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Top PR Trends in Travel & Tourism — A Q&A With Karyl Leigh Barnes, President at DCI

February 22, 2021

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As a leading digital marketing agency for the travel and tourism industry, Noble Studios knows all about staying ahead of the curve in the highly competitive industry. Over the past decade with the rise of digital publishing, social media and influencers, managing public relations for destinations has gotten complex to say the least. That’s not to mention the unexpected twists and turns such as the coronavirus pandemic and its short and long term effects on travel.

Noble Studios sat down with Karyl Leigh Barnes, President of the Tourism Practice at Development Counsellors International (DCI) to discuss how PR strategy can make or break a destination’s appeal to customers, and where digital marketing and PR can come together to achieve inspiring results.

What are some of the trends your team is seeing in the coming decade regarding leisure travel — either from the industry at large or a PR perspective?

Travel will return and it will return in a big way…some industry experts estimate the global travel industry to top almost $3 trillion sales by 2024. As borders reopen and it’s deemed safe to once again travel, it’s been well documented that a certain amount of “revenge spending” will occur as consumers are anxious to start spending on the things they’ve been denied over the last year—like travel, but also dining and in-person entertainment. And with Canadian households having accumulated an additional $160 billion in savings and U.S. households having saved an extra $1.3 trillion, this is great news for the travel industry.

Almost every segment of the travel industry is focused on a more eco-friendly and sustainable future, which, in many ways, is in line with the new normal of socially-distanced traveling. COVID-19 hasn’t changed these values entirely. As far as sustainability goes, travelers are still looking to reduce their impact in a variety of ways. Travelers are starting to look for under-sold cities and destinations that are not as popular in an effort to combat the negative effects of over-tourism. They are also open to shifting the dates of their travel to off-season periods. Slow tourism, connecting with nature, getting back to the basics, all of these preferences align with our post-pandemic world.

At the same time, technology and innovation are impacting the travel industry like never before. The use of biometrics, artificial intelligence, auto-translation apps and big data will continue to impact how and when people travel. COVID-19 has made all sorts of contactless innovations more common than ever, so we’re expecting a lot more independence from other people in many ways. However, destinations will need to make sure that technology doesn’t overshadow those interpersonal and meaningful experiences which is precisely why people travel in the first place.

Prior to COVID-19, I would have said people were crunched for time to travel, but with the new normal in place, and especially flexible working situations, it seems like time is no longer as much of a luxury. Taking a long weekend or even a month to travel somewhere while working doesn’t seem as ridiculous anymore, and I’d expect workcations becoming popular for those who can work from home — or from anywhere, really.

How has the rise of digital publishing, social media, and influencers changed public relations in the travel and tourism industry over the last decade?

It hasn’t changed our goals fundamentally, but it has changed how we achieve them. Instead of just targeting writers of glossy magazines and newspapers, we now have to think about an online presence, social media, audience-generated content, SEO, and all of these other tools that we can use to achieve greater visibility for destinations. It’s a constant learning curve because it’s changing all the time, and we need to stay ahead of it so that we can keep our destination clients top of mind in the eyes of consumers.

We’re still selling a destination, a story, or an image, but we need to think about how to do it on multiple platforms and, more importantly, how to make sure we are engaging our audiences online in ways that we did not have to do in the traditional publishing landscape. For the past year, everyone consumed nearly all of their content online — no one was going to the store for a magazine — so it’s clear that digital is no longer a new “nice to have.” Those days are over and probably have been for quite a while.

The idea of ‘responsible tourism’ is growing rapidly. Over-tourism is an issue for many destinations. From crowded transportation infrastructure to lines for pictures with iconic landmarks, visitors may not be having the experience they thought they’d have.

How can PR play a role in managing visitor expectations when representing a destination?

This is essentially everything that PR does. By making sure the destination is embracing its unique story and then helping the media to echo it, we’re giving visitors a realistic idea of what to expect. In PR, by telling honest stories about what’s going on in a destination, we can give a representative view that will attract visitors and then, if we did it right, get them to tell their friends to visit, too.

How do you deal with this delicate balance of promoting vs respecting a destination?

As consumers begin to understand their impact on the environment and on the sustainability of cultures, it’s becoming easier for them to understand how their presence as a visitor actually impacts a location and its people. In some developing countries, we are regularly focused on working with local governments to disperse travelers more broadly – and our storytelling helps raise consumer awareness of other alternatives to iconic attractions. Often these are places they would never have considered visiting prior to its endorsement by a credible third-party.

