Report Overview

In this report, we’ll take a close look at two key areas of the destination marketing organization (DMO) landscape in 2018. First, we’ll examine the evolving role of the DMO, particularly with regard to the shift from purely driving visitor numbers to more comprehensive brand and image management. We’ll also look into one of the biggest challenges DMOs currently face: attracting repeat visitors, and see how successful DMOs are campaigning to get travelers to come back time and time again. Finally, we will touch on what has changed since our last in-depth look into the space, with a focus on three key areas: content marketing, organizational structures/funding, and the role of data in marketing and attribution.

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • An examination of how DMOs are evolving, from marketers to destination brand managers
  • How overtourism (or the possibility thereof) impacts DMOs
  • The importance of repeat visitors, and how DMOs can get people to keep coming back
  • A look at trends in content marketing, particularly video and interactive campaigns
  • How data can help DMOs ramp up their marketing and attribution efforts at every step of the customer journey

Executive Summary

Destination marketing is in a constant state of flux, and tourist boards, or DMOs and convention visitor bureaus (CVBs), are currently faced with a set of unique challenges. Traveler demands are changing, as visitors move beyond the bucket list to look for new and lesser-known destinations, especially in an age where overtourism prevails in some destinations. Many travelers are seeking out local experiences, eschewing hotels in favor of peer-to-peer lodging such as Airbnb. Thus, visitor bureaus cannot rely on room occupancy metrics alone to measure the popularity of destinations or the impact of their efforts. Fortunately, more and more tools are being released and refined to allow DMOs to optimize data at every stage of the buyer’s journey, making ultra-targeted advertising and attribution modeling increasingly viable, even for DMOs with modest budgets.

Content marketing is also evolving, and video continues to dominate the digital storytelling space. Along with ever-popular video campaigns, many DMOs are looking at interactive strategies to attract visitors and simultaneously garner data about their interest, often partnering with travel stakeholders to create creative and engaging digital campaigns. In fact, partnerships are crucial across the board, and DMOs by and large are taking a “we’re-in-this-together” approach, sharing findings and keeping conversations open with regional counterparts, while maintaining strong relationships with traditional stakeholders ranging from hoteliers to tours and activities providers.

However, destinations continue to face a number of obstacles, particularly in the U.S., where the current political climate has spurred concerns about attracting visitors from abroad as well as sustaining funding over the long term. Many of these challenges are directly related to the fact that DMOs often, but not always, rely heavily on governmental sources of income, from accommodation taxes to direct budget directives. However, over the past few years we’ve seen DMOs moving to new models, such as public-private partnerships that allow them more autonomy in their spend. We’ve also seen the role of DMOs changing, with many such organizations going beyond their traditional marketing roles and evolving to destination brand-managers.

The Evolving Role of the DMO

The DMO as the Brand Manager

The role of DMOs is rapidly evolving, from marketers to brand managers. DMOs have traditionally focused on getting convention guests and keeping hotel rooms occupied, by both business travelers and tourists alike. However, these days DMOs are increasingly moving into brand manager roles, especially as peer-to-peer lodging and experiences continue to make a dent on the tourism industry. “While our funding is through a hotel assessment, we don’t just say ‘stay in a hotel,’” says Ali Daniels, SVP and chief marketing officer at Visit Seattle. “We say ‘come and experience our city and tell your friends about it and come back.’ It really is focusing on elevating the brand’s awareness and reputation, knowing that everyone would benefit from that.”

While travelers still rely on DMOs to get information about destinations, there are plenty of other resources out there, primarily within the domain of user-generated content (UGC) over which DMOs have little to no control. Therefore, as DMOs continue to morph into brand management roles, they must work extra hard to maintain and promote their brand image.

As Jorge Pesquera, CEO at Discover The Palm Beaches, explained, “While there will certainly be new technologies that will impact the way consumers choose which destinations to visit, and new generations will seek different types of experiences, one thing that will not change is that the DMOs are the ultimate keepers of a destination’s brand and the ultimate experts on all things local.”


