Editor’s Note: Skift is publishing a series of interviews with CEOs of destination marketing organizations where we discuss the future of their organizations and the evolving strategies for attracting visitors. Read all the interviews as they come out here.
This continues our series of CEO interviews that began with online travel CEOs in Future of Travel Booking (now an e-book), and continued with hotel CEOs in the Future of the Guest Experience series (which is also an e-book).
Emilia-Romagna is a region of northern Italy and home to some of the country’s most iconic products including Ferrari cars, Ducati motorcycles, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar from Modena.
Among tourists, however, the region often takes a back seat to the country’s most well-known destinations including Rome, Florence, and the Amalfi Coast. Emilia-Romagna hosted just over 9 million visitors in 2013, of which 28 percent came from abroad, according to the Italian National Statistical Institute. Emilia-Romagna is the sixth most visited region in Italy.
In a country that’s not known for its stellar tourism marketing efforts, the Emilia-Romagna Region Tourist Board is working hard to change this by raising awareness of its ancient history, culinary significance and warm culture through digital media. It runs contests, hands its Instagram account over to locals, and hosts as many bloggers and digital journalists as possible.
Still, tying the world-renowned products with the experiences available in the region is a balance that the tourism board works at daily.
Skift recently spoke with the organization’s CEO Emanuele Burioni and his team about the region’s challenges to raising its profile, its successful formula for working with media, and how it plans to overcome a shrinking budget with partnerships.
Skift: Your destination has many attractions including the world’s oldest university, renaissance cities, and beach resorts. However, most travelers thinking about a trip to Italy focus on Naples, Rome, or Tuscany. How do you raise awareness of the region and get people to Emilia-Romagna?
Emanuele Burioni: There are products made in Emilia-Romagna that are better known than the region, which we refer to as “fast cars and slow foods.” The main products are Ferrari, Ducati, and Lamborghini. There’s also Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. Our daily challenge is connecting these great products to the overall image of the region.
Skift: Are you telling tourists to come to this region because of the products?
Burioni: We’d say come to this region because it offers experiences and products that can’t be found elsewhere.
This region kind of invented mass tourism in Italy. The middle class didn’t traditionally have summer holidays, but after the second world war, the coast started creating rooms for people to come on holiday. We went from a few thousand people in the winter to millions coming from northern Italy and Germany in the summer.
We are now at the point where we are trying to reinvent mass tourism because our previous offering is not that appealing any more. With the same amount of money, travelers can go to Seychelles or the United States.
We recently came out with a brand new strategy based on the Via Emilia, an ancient Roman pathway that led from Rimini to Milan. It is recognized, at least in Europe, as part of our heritage and we’re trying to tie our products and marketing campaigns to it. We are trying to convey the idea that tourists aren’t buying Emilia-Romagna but are buying the history and experiences of the Via Emilia, which comes with fast cars and slow foods that they can’t find anywhere else in the world.
Skift: Emilia-Romagna has really invested in digital media and tested a variety of different campaigns. Can you tell us more about those more marketing strategies and which have been the most successful?
Burioni: We are working hard on the digital side of our marketing presence, especially with social media. We try to connect online digital campaigns with offline campaigns. The key word here is handcrafted hospitality, which ties back to the cultural identity of the region. One of our major successes has been the Blogville project. We tried to open the format of traditional blogger tours towards a more wiki-like format. We don’t provide bloggers or journalists with pre-defined programs or places to go. We just provide them with an apartment and allow them to choose what to do. The resulting freedom allows our guests to tell stories that the public, and even ourselves, would not expect.
We have offered the apartment for two years and will run it for a third year with the region of Lombardy. We have so far hosted some 130 bloggers from five continents. It’s been a great success in terms of photos and stories as well as the originality of the stories created. Giving people complete freedom has proved very successful for us.
On social media, we are also trying to get people from the region involved by engaging individuals, businesses and institutions. For example, we asked locals to rewrite Wikipedia entries about food and history in our region. They were proud to be a part of it and we got better Wikipedia pages as a result. We also outsource our Instagram account to individual photographers from the community to create a collective take on Emilia-Romagna.
