Engagement + Marketing

Destination Branding in a Crowded World

Destination branding is always tricky. For second-tier cities, which don't always have a visible or well-defined profile, it's vital. Here's how some of them are creating, controlling, and leveraging their brand.

When it comes to destinations, you can talk about brands and what makes one great and another meh. You can talk about how much of a difference that sort of thing makes to meeting planners. But when you do, you need to take into account the differences between first- and second-tier destinations — because it’s something that the latter tend to worry about and work on much more than the former. Not that anyone really has it figured out. “Even though millions and millions of dollars are spent on branding, very few destinations have really hit their true differentiation,” said Mickey Schaefer, CAE, CTA, president of Mickey Schaefer & Associates, whose Tourism Ambassador Institute administers the Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) Network, and who previously worked as a meeting planner and as national sales manager for the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association. “Atagline is not a brand. The true essence of what a visitor feels or knows or thinks about their city is really their brand.”

Does a destination actually need a definitive brand? Can’t its assets — attractions, culture, cuisine, hospitality — speak for themselves? In the case of second-tier cities, which may not be well known, not always. “San Francisco isn’t going to have a challenge in attracting attendees,” said Martha Sheridan, president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau and current chair of Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI). “With smaller, second-tier cities, delegates may have an impression in mind of the destination, and that impression is going to tip the scales one way or another on if they want to attend. Clearly, the meeting planner wants support from the DMO on how to convey to the delegate that they will have a great experience in that city.”

But why should meeting planners care about a destination’s specific brand? Will it really make an impact? “Because there is so much clutter,” Schaefer said. “The meeting attendee now is more like a leisure traveler. The bottom line is, the attendee asks two questions when they receive an invitation to a meeting: Do I need to go, and do I want to go? And ‘do I want to go’ gets into, what do I know about this city, and does it appeal to me?”


“Essence” seems to be the buzzword of the moment when it comes to unlocking a successful brand, but discovering exactly what that is and accurately reflecting it visually and verbally can be easier said than done. For example, when the Providence Warwick CVB rebranded Rhode Island’s metropolitan area in 2008 as “The Creative Capital,” the goal was to drill down to its core. “When we thought about what ‘The Creative Capital’ means, it had a couple of different levels,” Sheridan said. “It conveys the creative essence of our community — the Rhode Island School of Design brings that front and center in so many ways — but also the thought leaders at Brown University and our culinary community.”

The CVB also debuted a new logo, a bold, orange capital P thought up by Nashville-based North Star Destination Strategies, which facilitated the city’s branding overhaul. The makeover didn’t sit well with everyone at first — Sheridan says some people in the local community didn’t fall in love with the logo, with much of the negativity originating with a blog post by an area designer — but the new brand stuck and continues to evolve. “We constantly use online channels now more than anything to reach particular niche audiences,” Sheridan said.

A good example is the city’s many culinary offerings. After receiving a “Best City for Foodies” ranking from Travel + Leisure in 2012, Providence Warwick developed an online campaign around the award as well as a culinary page on GoProvidence.com. The CVB also tries to keep its overall branding seamless, so meeting planners see and experience what leisure travelers do. For example, on GoProvidence.com, both the meetings and visitors pages promote Providence’s Best City for Foodies ranking. “Consumers are consumers,” Sheridan said. “We created parallel ad campaigns, both electronic and print, centering on the theme of creating your own experience in Providence, whether you’re coming for a vacation or planning a meeting.”

The CVB has also concentrated on increasing media coverage of the destination to help spread brand awareness, and encourages journalists to refer to Providence as The Creative Capital so visitors become familiarized with the name. “We want other people to say it for us,” Sheridan said. “We want them to confirm that we are The Creative Capital. I think a lot of what other smaller destinations are doing is engaging bloggers, engaging social media, to provide a forum for others to reaffirm the brand externally.”


Branding can sometimes be more of a challenge for second-tier cities than first-tier due to fewer resources and less funding — and also because some destinations may not have a well-known identity to use as a foundation. In the case of the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, the destination has an identity, but it’s outdated and inaccurate. The CVB is still battling Daytona Beach’s party-hearty image despite the fact that all those hordes of MTV spring breakers left years ago.