Brand Management Throughout the Customer Journey

Indeed, the DMO’s role should not stop once travelers have booked their trips; they should be acting as valuable (and, ideally, primary) resources for travelers throughout the entirety of their journey. Doing so not only helps DMOs reiterate brand messaging, but it can also help them better understand traveler behavior, especially if they leverage technology to see how travelers interact with the sights and experiences in their destination. Such data can later be used to manage the effectiveness of campaigns and develop new marketing strategies, but it can also help DMOs to use personalized tactics to encourage travelers to return time and time again.

DMOs have been increasingly using tourism guide-style apps and attribution software to do just that. 2018 has been a particularly interesting year for DMOs with their eye on the ever-important outbound Chinese market. At the end of 2017, the ubiquitous Chinese messaging app, WeChat, launched its CityExperience Mini Program, a native program within the app featuring immersive map-based guides highlighting points of interest across partner destinations for Mandarin-speaking visitors.


Exhibit 1: WeChat CityExperience Mini Programs act as tourist guides for destinations.

Source: Visit Seattle


The program initially launched in Dubai, London, and Sydney, but was quickly picked up by U.S. destinations — it’s already live in D.C. and Seattle, with more cities expected to partner up by year end. “From the moment [visitors] set foot in Seattle, they can scan a QR code, and we become a part of their life basically,” says Daniels. “They do everything within the WeChat app, and we can guide them throughout the city to all of our partners, telling the story,” she continued. But while the app will make it easier for DMOs to push specific attractions and experiences to visitors while they are in their destination, it may prove equally or even more valuable for gathering and leveraging data. “The analytics behind it is going to give us such a creepy view of what people do while they’re here, but [it’s] also super beneficial so we can make sure that we are providing this type of visitor with the type of experience that is truly beneficial for them.” While the ability to collect data and feedback is a huge benefit of employing such an app, it’s equally crucial for helping DMOs connect with travelers, and manage their brand’s image, throughout the customer journey.


Beyond Tourists: Marketing to Industry and Encouraging Community Dialogue

As DMOs continue to evolve into brand managers, it may be time for them to expand their reach outside of the tourism industry. Chris Fair, president of Resonance Consultancy, an agency that works extensively with the tourism industry, believes that DMOs can play a greater role in representing their destinations. “DMOs need to expand their roles within cities or destinations, and position themselves as the stewards and managers of the city’s brand — not only for tourism, but for talent attraction and investment as well,” he writes on the Resonance blog. “No other organization in a destination has the funding or expertise to do it, and by assuming that role, a DMO can expand its value proposition to the community it serves.”

“I think you will see destinations take a larger ownership stake in building a sense of place,” said Staci Mellman, vice president, brand for VISIT FLORIDA. “Instead of marketing the destination as it currently exists — totally dependent on the organic experiences that are created over time — I think we will see DMOs partner with local leaders, developers, and businesses to influence the evolution of their destination,” she continued.

Fair also suggests that DMOs take this a step further, not only focusing on inbound tourists and convention attendees, but also making a point of interacting with locals. “DMOs often monitor visitor satisfaction with the destination, but they rarely interact with local residents,” he continued, suggesting DMOs add an additional M for “management” to their identities. “Evolving into a DMMO means the organization needs to spend as much time communicating with, monitoring, and measuring resident satisfaction as they do with visitors.”

This approach to destination management is increasingly important in destinations where overtourism is an issue. Major factors include growth in the tourism industry along with a major upsurge in budget-friendly flights and an increasing number of accommodations available through Airbnb. This has left destinations such as Venice and Prague in dire need of proper strategies to keep inbound tourism at healthy but manageable levels while ensuring that tourism has a positive, not distressing, impact on local residents’ quality of life.

Portland Oregon’s visitor bureau, Travel Portland, has taken an active role in involving the community in tourism discussions. While the city doesn’t face the overtourism issues found in many popular compact European destinations, it is one of the fastest-growing metropolises in the U.S. and is currently facing a housing affordability crisis, with a shortage of around 48,000 homes. “We have been more focused on destination management, not just marketing, while also stepping up efforts to get locals to understand the economic impacts and benefits of tourism,” said Ajay Date, Travel Portland’s vice president of marketing. “We are continually focused on equity and inclusion in our work and want to make sure that everyone in Portland can participate and reap the economic benefits of the tourism industry,” he continued. “We also want to play a more active role in recognizing how tourism can affect local issues such as affordable housing, homelessness, and gentrification and to ensure we can have a positive influence on those issues.”

