Tales From the Road: Lessons Learned Suring the California Travel Summit

I’m lucky to spend time on the road visiting customers all around the world - from New York City to London, but I also get to attend some of the industry’s best conferences. Every time, I walk away learning new things and feeling inspired. In June, I spent a week in Newport Beach (it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it) along with all of the incredible DMOs and travel companies associated with the Cal Travel organization.

There were many memorable conversations throughout, but one presenter’s message really stood out for me - Peter Kageyama. Peter is the author of For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places and the follow up, Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places.

Today’s traveler is highly informed. With a few clicks, they can learn about every destination in the world and the least expensive way to get there. Plus, international travel has become very accessible. This means a beautiful beach town in Florida isn’t just competing with other coastal cities in Florida or even the U.S., but every beach town in the world. How can your destination compete? How can it stand out among all the places a tourist can visit? I think these questions can become increasingly daunting if you’re a smaller team or have a smaller budget.

But here’s the good news. Travelers are more informed because they merely turn on their phone and receive messages from friends and family on social about a new place to go. They can also search by activity, budget and even geo across social platforms and review sites to pinpoint the perfect place to spend their precious PTO. And that’s an opportunity for every destination and travel brand. The question is: how do you make yourself more easily discoverable?

First, a couple of basics. Be active on social media platforms and travel review sites. The #1 reason travelers don’t follow destinations on social is because they don’t know the accounts exist. Of course you can and should promote your posts on social platforms for discoverability, but you also need to promote across channels:

  • Make sure your website links to your social accounts and even potentially showcases some of your posts and the hashtag you want people to use.

  • Make sure all of your emails include links to your social accounts and highlight the hashtag you promote (this even includes your employee emails - be sure all official signatures include links to your social accounts).

  • Make sure your printed materials promote your digital properties, including social.

  • And your visitor centers? Yep, make sure your social feed is displayed, and perhaps feature some traveler posts as well.

Now that you have promotion figured out, what about the content? What should you post? The #1 reason travelers don’t follow hospitality brands on social is because they are too promotional. So it’s not surprising that you’re on social - it’s expected. But the content isn’t appealing. It’s important to approach social like you would any friendship or relationship - if you make it all about me, me, me - you start to lose friends. Instead, make your social feed inspiring, educational and entertaining. Social is about discoverability and inspiration, not for closing the deal.

But even with a strong social presence and great content - how can you stand out? That’s where Peter’s presentation really struck a chord with me. He spoke about placemaking - finding what makes your destination or your hotel unique and telling that story. What can people do there that they can’t do anywhere else in the world? Today’s traveler is looking for a unique experience. They are seeking one of a kind adventures. And what makes a place unique doesn’t have to be the Grand Canyon - it can be something much, much smaller and come from unexpected places.

One example he shared was Greenville, South Carolina. A young high school student was working on his senior project and approached city council with the idea of having nine mice placed on Main Street. He was inspired by his childhood favorite, Goodnight Moon. He managed to raise the funds and hire a sculptor. These little bronze mice delight locals and tourists alike, as they hunt to find all nine (don’t worry they’ve made a map with hints in case you run into trouble). The quest to find the mice inspired author Linda Kelly to write a child’s book about the Mice on Main. This simple idea not only inspired a book but also tourists to buy t-shirts and other memorabilia featuring all nine of the little mice.

There are two things that I find incredibly inspiring about this story. First, this unique experience brings in tourists. It has instilled a great deal of pride with the local community while also costing very little to do. What makes your destination unique doesn’t have to be a neon strip in the middle of the desert (looking at you Vegas), but instead can be something much more simple. Second, this idea came from a teen that didn’t go to school for community development or marketing, but he was proud of his hometown and it’s historic and beautiful Main Street and shared an idea. And the city of Greenville listened.

The idea of tapping into locals to help identify what makes your destination unique or asking your employees about why your hotel is unique is a worthwhile exercise. Locals know better than anyone what they love about their community and are often very proud of the place they call home. Understanding how they came to be in your destination and why they’ve stayed may help you uncover what makes your destination unique, and how it can connect with others. Similarly, asking your employees, who are the at the front lines everyday, these questions can offer some inspiration also. What do you love about our brand? Why do you think guests come back? What makes us different from all the rest?

An example, I was staying at the Keystone Inn a few years ago, and they allow dogs. Now if you own a dog, you understand dogs are family, and figuring out lodging that accepts them can be very stressful. And not just allows them, but will your fur baby be happy? Will it be easy for you to care for them? Not only does the Keystone Inn let you know how they’ll spoil your pooch, they actually host a happy hour for the dogs. It takes place at the bar, so the humans can grab a cocktail while the dogs munch on treats at the same time. It’s such a simple idea but one that is very memorable. And it’s not just for hotel guests -- you’ll find locals there with their dogs too!

To summarize, uncover what makes your destination and brand unique and tell that story. Create a connection with locals and tourists. And finally, be receptive to ideas that come from anywhere - you never know where you might find the next Mice on Main.