As a result, the CVB is in the midst of rebranding itself to let visitors know that Daytona Beach is a family-friendly, year-round beach destination with plenty of assets for groups. Its convention facility, the Ocean Center, doubled in size after an $87-million renovation and expansion in 2009, and more than $1 billion in new development is in the works, including 2,000 new hotel rooms and DAYTONA Rising, a $400-million redevelopment of the Daytona International Speedway due to open in 2016. “Seize the Daytona” is the destination’s working, to-be-finalized tagline, and the CVB — which is considering “Discover Daytona Beach” as its new name — has already begun investing in new image and video assets to better promote Daytona Beach visually.

According to President and CEO Jeff Hentz, the hope is that the updated brand and planned developments will help attract new meeting business, especially corporate groups that wouldn’t have considered the destination before. The CVB conducted numerous surveys and focus groups of meeting planners to help pin down the ideal message. Push, an Orlando-based advertising agency, has been working on the branding strategy since early 2013. To further familiarize meeting planners with the new brand, the CVB is conducting what Hentz says is a record number of familiarization trips for planners throughout the year. “We spoke to meeting planners to get their perception on Daytona,” said Hentz, who is stepping down from his position with the CVB at the end of this month, “and we realized we had to come up with a different message.”


Although not necessarily new, ambassador programs are continuing to grow in popularity as a tool to spread positive feelings about a city and reinforce its brand message — and as such are particularly useful for second-tier cities. Meetings + Conventions Calgary’s “Calgary Champions” ambassador initiative, which launched early last year, plucks experts from various fields to represent the destination and lure in potential meetings and conferences. Since Calgary has a robust oil and gas industry, the program includes a number of ambassadors from the energy field, along with local celebrities, community leaders, and others from a wide scope of backgrounds. The current roster of more than two dozen Champions includes Gregg Saretsky, CEO of Westjet; Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary; and Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

“One of the key components of having Calgary Champions is [giving planners] access to expertise locally and identifying speakers and sponsors,” said Cynthia J. Douwes, CMP, CMM, manager of the ambassador program and event services for Meetings + Conventions Calgary. “We have this amazing city, we have event-services programs, we have monetary incentives, and now that we’re able to offer this fourth pillar in our strategic offer, it just helps to strengthen our bid.”

The Champions are also depicted in advertisements that are part of “Be Part of the Energy,” a new, destination-wide branding campaign launched last March. “Everything is different and revitalized,” said Jenna McLeod, manager of marketing and communications for the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, “including our logo, our materials, our events, and more importantly our way of thinking.”

The Providence Warwick CVB has had a similarly structured ambassador program in place for more than a decade. Sheridan estimates that 30 events booked in 2012 originated from the program. “For us, it’s a huge aspect of our success,” she said. “Those 30 people are going to tell another 30 people about their experience with us. It’s creating a network of ambassadors that are going to say great things about the destination.”


In Scotland, VisitAberdeen’s Team Aberdeen – Ambassadors program has generated up to 70 percent of the bureau’s business in years past. And even though the bureau, previously known as the Aberdeen Convention Bureau, closed in 2012 and reopened as a new DMO in 2013, effectively starting from scratch, according to Andrew Pratt, business tourism executive for VisitAberdeen, the Ambassadors program had so much value that it seamlessly carried over to the new organization. “It’s a very low-cost way of generating business, especially compared to trade shows,” said Pratt, adding that he’s seeing other DMOs consider adding ambassador programs, especially with a more specific focus to take advantage of their local assets, including academic, cultural, and industrial resources. “It’s interesting, because it seems to be a general trend, ambassador programs in different formats, whether it’s more academic like what we have or corporate.”

Team Aberdeen – Ambassadors has existed for more than 10 years and has more than 400 ambassadors, many of whom come from academic fields because of the program’s partnership with the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University, as well as from the energy industry, because of Aberdeen’s status as “the Oil Capital of Europe.” VisitAberdeen is also part of GANG — Great Ambassador Networking Group — a relatively new collection of U.K.-based DMOs that share ideas and best practices for running their ambassador programs. The group started in 2010 and now meets once a year, each time in a different city in the U.K., for about two days.

“Because of the specialized nature [of our individual programs], where we all have our different areas of expertise, we can share the knowledge of how our programs work, knowing that we’re not really competing for the same business,” Pratt said. “For instance, [Aberdeen] goes after a lot of energy, oil, and gas, whereas Manchester would go after different sectors.”

The group is open to any organization with an ambassador program, anywhere in the world, and its popularity is spreading — last year’s GANG conference included the first international attendee, Douwes of Meetings + Conventions Calgary. Other curious DMOs across the world have inquired about attending. The group is also considering aligning itself with a meetings industry organization, according to Pratt.


