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February 2014

Destination Branding: How To Get the Word Out in a Crowded World

By Jennifer N. Dienst, Contributing Editor

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 — in the service of attracting more and better meetings and conventions.

Illustration by Arunas Kacinskas

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?”

THE ESSENCE OF BRANDING

“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.”

SMALLER CITY, BIGGER CHALLENGE

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.”

WORD OF MOUTH

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

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