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Limitations on understanding the travelers visiting friends and relatives segment have been eroding, but they are still there when it comes to the imaginations of destination marketers. Tourism agencies should try to push the envelope.

Some tourism agencies are using geolocation mobile data to identify visitors who stay with friends and relatives to hone their marketing efforts.

Geolocation mobile data allows destinations to track the aggregate movement of visitors around a destination and time spent there, and those tracked are kept anonymous. More tourism agencies are taking advantage of geolocation mobile data to study their visitor markets. Meet Boston, for example, uses mobile data to measure the effectiveness of its efforts to spread the wealth of tourism to more neighborhoods. 

Travelers visiting friends and relatives, which is usually called VFR, are an often overlooked group and hard to measure for destinations because they very often don’t stay at paid accommodations like hotels. Tourism agencies have historically leaned on their hotels for insight on how many visitors they have and where they come from. 

Agencies are trying zero in on the VFR segment, which represents a sizable portion of unaccounted for visitors. “Maybe as much as 70 percent of those coming to our destination are actually staying with family and friends,” said Brian Hall, chief marketing officer of Explore St. Louis, which started using VFR data last year.

The VFR segment is typically resilient and will continue to travel during downturns. During the pandemic, airlines pursued this segment because they were the only group that didn’t stop flying. 

But this group has historically been stereotyped as a low-spending segment that isn’t likely to splurge. “It’s a massive segment and it’s not that they don’t spend money. It’s not that they are unmarketable. It’s just that they travel a little bit of a different way than we typically think of it as,” said Dan Roberts, vice president of research and strategy for Virginia Tourism Corporation, which started utilizing the data last year. 

VFR spending is different from that of the usual leisure traveler’s. “They might spend more of their dollars on things like retail and grocery stores, but the absolute level of spending is lower than what the typical leisure traveler is,” said Roberts. He also noted at least 40 percent of Virginia’s VFR segment actually stay at hotels.

Agencies obviously would prefer more of these travelers to stay in hotels because it would translate into more spending and higher occupancy for hotels, but visitors won’t skip out on opportunities to save money, especially as hotel rates remain strong. Getting them to choose hotels over free stays with local friends and relatives is unrealistic, said Hall.

Where they spend their time present new opportunities to nudge them. Central Virginia’s most popular tourist destination is the Short Pump Mall thanks to the VFR segment, according to Roberts. “It gives local DMOs another opportunity to think about another way to reach people within market advertising because those places have a ton of out-of-home opportunities like billboards,” he said.

Some tourism agencies see an opportunity to turn hosting residents into ambassadors and guides. “We’ve got a population of about 2.7 million souls, if we can take a healthy percentage of them and turn them into ambassadors for St. Louis then that can be enormously instrumental in shaping attitudes and perceptions,” said Hall. 

Explore St. Louis has been investing in local digital and broadcast advertising campaigns “to spread the word” about the variety of available attractions and activities as well as connecting with residents through community events to raise awareness, according to Hall. The aim is to get residents to get their visitors out of the house and exploring the city.

During the holiday season, when the VFR portion is highest, St. Louis attractions got a big boost. The week of Christmas through New Years Eve saw near 20,000 visits at The Gateway Arch, a jump from the week before which saw visitation at 6,600, according to Hall. He said other attractions like the St. Louis Aquarium had a similar impact.

For Virginia Tourism, the VFR data reinforces the value of building the brand within the state and investing in content year-round. “We’re making sure that as we market outside of the typical summer season we’re giving residents, website visitors and folks like that alike opportunities to engage with us,” Roberts said. 

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Tags: data, destination marketing, mobile, st. louis, virginia

Photo credit: Tourism agencies are finding opportunities in the travelers visiting friends and relatives segment. Felix Rostig / Unsplash

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