Another type of ambassador program exists to streamline a destination’s hospitality community into one well-oiled welcome wagon — the Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) Network. “Second-tier cities are using [the CTA Network] to both align their stakeholders to focus collectively on the experience,” said Schaefer, who founded and runs the program, “and as a competitive advantage when selling to meeting planners and tour operators who see the destination working together.”

More than 100 DMOs across the United States have used the CTA Network to train more than 10,000 CTAs since it began in 2006. The program offers training for anyone who works on the front line with tourists — everyone from hotel concierges to retail salespeople to waiters — in a range of areas, from the history of the destination to how to use local transportation. The idea is to better prepare ambassadors not only to answer questions from tourists, but also to understand the impact that tourism, including meetings and conventions, has on the local economy.

“We like to call it investing in people infrastructure,” Schaefer said. “When comparing a CTA city versus a non-CTA city, with everything matching up, meeting planners have a tendency to think, well, maybe we’ll go to the CTA city, because they’re working together as a community.”


Partnering with local companies and organizations to create a destination-wide sense of brand camaraderie is another key element of building a coherent brand, according to Schaefer — and something that second-tier destinations are increasingly opting to do. She cites Experience Columbus as a good example. In 2012, the DMO initiated the “Destination Columbus Five-Year Aspirational Plan” to increase its meetings business and rank among competing cities, among other goals.

One of the initiatives that Experience Columbus is focusing on is collaborative brand marketing, partnering with the city’s many civic organizations — such as Columbus 2020, the economic development organization for the region, and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission — to more thoroughly and effectively tell the Columbus story. Besides meeting once a month, all of the civic organizations representing the Columbus area now use the same ad agency and brand assets, including logos and campaigns. “Over the last 20 years, there have been several branding efforts [for the destination], and they all failed miserably,” said Amy Tillinghast, CTA, Experience Columbus’ vice president of marketing. “This is what has distinguished this branding effort for Columbus apart from the ones that have failed in the past. They didn’t have that foundational ground-floor buy-in from all the important parties.

“We all have our different audiences,” Tillinghast said, “so it’s not the same message, but it’s definitely consistent and cohesive, so that we’re keeping that brand equity bundled together instead of letting the brand dissipate because each of us are saying something different.”

Calgary has done this as well, with Meetings + Conventions Calgary partnering with Tourism Calgary, Calgary Economic Development, and the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre to create a united front for the destination under the “Be Part of the Energy” campaign, as well as through a dedicated website, bepartoftheenergy.ca. “What I’m seeing is a shift in the desires of the community and local businesses to make the experience better and work together,” Schaefer said, adding that one of the biggest reasons for this shift is the scrutiny resulting from a rise in consumers sharing experiences, both good and bad, through social-media channels like Twitter and Facebook. “I think that brand deliverance and integration is going to be stronger now that they realize that they’re in a glass house.”

That said, social-media platforms also continue to provide one of the biggest outlets for DMOs to promote and expand their brand — from the ground up. For meeting planners, “When it comes to making a final decision, however, oftentimes the brand of a city — essentially the perception that visitors have of the destination — plays an important role,” according to “Social Media Marketing for Global Destinations in the Meetings and Conventions Industry,” a recent white paper from Marketing Challenges International. “Does the destination offer rich culture and history? Is it known for any business industries or universities? Is it known for its cuisine, music, art, or nature? What restaurant and nightlife options does it offer? Will visitors feel welcomed by the locals? Social media is an easy and inexpensive way to answer these questions and build a destination’s brand.”

The white paper shares a variety of examples of DMOs connecting with and serving meeting attendees: “[T]he Phoenix and Seattle CVBs provide a ‘social concierge’ during conventions. Using a specially created hashtag for the conference, CVBs can tweet directly to attendees to answer questions about the destination and notify them of local events, deals, and restaurants and entertainment. The Chicago CVB now works with their convention clients to develop interactive gaming challenges with SCVNGR (pronounced ‘scavenger’), a mobile app in which users can visit places, complete challenges, and earn points.”

Even though a lone tweet may feel like a pebble standing next to the mountain of brand building, it can result in an avalanche of impressions. “We’ve had situations where [a meeting attendee or visitor] tweeted that they spilled something on themselves, so we tracked them down with a Tide pen,” Tillinghast said. “It shows that we’re listening and we’re paying attention. Whether you’re talking to somebody directly or talking to people on Twitter, it’s word of mouth, [and that is] still the thing that will drive people to want to come.”

Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.