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).
Virginia is not necessarily thought about as the world’s sexiest destination, but its proximity to the country’s capital and diverse attractions ranging from significant historical sites to renowned nature preserves consistently draws travelers from the U.S. and abroad.
When it comes to marketing Virginia, the now-famous slogan “Virginia Is for Lovers” has reached recognition unmatched by any destination besides Las Vegas’ “What Happens Here, Stays Here” messaging. Capitalizing on that slogan, however, takes a creative and entrepreneurial mindset that’s led to revenue-producing retail products and on-the-ground cooperation.
Skift recently spoke with Rita McClenny, the CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, about the state’s famous slogan, funding challenges, and why tech experts will be tomorrow’s marketing leaders.
An edited version of the conversation is below.
Skift: Virginia has one of the most recognized tourism slogans, “Virginia Is for Lovers,” in the United States. How do you capitalize on its recognition and keep it fresh each year?
Rita McClenny: We keep the slogan market facing. We look at the customer, what they’re interested in, and the drivers that are inspiring them to travel. We put the slogan in every place where Virginia is whether it’s outdoor adventure, culinary, history, sports, arts, festivals, or museums. We take the brand and marry it with the experience and product as seen through consumers’ eyes.
We also want to keep the slogan fresh. We’ve changed the look of it and made sure that people are coming to the website and staying on it. We use research and analytics to measure everything we do on a daily basis. When something isn’t moving in the direction that we like, we go in and analyze it. Now our attention is on blogs, YouTube, and digital domains. It doesn’t necessarily have to be through an app, it’s about being mobile and quick and nimble.
Skift: How do you use mobile platforms to engage travelers before and during a trip to Virginia?
Rita McClenny: We give them snippets of the experiences that we know they are looking for in a vacation. We do it through video and compelling packages that make it easy for them to access the adventure.
Mobile is certainly the primary platform for marketing to travelers. We put content in front of consumers through our media channels and engage them through blogs and social media.
Skift: What is the primary group of travelers that you’re looking to target today? Are the destinations that you compete with changing at all?
Rita McClenny: We certainly see growth in the millennial demographic as well as young couples and multi-generational travel. We still love the baby boomers – they have money, time and often bring their entire family.
We’re really competing with the world because everyone has access to everything. People look at exchange rates, accessibility, and airlines so every place on the planet feels like a competitor. Our primary competition is up and down the eastern seaboard.
Skift: How do you fund your marketing efforts?
Rita McClenny: The Commonwealth of Virginia funds us but we are a stand-alone agency so we also enter into strategic partnerships. For example, we’re able to raise money through our “Virginia Is for Lovers” merchandise and have an online store. We are really in the revenue business when it comes to capitalizing on the popularity of the “Virginia Is for Lovers” brand.
Skift: Many destinations struggle with funding. Do you think this will change at all in the coming years?
Rita McClenny: It’s interesting you say, “struggle with funding,” because tourism around the country is on the rise and outpacing some other industries. What’s unfortunately not happening is that localities and states are not reinvesting those revenue sources back into tourism, which is an extremely profitable revenue generator from a tax standpoint.
That money goes to so many other uses. It’s really not the fault of the industry if that money is going to be budgeted off and appropriated to other areas like education, health services, and security. It’s how the money is appropriated once the revenue is collected that counts.
Skift: If you had ten times the amount of funding you have today, what would you do with it?
Rita McClenny: We would certainly have a more robust branding campaign and add to our reach. Right now our reach is from Boston down to North Carolina and west to Ohio. We would definitely go into more markets. We would also have a more robust leveraged marketing grants program because it inspires attractions and businesses to participate in our grants program. We have to make some really tough decisions on who gets the money and there are so many worthwhile programs.
We would also invest more in our film incentives, because Virginia’s model is different from a lot of states. We have a fairly modest film incentive program, but there are so many other projects that come to Virginia, hire people and produce projects in Virginia than we are currently able to service. That’s another opportunity for us.
Skift: We’ve spoken with several leaders of destination marketing organizations who say that the career path to an executive role within the industry has changed in recent years. Do you agree?
Rita McClenny: The next frontier of people working in destination marketing will come from technology. It could be people coming from the tech world into destination marketing or people within the organization who have a great awareness of technology. It used to be the salesperson would become the CEO of the destination marketing organization; now it’s the marketing director. Next it will be the chief technology officer becoming the CEO.
Technology is where everyone has to make things happen. People are traveling more because of access to technology and it is giving them the availability to be mobile, go faster and reduce booking times.
People aren’t booking their travel 60 days ahead. They’re booking it 6 days ahead. Technology is this kind of the hyper-speed place where action is happening. If you can make that more dynamic then you can make your destination more dynamic. Technology is the factor that can make travel the hyper-speed market that it is.