tnoozLIVE@Arrival: Miles Partnership’s Carrie Koenig on destination marketing, emerging tech, and making friends with Google

This is the continuation of a series of articles spun out of tnoozLIVE@Arival, recorded live at the Arival in-destination event held at the LINQ in Las Vegas. More clips to come! To learn more about how to bring tnoozLIVE@ to your event, please email Kerry Cannon.

Miles Partnership works with destinations, hotels, attractions, and other travel businesses to engage with travelers and increase conversions across channels. Given the way that the digital media landscape changes rapidly, this is no easy task. With technologies like virtual reality offering new ways to engage with potential visitors, there are more channels than ever for inspiring a browser to book a trip, tour or stay.

I was eager to sit with Carrie Koenig, SVP at Miles Partnership, to discuss how destinations are approaching new technologies and managing channel proliferation in a fragmented media landscape.

Fun stuff for us geeky media types — but especially important for any travel and destination marketers looking to understand where to invest and how to experiment with all of this shiny emerging technology.

Nick: We’re live at the arrival event in Las Vegas. I’m here with Carrie from Miles Partnership. Tell the viewers a little bit about Miles Partnership and what you do there specifically.

Carrie: We’re one of the world’s leading tourism marketing agencies. We help destinations, hotels, attractions, and airports engage with, reach, and convert travelers.

Nick: There’s a lot of different aspects: airports, destinations. Totally different ways for conversions. So when you say convert travelers, in an airport sense, what exactly does that mean?

Carrie: It’s really bringing awareness. We work with maybe one or two airports. It’s really about bringing awareness of ease of access to all of the great destinations in the United States.

And that ties into working with your local DMO as well. Our primary business is working with states and cities. We work with about 90 across the United States. We also have a footprint abroad, and we work with America as Brand USA’s partner to market to international travelers.

Nick: And so you basically are looking like different physical channels that you can get the message out in different ways and means that you can do that for these destinations?

Carrie: We have a varying scope of service for our destination partners. So that ranges from creative and branding services to owned channel and asset management optimization, marketing, content marketing, social et cetera.

Nick: So full package that all these things.

Carrie: Yes. I didn’t wear my trench coat to open up and show you

Nick: For destinations, a lot of times, they do rely on the vendors to push them forward on the marketing side and making sure that there are best practices but also trying new things. I love destination marketing because it’s one of the — it’s kind of like consumer market because it is marketing to consumers — it’s always forward-looking. You know there’s lots of like heartstrings, there are lots of fun things happening. Where are you pushing your clients now? Where are you trying to bring them to the destination marketing side? Is every destination different or do find some themes — right now we’re going to lean on family because you know people want closer ties. Walk me through that.

Carrie: I think it’s identifying their unique value proposition and the emotional experience, the transformative experience, that you’re going to have when you come to that destination. That is large in part relying on storytelling as a mechanism to convey that message.

So having really rich experiences, interactive experiences. We’re helping our clients foray into live streaming videos, 360 video.

Personalization is also huge as well, so we’ll leverage a range of tools to make sure that we’re delivering a personalized experience to their audience.

And also you mentioned helping their constituents become better tourism marketers. That’s a key role in what I do with the company is industry education and helping the small to mid-sized businesses, our cornerstone partners, help them understand the trends around the American traveler and how to become smarter with their tourism marketing, tracking metrics that matter, and being smart about their advertising mix.

Nick: And the size, I imagine, of the destination determines a lot. Emotion is key. Kind of what we’re saying, find the emotional resonance of a particular destination. Between a small medium and a very large destination, do you find that they have greater expectations of the types of travelers that they’re going to bring in? Or is it that every destination really just has to find a profile that matters to them right now, or is there a sweet spot?

Carrie: You have to find where your wins are. In this complex fractured media landscape, it’s more important than ever to focus on your audience segments and your personas. And to create relevant content that talks to your audience. So [it’s about] defining who has the highest likelihood to visit, creating content to speak exactly to those audiences that’s rich and focuses on a lot of visuals and leverages new technologies, is really a key component that we help guide them toward.

Nick: How do you help them be a little bit ahead of the curve? Because people book in advance and maybe the city is changing demographically or maybe there’s new attractions that come onboard — every year is a little different for a destination. So how do you make sure they’re going forward because if someone is in a six-month booking window and you miss it, that’s tough for a destination. You can’t recover after the fact.

Carrie: Yeah I think it’s understanding those lead times in the markets that you’re advertising in and getting in front of that. But one thing that we pride ourselves on at Miles is that we spend about six figures a year on research, creating whitepapers to understand how the American travelers navigating this complex planning landscape all throughout the travel planning lifecycle. So we’re really customizing strategies to get in front of them in a very next the right time at the right place with the right media on the right device. And really pushing our clients to leverage new technologies to stay ahead of the fold around personalization, video…even virtual reality, which we’re on the precipice of seeing that explode.

Nick: Are they liking the 360/VR, or are most people still thinking it’s just too early, that it’s a fad. What are destination marketers thinking on that front? You find some interest in 360 and VR?

Carrie: Yeah, we actually partner with Destination Analysts. They’re a leading third-party market research firm in the travel space, as you know, out of San Francisco.

They conduct the quarterly State of the American Traveler research. And last year we did an iteration of new technologies to better understand: should we be you know leveraging this or is it a little too early? And you find both with the VR and live video that people are interested in it — and 360 video — they just don’t really know how to attain it yet.

