Visit California is scheduled to launch its new website today at 1 pm EST, completely reworking the user experience and overall mission to be more mobile, more experiential, and more of a traffic driver to tourism partners throughout the state.

We joined a press webinar last week with Lynn Carpenter, VP of marketing at Visit California, for a discussion about the motivating business factors and evolving travel media trends that shaped the new website architecture.

Carpenter emphasized that the primary purpose of the new portal takes place at the very top of the tourism marketing funnel during the traveler’s inspiration phase. This is not a booking site. This is a “Hey, consider coming to California because it’s cool” website, based on a wide spectrum of travel experiences portrayed first and foremost with a lot of big lifestyle photos.

“Our mission at California is to create desire for the California lifestyle,” explains Carpenter. “Over and above everything that we do, we see ourselves as promoting and marketing a lifestyle brand.”

In order to do that, Visit California looked to top media websites for inspiration rather than the world’s best DMO sites. The new VisitCalifornia.com is basically a magazine, developed by the design firm Code and Theory, who have previously conceptualized sites for brands such as Vogue, Los Angeles Times, Mashable and Bloomberg.

The user experience driven by all of the exclusive new photography provides a more visceral, emotional level of engagement. That is supported by other types of content including punchy editorial, inspirational lifestyle quotes, social media, weather updates, and “More to Explore” related-post-style boxes like you see on web posts. Embedded videos will be integrated into the content flow in February, and all of this exists in “incredibly long scrolls,” as is becoming the norm these days with the newest tourism and hospitality sites.

“We have many content types, and we have big, huge inspirational photos,” says Carpenter. “That was one thing we got complimented on over and over again in our user testing—the inspirational nature of this content. We needed to be able to show the depth and breadth of California, and our lifestyle and attitude… and making that sing.”

The emphasis on the inspiration phase and impactful imagery is based on Visit California’s reimagined role as a content and navigational hub designed to direct travelers to the regional and destination websites, where the planning, booking and experience travel phases take place deeper in the marketing engagement funnel.

Carpenter makes the distinction that VisitCalifornia.com is not primarily constructed to attract viewers and keep them on the site. It’s designed to attract viewers and push them to all of the partner sites.

Therefore, the content is not as granular as in the past, and there are a lot more links to partner content that best showcase the different travel experiences. For regional content, consumers are already accessing the five most visited digital ecosystems for shopping California travel product: San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Anaheim/Orange County and Disneyland. So Visit California doesn’t need to rewrite all of that, which it has in the past.

“We have no intention of occupying spaces where there are already best of breed content on the web,” says Carpenter. “Instead what we tried to do is make sure we were occupying unduplicated value propositions,” which she defines as inspiration and global outreach. The new website launched today is the North American version. Over the coming months, Visit California is scheduled to launch 12 global sites to build on attracting $110 billion in annual travel spending to the state.

Mobile, Social & Personalized

In an effort to personalize that outreach, the new website has a “First page” rather than a homepage. Carpenter explains that return visitors will be directed to thematic sectional pages, highlighting travel niches such as food or family, defined by the viewer’s preferences and search history.

Users will also be able to construct personalized trips. Carpenter used Los Angeles, Disneyland and San Diego as an example, where Google Maps are populated with links to travel suppliers on the designated route. It’s interesting how often Disney comes up when you talk with representatives from Visit California.

Furthermore, the new website’s mobile interface was designed to somewhat emulate the design of social networks on mobile, such as Instagram and Twitter in particular, to drive more social photo sharing on devices.

The primary motivation behind this—beyond the obvious mobile, personalized and experiential elements demanded today by travelers—stems for a fundamental shift in the role of the DMO’s website.

In 2006, when the last iteration was launched, the website was viewed as subordinate to the mainstream media of the time, consisting of broadcast television and print advertising. Back then, the rigidly structured website was basically a target placeholder for the larger advertising platforms’ call-to-actions. The site was an end goal, not an introductory experience, and it didn’t need to be updated very often.

Now, the website is the mainstream media and a first-look experience so it has to have a more flexible architecture to support on-the-fly special event and content updates—like the popular Dream 365 Project—for Visit California’s annual $100 million marketing budget.

And because the new platform as defined by Carpenter is a “dream website” to push users away to partner sites, versus a dedicated planning and booking website designed to capture viewers for as long as possible like before, the success of the site is going to be measured in new ways also.

“VisitCalifornia.com 3.0 is really a lean-back experience as you scroll through and say, ‘I wonder what California has to offer?,’” says Carpenter. “One of the KPIs (key performance indicators) of this website will really be the traffic that we are able to draw to our partners.”

Looking ahead, the Visit California digital crew is presently developing native advertising with various regional partners and content producers, scheduled to launch in 90 days once the website has stabilized. We asked for more details, but Carpenter said it’s too early to comment on that, except to say the DMO is building a “cooperative marketing program where the industry can buy in at multiple levels for further integration.”

Looking further ahead into the future, the Visit California team is laser focused on how travelers will engage with travel sites over the next three years on mobile, and how different types of content will be consumed on mobile—both paid and owned.

“On a global basis, 41% of our traffic is mobile, and that’s a 56% increase over last year [2013], and that’s definitely just going to increase from all external indicators,” explains Carpenter. “I think creating a more mobile environment so people can really access content in a simple and seamless way is going to be the key.”

Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at [email protected]

Tags: california
Photo Credit: The VisitCalifornia.com pages link to thousands of third-party sites, such as weather.com above. Visit California