What’s become increasingly important in our work is the ability to explain to travelers how their presence impacts the lives of the people living where they are traveling – both the pros and cons. This is clear with COVID-19 where traveling to a destination could have spread the virus to local populations. A lot of destinations promoted “Stay home” messages, mincing no words on that one. We struggled because this messaging ran counter to every fiber of our PR bodies, but it was the responsible thing to do. In the future, I’m sure we’ll have to do it again for any number of reasons, but it’s important to stop, reflect, and make responsible decisions.

Moving through recovery efforts, people will still want to travel to places and have a unique experience. They also want to feel good about their choices. When we can provide them a valid reason to visit a place they had not considered before, safely and respectfully, then everyone wins.

What do you think about “plane shaming”? Is it coming to the U.S.?

It’s so interesting how we were moving towards more sustainable modes of transport like trains, and thanks to COVID-19, we’ve pivoted back to promoting road trips, to embrace more socially distanced travel. The idea of getting on a plane right now is still so far away for many people.
Of course, with time, and eventually mass distribution of a vaccine, mass air travel will resume. The plane shaming we were discussing in early 2020, on a basic level, is useless – people will always travel, and we can’t prevent that, nor do we want to! What should be a better approach is for activists to look at the activities around plane travel, like airports, private car transfers, and other polluting elements that can be tidied up to make air travel impact the environment less negatively. Consider Chattanooga, powered entirely by solar power as of 2019. These sorts of innovations show how flying doesn’t have to be all bad.

We’ll see how the airline industry rebounds in the coming years. Safety guidelines may continue to turn people away for some time, but it may be an opportunity for alternative transportation to gain some ground. For places like the U.S. where train travel is not as accessible, we should encourage more investment in cleaner transit and more railways. In Europe, where rail is readily available, that mode of transportation should be encouraged.

Creating a destination’s profile is the first step to get the word out about it. What are some of the defining factors in how you shape the perception of a destination?

DCI believes that what others think and say about your destination is what defines your brand, not what you say about your destination. That doesn’t mean that a good branding process doesn’t help shape that perception. We begin our branding projects by understanding a destination’s DNA. What is your unique selling proposition that sets you apart? The ideal positioning sits at the intersection of what consumers want and what your destination has to offer. We then develop key messages with “proof points” that should infuse all of your marketing initiatives. In this day and age, prospective visitors are more likely to engage with a destination first in film/television so you can either seek to leverage positive perceptions that exist or correct misperceptions to hone your brand.

We then amplify these messages online where the consumer is most likely to encounter them, as well as in print media and video. Finally, we work to ensure that we keep referrals from friends and relatives alive and well by engaging with fans online.

Some destinations have an easier time telling their story than others. How can a DMO with “no story to tell” find a resonating story to tell?

Every destination has a story to tell! It’s as simple as that. For DMOs where it’s harder to highlight a key story, it’s important to look to the local people and see what they’re doing. To say there is truly no story to tell is to overlook all of the people who make a destination amazing, and surely if you look a bit deeper you’ll find stories among locals that will help create a larger story about a destination. Of course, this hunt requires effort, but it pays off in the end if done correctly.

Which destinations, client or not, do you see doing it right from a PR perspective? What are they doing right?

For years, many destinations worked in silos. Sales, marketing and public relations departments only talked when they had to talk. Frankly, public relations teams often felt like the Rodney Dangerfield of tourism marketing. You might remember his catchphrase, “I don’t get no respect!” (Although being PR pros, the grammar was concerning.)

Hotel and convention sales staff were groomed for CEO roles at destinations around the world. However, in the past decade, we have seen a marked shift that we believe is beneficial for our industry. As advocacy and tourism management has become an increasingly important role for destination organizations to play in their local community, communications professionals are now starting to be appointed to CEO roles in our industry. Their understanding of the value of public relations has helped to elevate its importance in the marketing mix and provided it a seat at the table when it comes to making marketing decisions and communicating brand messages to the world.

Who does this well? Tourism Australia often has continually raised the bar on integrated marketing. The destination organization’s fake Dundie sequel was integrated throughout its global marketing efforts and was directly responsible for both brand lift and an increase in arrivals.