We did some interesting VR experiences with our St. Pete Clearwater client. So we love the clients that are ready to roll up their sleeves and take some risk. And we’ve seen some good wins there. So it’s a little early but it’s going to start to take off.

Nick: So when you sense a client that’s willing to try something a little new, what do you promise them, or set expectations on the VR thing? What do you tell them? You know they want to hear a pitch and you guys are doing it. How do you preface it for them to have the right expectations?

Carrie: You want to root that in research. Here is the interest in it. Here’s the actual numbers of people that are adopting it and utilizing it. So there’s a delta there. So from an activation or usage standpoint you’ve got to manage that expectation.

But I also think that being an early adopter is a benefit because that has some nice PR wins. So the coverage that Visit St. Pete Clearwater got, both at shows being highlighted at Destination International, and in the news around some of the things that they do, gives you some of those winds from a reach standpoint that the technology or activation might have missed in terms of utilization.

Nick: The risk is maybe less than some people think. Is it just the conservative side, I just don’t invest the money, is that really what it comes down to? Or they feel like they want to do measurable things or things they’ve done before that they’re comfortable with?

Carrie: You see a lot of that I think in destination marketing because it all comes down to transactions, heads in beds, the economic impact of that, and how they’re all funded.

And you’ve got a lot of these boards that are very scripted into on-channel, on-site engagement and these mediums that we’ve been using forever to get there. So it’s a risk and it’s scary.

And there’s a very small set of our clients I would say that is really brave to venture out into that. But we love working within those realms because you’re able to demonstrate to the board and kind of not retrain them but help them understand new metrics to measure and things to measure that actually show a signal of intent to travel.

You’ve got to reach audiences in new ways in this day and age. You know, people are using 140 websites up from 38 last year, according to Expedia, in the researching and booking phase. And with Google’s new search algorithms, of being more of an answer engine, it’s more important than it’s ever been before to create those really rich content experiences that can’t be replicated in more of that turnkey fashion.

Nick: And that’s good when you can come into VR and do something that’s very unique.

Immersive. Rich experiences that are very immersive. But also an immersive experience is travel itself! So let’s talk about this question I always like to ask you, even though I probably know the answer but…will VR replace travel?

I don’t think it’s ever going to replace travel, no. And this is just me, and pure gut instinct feeling, that it’s going to provide some interesting ways to experience a destination.

I see a lot of application in VR in the meetings and conventions segment. You can easily warp a meeting planner to the real live site walkthrough tour. So you’re going to be able to bring, in theory, a larger audience from an accessibility standpoint to show them your product.

Whereas flying them in to do on-site tours, you might have less of a reach, more cost, less accessibility. But I think that it theoretically has the potential to whet the appetite of more frequent travel, more destinations that are longer reaching that people might be afraid to go visit.

So if you get a little taste of that, I think it’s going to actually convert more people and help bring the needle forward. It’s easier to share, you can share that experience with people that are in other places.

Nick: And maybe they can create you know certain types of perspectives that you might not get elsewhere, or not have an interest to skydive, that kind of thing.

Carrie: Yeah. Protip! Don’t do VR if you are pregnant in your first trimester and sick in the morning. I learned that at Destinations International.

Nick: Did you see the Facebook Spaces thing, where you kind of like hang out in VR with each other? I’m very curious. That’s the whole other thing. You know, once the whole world is created in VR, will destinations have an imperative to build themselves in virtual, so people can actually hang out in St. Pete, virtually. It’s kind of crazy to think that we’re going to be paid 10 million dollars to make a virtual St. Pete to make sure that people on Facebook Spaces can hang out.

Carrie: We actually did a demo of Facebook Spaces at our booth at Destinations International. It is a really really great conference. So that’s also where I think the site tour idea of bringing meeting planners virtually into your space is really cool.

It’s going to connect families that live in other countries. And so I do think it’s important. Again, I think it’s very early in that space but it’s pretty exciting.

Nick: And you think that the tide is turning to be more experimental, you know that we’re getting looser, or is it always going be tough because a lot of it is government money and you know all the other attendant needs to local economies and all that? Or do you see more experimentation in the future for destinations?

Carrie: I definitely see more experimentation. Honestly, based on the research, you’ve got to meet people where they are. And based on the new constructs of search algorithms and where people are searching for their content is really forcing the hand.

Our new partnership with Google Destinations is a good example of that. DMOs, as you know, have been afraid of Google siphoning off traffic and then creating Google Destinations. And if they’re you know entertaining this in their ecosystem, what does that mean for us and what value do we create?

So we’re really trying to help bridge that. And say hey, we have to help train our constituents and our boards again about off-channel management and metrics.

Don’t be afraid of Google. Go ahead and partner with them so that you can own that content and have a voice in that content and get attribution for that content on Google Destinations. They need your help. It’s not sending traffic to your site although it can. But you have that footprint from an attribution standpoint. So it’s a very significant sea change to shift your mindset to that.

But we’ve seen that also in the meetings and convention space. Everything used to be booked through the CVB, and then with the emergence of third party, we all have this relevance question. But nothing ever really goes away. You just adapt and evolve.

I think that it’s forcing that to happen faster than ever before, with the emergence of media and new channels. So it’s exciting.

Nick: It’s exciting and for some people and also overwhelming for others. And that’s a good opportunity for vendors to come in. That’s been great. Thank you so much.

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