Traveling Online: Making Your Destination More Interactive

A few months ago I found myself with an interesting strategic dilemma. I wanted to think more “outside of the box” and come up with more non-tactical executions for how to market products. The success I had with my UPS blog post resulted in an interesting conversation in the comments section on what UPS is doing with the web. This time around I wanted to try something a little bit different.

In my years of experience working in the interactive industry, I’ve spent a great deal of time managing online campaigns for travel and tourism destinations. Whether they are hotels, destinations, vacation getaways, etc., it’s just been something that I’ve felt I now understand. So my next take on strategic planning leads me to analyze how to create an effective online marketing plan for destinations.

When I say “destinations”, what do I mean? Well that’s another way of saying Convention & Visitors Bureaus or Associations: the folks who seek out to attract you to visit their town, city, state, or nation and want to have families, students, tour groups, meeting planners/conventions, media/journalists, and everyone else. We’re not talking about hotels and other travel-related categories in this post.

So what would I suggest for a destination to engage in from a strategic point of view?

  • Establish a web presence so there’s something to point back to.
  • Find an efficient way to promote that you’re online and raise awareness.
  • Don’t ignore the community online.
  • Track everything.

Perhaps the first thing that an organization needs to focus on is establishing a web presence. This means that you’ll need to set up a base of operations in the vast forest of data known as the Internet. I’m betting that if you set this up right, it’s going to be a detailed webpage, right? Make sure you factor in some integration with your vendors and partners.

  • Proper planning for getting your website to be effective is highly essential. Chances are that your organization is comprised of members (hotels, transportation groups, restaurants, attractions, etc.), right? If you have them in a database, then take advantage of that system to have it be automated to control specific parts of your website.
  • If you’ve got some mapping feature for your destination, make sure that it’s integrated as well so everything is available on one site. Try not to make the user go from one site to another just to get information you could have integrated together.
  • Streamline your workflow on your web presence. You don’t need to have a Content Management System if your existing database can do everything that a general CMS can do.
  • Scalability is the key. Don’t assume that once you’ve built out your website that it’s going to stay like that. Be flexible in its design and functionality. Make sure that you won’t need to demolish the entire thing prematurely before you’ve exhausted its use.

Once you’ve set up your website, that’s your home. Remember to tie everything back to your home because any new information you have should live over there as a central repository. Yes, you can have small campaign microsites to promote specific events, but it should all lead back to the main website (aka “the mothership”).

Promotion is the key to generating traffic and achieving your objectives. Most destinations want to see high traffic to their site simply because they rely on bookings to help fund their efforts. But people don’t want to be sold to, but rather shown that the destination is worthy of their money and has some value. Communication is always  big thing in the web these days. Make sure that you employ some direct and indirect online marketing to your audience. If you have key feeder markets, a strategy to examine would be to see if you bought keywords on search engines for localized targeting. Unless you don’t care where you get your traffic from, you might want to stick with doing a localized approach since that will help you attract more visitors from key markets you know have probably a high rate of booking trips to your destination.

Emails are never a bad thing. Most destinations have a large list of names that they can email at any given time. Do not buy or rent any lists. It’s just in bad taste and those people probably don’t want to hear from you anyways. Make a schedule over the next 12 months and think what major events, contests, seasonal promotions you can come up with. Typically you don’t see that many emails going out for various destinations and that’s wrong. Done right, emails can have a great effect on making your customers feel wanted and informed. And always clean out your lists so no unwanted mailings get sent out.

Form a community for your destination. I’m sure that all CVBs have some form of videos that they can convert to be displayed online. If it’s just B-Roll, add a soundtrack to it and load it up online. It’s a cheap form of promotion – could it become viral? Absolutely! Explore social media…that means going on Facebook or Myspace and setting up a business page and updating it often. Combined with contests and other promotions, you could achieve a great ROI.

But are you thinking about mobile applications as well? Go to your members and strike up some promotions. With smartphones being ever popular, you can make your own walking tour for a decent price. People exploring on their own with their Palm, Blackberry, or iPhone is a great idea and if they want more information they can look it up on your website — but make sure your site is accessible from cell phones!

Engage the conversation by having folks share what they like or hate about your destination and make that an impromptu focus group. Share the information with your bosses. Implement some feedback so that the community feels appreciated. Don’t moderate too strictly what’s being said and be more open-minded.

Learn from your efforts is something destinations may gain from all this effort. Using web analytics and tracking tags in every external marketing effort will help you gather information you will need to adjust your marketing strategies. Google Analytics is a free software that helps you track your site visitations and also uses its own tracking tags so you can monitor activity as it relates to your sites.

Again, these are just some strategic issues that I’ve been pondering over the past few years and are probably a successful way of thinking how to execute any online marketing campaign for any destination. Follow these examples and you’ll probably run into success.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently Flipboard's Assistant Managing Editor, overseeing news curation in technology, science, gaming and health. In addition to his day job, Ken's the co-host of "The Created Economy" podcast, examining the Creator Economy. In a past life, he was a former reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding.