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.

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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).

Tourism Australia is one of the highest performing destination marketing organizations in the world. It has million of engaged followers across social media, has introduced contests and campaigns copied by dozens of others, and works alongside destinations from states to towns within the country for a coordinated marketing message.

As of the best in the industry, we were excited to speak with Tourism Australia managing director John O’Sullivan about how the organization overcomes challenges, measures the ROI of its campaigns and what it’s learned from its social media efforts.

An edited version of the interview can be read below:

Skift: Last year Tourism Australia launched the food-themed campaign Restaurant Australia. Both the country and its individual destinations have actively promoted Australian cuisine and chefs. What are the results of those marketing efforts thus far?

John O’Sullivan: Restaurant Australia was conceived last year based on our research that showed us people travel on their stomachs. People are seeking more unique experiences and a big part of that is food and wine whether they are going to a great restaurant, a vineyard, a food trial or a food and wine event.

We quantified the value of food and wine tourism internationally to Australia and it was about $4.2 billion in the financial year 2013-2014. We also looked at the perception of Australia as a food and wine destination.

The research told us two very insightful things. The first one was that people who have been to Australia think our food and wine is as good as anywhere in the world. If people haven’t been to Australia then their perception of Australia as a food and wine destination drops to about ten.

Restaurant Australia is a national platform that has been bought into by all the state and territory organizations like Tourism Victoria, Destination New South Wales, and Tourism and Events Queensland. The results, thus far, have been really positive. We set a goal to increase the amount of expenditure on food and wine to $5 billion by the end of the calendar year. We’re already at $4.6 billion so we’re already ahead of that marker.

We’ve seen a 30 percent increase in the perception of Australia as a food and wine destination to people who haven’t been here. We’ve done major consumer events in fifteen of our key markets. We have a $5 million campaign in the United States with Virgin Australia that highlights Australian food and wine.

It’s increased access and connectivity between tourism and the hospitality sector, which have been really important for us because the two are so reliant on one another for success.

Skift: Is there another theme that Tourism Australia is planning to focus on after cuisine?

O’Sullivan: We’re increasingly looking at the aquatic coastline of Australia. We are partnering with Sir David Attenborough, a natural documentary maker, for a series on the Great Barrier Reef. It will be very much connected to the environment.

We’ll also be looking at our indigenous tourism offering. Australia has the world’s oldest living indigenous culture and we are looking to make a little bit more noise in markets where indigenous tourism is important. Almost 20 percent of North American visitors to Australia seek out indigenous tourism experience.

Skift: Tourism Australia is a leader in social media on Instagram and Facebook. What have you learned about crafting a successful social media strategy?

O’Sullivan: I don’t know if I really want to advise other destinations about what we’ve learned around social media because it’s a real leadership position for us.

It’s been incredible effective in addressing the perception of time and distance.
Through our Facebook, we can direct conversations with 6.1 million people in a very cost effective manger. It’s an important part of our media strategy and we’ll continue to work on a number of initiatives that take that side of our business to the next step.

The most simplistic advice that I have is that you have to embrace it. There are still a number of destination marketing organizations that say they do social, but they really don’t because it is so corporate based. It’s very lumpy in its usage. You have to go for always on. For example, when Savannah Guthrie was out here for the Today, they just worked through the night, pumping out stories, images, and tweets.

The second thing I’d say is that the content has to match the promise. You have to share content that’s of interest to the consumer at the other end of the device. They don’t just want to hear corporate speak; they want to see actual experiences.

Also, people want things that they can readily understand. It has to be highly visual. Simplicity is the other key driver.

Skift: Funding is traditionally a challenge for destination marketing organizations. Do you think that is going change any time in the future?

O’Sullivan: Increasingly, governments around the world, and particularly here in Australia, are seeing tourism as a key sector of the future economy. The Australian economy specifically is going through some fundamental changes.

Tourism, as a sector, is now being identified by the Business Council of Australia and is one of the future growth engines of the Australia economy. We starting to see governments get serious about backing sectors that they know are going to lead to jobs and future revenue growth. Tourism in Australia has that.

We get a base-funding amount of about $143 million. What we then do is we work in partnership with industry to raise more. This year it will be close to about another $54 million to $55 million in cooperative marketing budget.

What we basically do is we turn our $140 million into almost $200 million. It’s really important for us because it connects us with people who have direct skin in the game and leads to better outcomes in driving conversion.

We have a great brand, but we also want to make sure that the brand follows through and gets people to convert and purchase tickets to Australia. Our funding model is built on a substantial amount of public money but we are always pushing for private sector funding as well.

Photo Credit: Tourism Australia managing director John O’Sullivan (center) on stage at the 2015 WTTC Global Summit with Orbitz CEO Barney Harford and VaynerMedia co-founder Gary Vaynerchuk. World Travel & Tourism Council / Flickr