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It will be interesting to see if more countries contract out large content marketing programs to established media companies, especially without any editorial oversight as was the case here with Switzerland.

Switzerland Tourism teamed up with National Geographic Traveler to develop a content platform on the Nat Geo website highlighting the newly created Switzerland Grand Tour.

The Grand Tour consists of 1,000 miles of railroad and highway journeys connecting both well-known and lesser visited destinations throughout the country. Switzerland Tourism is hoping to direct more long-haul customers to places not called Zurich or Zermatt in an effort to extend room nights and drive new business to traditionally underserved regions.

In preparation for the Grand Tour unveiling last month, the tourism board developed traditional online and print marketing materials to promote the initiative, but they also wanted something additional that was specifically designed for the North American market. In 2014, U.S. arrivals to Switzerland grew 3.7% over the previous year, but most of that was directed at luxury hotels in the iconic Alps destinations.

The Swiss marketing team chose National Geographic Traveler to promote the Grand Tour to Americans, because they felt the media company could best capture the two things underpinning it—the legacy of the iconic European Grand Tour and the adventurous spirit of Swiss alpine tourism.

“We saw in various research papers this trend of touring is still one of the most important drivers for international travel, to explore a destination from one place to another in different forms,” says Alex Herrmann, director of the Americas for Switzerland Tourism. “At the same time, there’s a very long history of touring in Switzerland, starting over 150 years ago with Thomas Cook, who took one of his very first international tours to Switzerland to Bernese Oberland in the 1860s.”

Nat Geo lives in that sweet spot of travel media that can cover luxury and adventure equally well to appeal to a wide spectrum of demographics. The company sent one of its veteran Digital Nomad writers, Robert Reid, to explore over 50 destinations of his choosing by rail and car to prepare the content presently featured on the Grand Tour microsite.

The sponsored portal begins with a comprehensive map embedded with pins highlighting Reid’s trip, ranging from the CERN nuclear research center near Geneva to a local spot selling bündnerfleisch jerky in the Engadine Valley outside St. Moritz. Below that, longer editorial content is categorized by Attractions, Activities, Food & Drink, Events and Transport, further supported by existing Swiss content throughout the Nat Geo site.

This has been the largest destination sponsored content project for both the client and the agency to date. The interesting thing is that Switzerland Tourism was completely hands-off in the editorial development of the project, except to make a few recommendations on places to research.

“I’ve been a travel writer for over 15 years but I’m pretty new to writing anything connected to a sponsor, and I have no complaints about it,” Reid told us. “Fortunately with this Switzerland project, I’ve been able to research and write essentially the same as I’ve done for independent pieces in the past. I picked the places, came up with all the story ideas myself, researched them on my own, and wrote only with a Nat Geo editor questioning it.”

Reid suggests this only works with travel media groups that have established a certain level of trust with experienced travelers.

He says, “I think the challenge for some media companies or websites is that they lack the position or confidence of a Nat Geo to be able to say, ‘Hey, we know what we’re doing,’ and be trusted to do so.”

Switzerland Tourism then created its own crowdsourced content program called “Lights! Camera! Switzerland.” to drive visitors to the Grand Tour site. The tourism organization sent out a request for submissions on social media asking North Americans why they should win a trip on the Grand Tour and $10,000 spending cash.

The final ten contestants are now posted online for public voting. The winner is scheduled to be announced on June 5, who will also host a professional television series filmed during his or her trip through Switzerland.

We sat down with Herrmann for a little more background behind this content marketing partnership.

Skift: How did the concept of the Switzerland Grand Tour develop?

Alex Herrmann: This idea of the iconic European Grand Tour, visiting most of the key places in Europe in the 1900s, for us seemed to be something that allowed us to bring that tradition, that history, into the 21st century. So the Switzerland Grand Tour started as a concept to connect the different parts of the country to showcase the diversity of Switzerland and the different language areas, the different natural environments, and also some of the most popular destinations with some of the much lesser known parts of Switzerland.

So when you look at this tour, the highlights are in there as well as some of the areas where we don’t get a whole lot of international travelers, especially from overseas.

Skift: How did you decide on the scale of the project?

Herrmann: We thought it just can’t be a quick trip through Switzerland. It has to be a rather substantial tour, which also has several entry points from France, Germany and Italy. And it had to be a tour that was about 1,600 kilometers, so for us in the U.S. market, it’s a perfect marketing message because we can now talk about the 1,000 miles of Switzerland.

Skift: There are so many iconic destinations in Switzerland that grasp the imagination of Americans. Do you expect many of them to visit those unknown areas?

Herrmann: We of course love to welcome first timers to Switzerland, and we’re aware that they only want to see the highlights, or that they may only have time to see the highlights. But maybe we can interest people to come back and explore the places they’ve already seen a little bit more, and then also explore beyond that. Maybe to places like the Italian-speaking Switzerland, like Ticino, which many people don’t know exists. Or maybe the Appenzell area, which is quintessential Switzerland in the northeast of the country that rarely gets visited by anyone outside Switzerland.

Skift: What was the process behind the content collaboration with National Geographic Traveler?

Herrmann: For this big collaboration with National Geographic Traveler, we didn’t give them a lot of guidelines, although we gave them some ideas. But it was their trip and where they wanted to go and how much time they wanted to spend at each place. It was also their decision to pick the 50 top experiences from that tour, and that was all documented with video, lots of photos and then also written content.

Being in a long haul market here in America, we wanted to bring in a strong U.S. angle so that’s why we decided to go with National Geographic. It’s a first for them, and it’s a new way for us to collaborate with their readers because there’s a social aspect.

Skift: What has been the response to “Lights. Camera. Switzerland.”?

Herrmann: We had over 3,000 entries in about the first five weeks, and many of them were videos. The 10 finalists were selected by a jury, and over the next few weeks the public can vote for these candidates. There’s nine Americans and one Canadian. The person will then travel with a professional TV crew and a producer, and the final program will be shown on a major network in September distributed nationwide. We’re still in discussion with several networks.

We were really amazed that we got 3,000 entries, and over 700 videos, and the quality was amazing too. And then within the first night after posting the finalists, we had over 1,000 people voting, so that’s been another great way to use content to promote the Grand Tour throughout North America.

Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at

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Tags: national geographic, switzerland, tourism

Photo Credit: The Switzerland Grand Tour incorporates both rail and car travel. Switzerland Tourism