By Addie Palin and Angie Buchanan
Every brand marketer has been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, but a very unique set of challenges face destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and their partners in the year to come. DMOs are beholden not only to travel restrictions within and with regard to visitors to their state, but also to the localized restrictions of their own cities or municipalities. Community sentiment cannot be ignored; conflicts between the desire to reopen local economies and the charge to keep communities safe from Coronavirus must be navigated carefully. For state marketers, these voices and questions are multiplied across regions that may differ greatly from one another, making it difficult to land on a single message or plan that will satisfy all constituents.
As if all of this wasn’t difficult enough to navigate, DMOs must monitor the continually-shifting travel conditions of their national and international target markets to ensure marketing dollars aren’t wasted on consumers who are unable or unwilling to travel. Gone are the days when deeply etched tourism seasons governed the development of foundational, fixed year-long marketing plans. Whether it’s Coronavirus or an unforeseen climate event, we advise all our tourism clients to build flexibility into their planning and execution process to be able to change on a dime. It’s what the industry should have been doing all along. This global pandemic only validates this.
Designate a single goal as your North Star
In the world of travel marketing where so many partners depend on DMOs to help chart their course, it’s important to reiterate that flexibility doesn’t have to mean uncertainty. When your plan is anchored by a unified strategic approach, its tactics, target markets and timing may shift but the plan will remain cohesive and smart.
At Hoffman York, we recently kicked off planning with our tourism client teams by helping them achieve consensus around two things:
- Their overarching strategic objective
- The single most important thing to communicate about the brand in order to achieve that goal
With those established, day-to-day circumstances might necessitate changes to messaging or audience, but everyone can proceed with confidence that any shifts will still support the larger goal.
Even in a time of extreme market shifts like this one, we encourage our clients not to abandon their goal, for it is the one we are all ultimately responsible for year-over-year. Why is this important? The cumulative effect of five or ten years of efforts will be far more powerful than the success or failure of a single season.
Implement a process that embraces unknowns
Consensus on a strategic approach may seem obvious, but without it, the planning process can’t become as nimble as it needs to be to respond to the unplanned. In this new era, Hoffman York is facilitating an iterative process with smaller planning teams and shorter sprints that is very different from the “big reveal” of the past where we digested an annual set of inputs and returned with a yearlong, fully integrated plan for our clients.
Some components of the plan will be more vulnerable to the evolving Coronavirus pandemic (or other unforeseen circumstances) than others. In order to prevent the entire planning process from being bogged down by “what-ifs,” it’s important to identify ahead of time which areas are more predictable and will benefit from longer-term vision, and which areas can adjust if necessary. Areas that could be greatly impacted can plan within shorter timeframes in a sprint-like fashion to reduce the probability of redoing a larger plan or having to pivot on too many things at once.
To ensure the success of a process like the one described above, assign smaller client-agency teams to each sector of the plan. This will allow key decision-makers to focus on the factors that most directly impact the channels they are responsible for, establish how long changes may take and potential costs, and therefore respond more quickly with direction and approvals should the need arise. As long as all teams remain anchored to the overarching strategic approach, marketing leadership can be assured that goals for the brand will continue to be met.
Pursue parallel creative paths
During times like these, the creative product is another critical concern for destination marketers. Creative development and execution is an area of great investment and therefore great scrutiny. “Locking in” the campaign—what it will communicate and how it will look in print, television, social media and more—has traditionally been a priority for DMOs whose tourism partners rely on those assets to support their own efforts. Not locking in on a campaign may feel uncomfortable at first, but marketing teams can take steps to create a cohesive set of assets that accommodate changing messages efficiently and facilitate different types of approval processes to assure stakeholder peace of mind.
Planning for the unplanned means pursuing parallel paths—sometimes more than two at a time. Start with a message map that accounts for the various contingencies that the campaign may need to address, and secure approval on multiple messages at once. This not only bodes well for smooth approval on assets down the road, but it allows you to provide your internal and agency partner creative teams all of the inputs they will need at the upfront, which will enable them to develop more expansive creative solutions.
In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic’s onset in this country, we all saw brands—including many DMOs—retrofit their existing campaign and b-roll assets to accommodate new messages. Imagine what creative teams can do if they know at the upfront—before production—that their campaign will need ultimate flexibility even as it commits to supporting the agreed-upon strategic approach. Rather than traditional concepts, marketers should encourage and expect to see innovations like capturing multiple takes at once, clever crowdsourcing, and non-traditional media solutions like augmented or virtual reality, PR campaigns, interactive content, contests and more.
Develop a mixed paid media portfolio
A discussion about strategic planning would be incomplete without addressing paid media. Paid media is the highest-investment vehicle by which the message gets delivered. And it’s seemingly one of the least flexible components of any plan, requiring long-lead commitments for paid placements like print, television and out-of-home. Hoffman York’s destination marketing clients were some of the first to ask: what can be paused? What can be moved? What dollars can we shift to more flexible digital solutions?
While the answer will be different for every brand, it helps to have a mixed portfolio of media types, inclusive of both longer-term and flexible options. Marketers should consider adjusting their messaging strategy for each as well; more traditional media is ideal for high-level, evergreen messages that can weather market shifts, while flexible media—largely digital—is ideal for specific messages that can easily be swapped in and out. If there is a need to shift digital timelines or targets, Hoffman York’s in-house Trade Desk puts our clients at an advantage. All digital formats are managed from one centralized platform, enabling swift and efficient changes as opposed to coordinating with multiple vendors.
Once the lay of the land (and budget) has been assessed, marketers can start planning for the future. Just like the components outlined above, media plans benefit from a phased approach that is informed by frequent access to research, as well as the data and insights gleaned from not only year-over-year but week-to-week analytics. Continual visibility into performance by message, tactic and market is key when planning for the unplanned.
Addie Palin, General Manager, Hoffman York Montana
Addie joins Hoffman York’s Montana office from Chicago, where she contributed her client service and business development skills to several agencies. In her 15 years in marketing, Addie has provided strategic leadership and growth for B2C and B2B brands across the spectrum of retail, associations, healthcare, technology, manufacturing, and more. Addie fell in love with travel—and specifically the West—during her time in graduate school in Montana, and she is thrilled to head Hoffman York’s Helena office, where she serves as the local client service resource for Montana Office of Tourism.
Angie Buchanan, VP Account Director
Angie brings 20 years of advertising and brand-building experience to Hoffman York, with many years servicing travel and tourism accounts. Her love of tourism marketing started during a college internship with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Since then, she’s managed accounts for destination marketing organizations including the Montana Office of Tourism, Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau and Elkhart Lake Tourism Commission, as well as travel companies such as Funjet Vacations and DELSEY Luggage. Angie has also worked with clients in a wide range of industries including education, home products and health care.