to promote and market and develop themselves in the future.
We’re not that sure that is the case. Twenty years ago, DMOs would have put together a brochure of all their lodging product and activities together, mailed it out to a database, and that was then the primary means of sharing information about a destination. As we know today, there are thousands of websites, blogs, social media, thousands of channels that are sharing information about experiences and places that are no longer in the control of the DMO.
Our focus is really much more not on destination marketing but on destination management as a primary challenge for DMOs moving forward. We look at how do they play a role with the visitor once they’re in the destination, and shifting their focus from how they get visitors to the destination to how they manage and enhance their experience while they have them. Because those reviews and those reputations that those visitors share is what’s going to drive and determine who and how many people come back next year.
Skift: We’re hearing that the city of the future is a knowledge sharing hub providing a network of networks bringing together people of like-minded interests and purpose. How does that fit within your vision of the DMO of the future?
Chris Fair: I would characterize that evolution by saying that the 20th century was focused on the hardware of place, whether that’s a bigger convention center or airport or infrastructure, etc. And destinations and cities were able to develop competitive advantage by having better hardware than other destinations.
I think now in the 21st century, it’s becoming much more about the software in terms of what are the unique experiences, how are people connected together, what does that sense of community feel like, and much more subtle and differentiating characteristics of place now becoming the determining factors as to where people, capital and ideas will flow around the world.
That’s really what all of this is about: What are the best means and ways for DMOs to develop the resiliency and vitality of the communities in which they serve, more so than what is the best way to elevate the average daily room rate. And that’s where the model is difficult because with most DMOs, 90% of their funding comes from hotel tax revenues. So they’re being funded by one particular audience, and yet, the needs and the demands that are there for them to serve are much, much broader and more dynamic than just putting heads in beds.