Destination management: How DMOs can evolve with COVID-19

A few destinations are beginning to reopen—and just in time, as it’s currently National Travel & Tourism Week.

But for many destination marketing organizations (DMOs), doors are still shut. There’s no shortage of concern around going live at the wrong time and having to answer tough questions from local residents, elected officials and business owners. No one wants to jump the gun. And, of course, collections and budgets are declining and uncertain, so defending what remains feels crucial.

To discuss these concerns and more, we recently hosted a peer-to-peer roundtable with 45 DMOs from across the country over three sessions. Participants shared what they’re doing during this difficult time and how they’re using this standstill to reevaluate their operations. Although it may not seem like it for some, this COVID-induced halt presents an opportunity for DMOs to elevate their brand, assess their marketing channels and solidify a presence as part of the economic engine of their local communities.

Read on to learn how you can be proactively accountable both right now and into the next normal.

Learn more: How travel brands can adapt messaging in the current environment


Destination management – not just destination marketing

Now more than ever, destination marketers should think about ensuring that every facet of their destination—from hotels to restaurants to local retail—will meet visitor expectations when they start venturing outside the home. This means ensuring that local businesses are or will be fully ready to welcome visitors back.

This is a time for you to solidify a position as a true economic backbone of your local community. You can do this by working closely with local leadership and business to drive the path to economic recovery.

For instance, CMO of Visit Tampa Bay Patrick Harrison shared during one of our roundtable sessions that his organization has become more of a community liaison during this time. Visit Tampa Bay has partnered with around 800 partners for fundraising to ensure the continued success of the hotel owners in their location. Visit Tampa Bay even worked with local caterers to promote local Easter dinners for furloughed hotel employees.

Amelia Island has gone so far as to create an online marketplace to support local businesses: All proceeds from the online shop, which includes cotton face masks, tote bags, cooking oils and much more, will go directly to the individual local businesses. The header on their About page reads: “Shop Today, Travel Tomorrow!”

As well, when it comes time to get back to marketing as you know it, you’re going to want to highlight all the steps local businesses are taking to comply with new regulations—such as restaurants implementing a 20-25% capacity and keeping a certain distance between tables. Consider how you’re going to help potential visitors feel comfortable traveling to your location once again. To ensure the safety of all aspects of your destination, you’ll need to directly and consistently connect with your local businesses. Be a source of guidance for them right now, sharing what travelers will be looking for and how your local businesses can exceed expectations.

Consider too that there will be new customer preferences coming out of COVID-19—like touchless services—so understanding new technologies and methods of operation, and then helping your local partners implement them, could enable destinations to be put on the map in an innovative way. Consider how you can help your destination evolve and meet demand, and you’ll establish a valuable position of leadership in your community.

Hold your organization accountable

Until material demand is created and picks back up again, pure travel-intent data is an absent phenomenon right now. Therefore, it’s currently all about demand creation and measurability.

There’s never been a greater need for accountability. This is an excellent time to assess your marketing channels to see what’s giving you actual ROI—and what isn’t. Before this standstill, day-to-day operations weren’t often disrupted for fear of potential lost revenue. But now that transactions have more or less completely halted, it’s time to clean out the pantry, as it were. Now is the time to get the most out of smaller and strained budgets going forward.

Take a look at what’s working and where you may have some gaps to fill, particularly with regard to measurement. When investment in paid channels begins again, be proactive and invest in accountable media. Measuring ROI and community impact from direct marketing efforts are no longer luxuries; they’ll be necessities moving forward into the next normal.

Reach your most valuable visitors

When it’s time to conduct outreach, first and foremost, you’re going to want to reach past visitors to maintain share of vacation. One way to do so immediately, particularly if you’re hesitant to hard sell using the word “travel”, is to advertise via “moments of Zen, ”to coin a phrase from Elizabeth Fogarty, director of Visit Grand Junction. Fogarty helped to create a “Roam from Home” curated series of short, scenic videos on the Visit Grand Junction website. Instagram users share clips of flowers, horses, plateaus and the open road. The tagline? “Escape for a moment.”

Although it’s crucial to reach out to past visitors, keep in mind also through planning that some visitors following COVID-19 will likely be new to your destination. You're going to get people who have never visited before—it's going to be a different kind of customer. People are thinking of markets they’ve never before considered. There could even be potential expansion of your “core customer.”

For instance, people will be exploring domestic, local options more than ever; the prediction is that people will be driving more, flying less. Some even speculate 2021 will be the “year of the car.” Folks are probably going to be traveling to different towns in their region or in their state, and we may see a trend of urban dwellers leaving their crammed cities and heading to smaller destinations at rates not seen in quite some time. People are seeking space.

A recommendation? Look to data coming out of different organizations in the service world at this time. You might have some new audiences you're going to cultivate, but you’ll need to approach them in a different way. As well, this data allows you to personalize your communications, which will enable you to adjust the tone as needed, optimize the conversation for each individual and suppress messaging that isn’t relevant during this time. It will also allow you to identify the types of audiences that spend more when they visit, which will be crucial for the seasons ahead. 

Be proactive – consider this a clean slate

Although things are currently at a standstill for many destinations, there is a significant hidden blessing in all of this: a clean slate.

Throughout the COVID-19 disruption, you can elevate your brand, invest in new or more accountable marketing channels, and solidify your organization’s place in your communities’ economic engines. If you use this time to be proactive, you’ll see your organization level up in a completely new way.

If you want to learn more about how travel and tourism brands are responding to COVID-19, check out our Epsilon From Home series.