But it’s not just international destinations that excel at breaking through the clutter. I was impressed with how Discover The Palm Beaches (DTPB), the official marketing organization for Palm Beach County, Florida, in partnership with iconic resort lifestyle brand, Lilly Pulitzer, and high-speed rail service provider, Brightline, celebrated hundreds of women affiliated with professional sports. In 2020, they co-hosted a private Lilly Pulitzer Brightline Train to Discover The Palm Beaches pre-Super Bowl. This cross collaboration resulted in a great deal of editorial coverage, social media engagement and person-to-person relationship building.

Does user-generated content (UGC) and sentiment analysis play a role in crafting a modern DMO PR strategy?

Knowing the end consumers’ perceptions of a destination can be a powerful insight for a DMO to have and to use when crafting a strategy. UGC provides that glimpse into what people say, where they go and how they may feel about the destination. A DMO can consider these perceptions while crafting the PR strategy, helping to guide tactics and messaging.

We see digital marketing and PR as extremely complementary, in what ways is it important to have a PR strategy nestled into a digital marketing strategy?

SEO, SEO and SEO! Keywording and key messaging must be considered when crafting a digital marketing strategy and these should be interwoven into all public relations efforts. We also emphasize daily that every story we pitch to the media must have supporting content on the destination website or social platforms where we can drive both media and consumers who require more information. It’s completely ineffective to spend money on PR to tell a story that stimulates interest that is then driven into a digital “black hole.” Consumers have so many destinations from which to choose. After months of not traveling, it seems like every island, city, state, province and country is clamoring for visitors. If they can’t find what they are looking for easily, they will simply lose interest and turn their attention to another destination.

What’s the one PR tactic every DMO should be using, but few are?

There is a great deal of confusion surrounding influencer partnerships, but we believe there is no better arm of communication than public relations to advance this type of storytelling. Every destination can leverage influencers to their advantage to connect with their target consumers. However, it’s becoming a sophisticated business to analyze the content, validate the metrics and negotiate for partnerships in competition with better funded consumer brands. That’s why we often see destinations either panic as they try to address the volume of inbound requests from individuals who call themselves influencers (and often are not), or structure partnerships that disappoint their partners in the end.

What questions does a destination need to ask itself before implementing an influencer marketing strategy and how do you see the role of travel influencers and bloggers evolving over the next decade?

First you need to ask, what’s the business objective of working with influencers for our DMO/destination/partners? How will we measure success? Are we working with the influencers because their audience and content align with our brand, or is the influencer’s brand more aspirational than our brand, and thus we’re looking to attach ourselves to their brand? Neither answer is incorrect. You just need to know the answer before you move forward.

Also ask, are our digital content and PR teams aligned? How can we make this campaign integrated? We’re still finding that destinations often work in silos and sometimes even pit their digital and PR agencies against each other. This is a huge loss for the destination, which will benefit more fully from strong collaboration and the ability to maximize partnerships.

And if COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s that influencer partnerships need to be more holistic, more solid than before. So many destinations simply dropped them to the wayside when the pandemic hit — and understandably — but that sort of fragility doesn’t really create a lasting rapport. These relationships need to be stronger so that influencers can weather a storm with the destination.

Where will the next decade lead us? We anticipate that influencers will become their own brand in a more complete way. Influencers across categories and audience sizes will start to develop, market and sell their own branded items. This might take the form of collaborations with larger brands or their own brand of consumer goods that fit within their ecosystem. As destination marketing professionals, if we do not establish relationships with influencers now, they are less likely to be open to affordable partnerships when they make it big, down the line.

What are some of the most common pitfalls of working with influencers to promote a destination?

One of the biggest pitfalls is communication at the start of a partnership. This is where the majority of hiccups arise that could have been avoided if both parties agree on deliverables and a direction of the content produced. Be very specific about the ask and partnership deliverables. Draft an agreement to confirm the partnership details – even for trade out programs! Most of all, make sure there is some sustainability built into your partnership. Many DMOs still treat online influencers with a certain amount of disposability, and that’s not going to work moving forward.

Karyl Leigh Barnes is the President of the Tourism Practice at Development Counsellors International (DCI). Since entering the tourism and hospitality industry 25 years ago, she has worked to promote destinations on every continent but Antarctica. In the past 60 years, DCI has helped more than 500 destinations world-wide increase visitor arrivals and investment through marketing and public relations programs.

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