Skift: Are you able to measure what the impact of these blogger trips, whether it’s increased awareness, website visits or actual visits?
Burioni: We’re at that very point right now. Frankly, we don’t have standard measures yet, however, businesses report travelers calling from China or Brazil after someone from their country visited. For example, a center that teaches cooking classes hosted a blogger from Shanghai and then Chinese citizens called asking for the same experience. We are getting to the point where stakeholders themselves want to learn more about this kind of exposure. We have hints that it’s working.
Skift: The region is so rich in local, and world-recognized, cuisine. What role does food play in attracting tourists?
Burioni: It is a core part of our branding strategy. There are plenty of certified products and renowned chefs here, but food is more of a way of living for locals. People love to spend time not just preparing and eating food but sitting at the table together.
This idea of relaxed conviviality is part of our identity and that’s precisely what we try to convey. That’s the more interesting, difficult to explain, part of social media marketing. We are trying to handcraft hospitality the same way that our food is handcrafted, to customize the experience for each guests.
Imagine an old woman in a small kitchen making pasta for her guests: She wants to provide every guest with what he or she wants. We are trying to bring that spirit to digital media. We have much smaller numbers than other organizations on social media but we try to treat every conversation we have on social media as if it’s the only conversation we’re having with a visitor.
Skift: How do you make sure that people know these great products are tied to the region?
Burioni: We are trying to customize the food tourism experiences more and more with time. For example, we bring Instagrammers and video producers to experience a Sunday lunch with a local family. A local will host them, bring them to shop for food products, cook with them and share Sunday lunch. The whole experience is then broadcast via social media. It’s an experience that we provide for normal tourists too. In more and more cities around the region, young cooks are opening the doors to their homes to teach visitors how to cook. The personalization of the food experience is the stronger part of strategy in this respect.
Skift: How has social media become more of a priority in recent years?
Burioni: Social media is becoming more and more relevant to our overall strategy, because it is the platform through which we talk with visitors, reach a broader audience and gain insights on what visitors enjoy most about the region. There are only four out of 50 people in the organization working on social media and we are still in our infancy in terms of measuring outcomes. I ask that we increase overall awareness of the brand and understand that the outcome is more lateral at this point.
What is happening now is that we are becoming a kind of cultural hub when it comes to digital culture. We provide our public, and sometimes our private, stakeholders with insights about digital culture and the relevance of social media. The main goal, in the short term, is not about increasing room occupancy. We can’t measure that yet. What I can say for sure is that we are providing a platform for our stakeholders to express themselves.
Skift: All destinations struggle with funding. Do you see this changing in the next 5 to ten years as the economic significance of tourism is better realized?
Burioni: In this country, funding for any single public activity is shrinking and it’s likely that public money for tourism in this regional and Italy as a whole is going to shrink more in the next 5 to ten years. For example, we went from a budget of 14 million euros for 2014 to 10 million euros for 2015.
Our effort therefore is to work even more closely with the major companies that are established in our territory to increase awareness of the products and our region worldwide. We are going to more often partner with other destinations in Italy to better promote and sell the country around the globe.
Skift: What about relationships within the travel industry? Will you be working more or less closely with other sectors?
Burioni: I definitely expect more collaboration. I see our own road changing in a major way. Our role is shifting from being a content provider to being an attention provider for people. In the past, travelers would come to us for information and the basics of the destination or experience. What we are doing now is becoming a platform where all stakeholders, locals and visitors can express themselves and share information.
For example, there is a small neighborhood in our region called Brisighella that is in the running to be named the nicest neighborhood in Italy. Through digital media, we are trying to engage the whole local community to vote for this town. It’s not about the vote per se. It’s about the shifting role of our organization, which is to direct public attention towards the needs of the destination or the needs of our guests.
Whenever someone asks us something about an attraction or site, we outsource the question to our overall community on Facebook and Twitter and ask them to answer the question.