Attracting Return and Repeat Visitors

Getting Travelers in … and Back Again

Attracting repeat travelers is a top priority for many DMOs. Numerous studies have shown advantages in attracting repeat visitors to a destination. Such travelers cost less to market to, tend to stay longer and spend more in destinations.

Of course, it’s no secret that today’s travelers, particularly millennials, have vastly different interests than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, often choosing to seek out new and off-the-beaten-path destinations rather than visit the same place. “Travelers preferences and their behaviors are changing,” said Wendy Olson Killion, global vice president of Expedia Group Media Solutions. “Destinations that were far flung and never thought of or didn’t know that you could get to are now a keystroke away to be able to get that information. We’re seeing a diversification of that consideration set of destinations because the impossible is now possible.”

Similarly, in a study conducted in 2017, Skift Research found that around 60% of “avid travelers” (i.e., “those who indicated that they had taken at least one leisure trip, one round-trip flight for non-business purposes, and stayed at a hotel for at least one night in the last 12 months”) would prefer to discover a new destination on their next trip rather than returning to a tried-and-true spot.


Exhibit 2: 60% of avid travelers are more likely to visit a new destination for their next leisure trip.

Source: Skift Research, U.S. Experiential Traveler Trends 2018


This trend is even greater among affluent travelers (with combined household incomes of at least $100,000), who are increasingly likely to choose new destinations for their next vacations than ever before. In our recent Skift Research U.S. Affluent Traveler Survey 2018, 77% of such travelers indicated they wanted to go somewhere new on their next vacation, up from 70% in 2018.


Exhibit 3: Affluent travelers increasingly prefer to visit new destinations.

Source: Skift Research, U.S. Affluent Traveler Trends 2018: Annual Survey on Travel Behavior.


With this in mind, DMOs must work extra hard to ensure that visitors see their destinations as places worth returning to.


Building Trust and Satisfaction

Traveler satisfaction is key for driving repeat visitation. For instance, a 2017 STR Global study examining traveler attitudes towards the world’s 40 most-visited cities found that trust and satisfaction gained from previous visits was instrumental in attracting repeat travelers, noting that repeat travelers they surveyed were nearly two times as likely as first timers to plan a trip to major city destinations. Interestingly, they also found that “those less aware of major destinations tend to have less positive associations than previous visitors,” citing a city’s culture and atmosphere as the “two most underestimated attributes associated with visiting mega destinations among non-visitors.”

“We feel like visitors are our biggest advocates,” says Daniels, speaking of Seattle. “We just have to get them here the first time.” DMOs of lesser known destinations echo the importance of satisfaction for repeat visitation and prioritize efforts that drive visitor satisfaction. For example, Oakland has traditionally been viewed as a suburb of San Francisco rather than a destination in its own right, and many visitors to the Bay knew little more about the city than that it had an alternative airport to SFO. “We’ve had a long-held belief that if we can get you to come to Oakland and experience Oakland, we’ve convinced you, and that we’re going to see you again,” said Everton of Visit Oakland.


Communicating a Diversity of Experiences

Attracting repeat travelers can be particularly challenging for destinations that are hard to get to or considered once-in-a-lifetime or bucket-list destinations. “We talk a lot about this with places like Australia because it is that you only live once. It’s [on] that bucket list,” says Olson Killion of Expedia Group Media Solutions. “One of the goals is how do we get them back, right? And that’s where we showcase more and more of what there is to do there and things that they may not be aware of.”

DMOs are taking a similar approach, focusing on promoting experiences that travelers might not have had their first time around. While there’s no one-size-fits all method, savvy DMOs are emphasizing the diversity of experiences that their destinations offer, a particularly crucial strategy in an era where experiential travel is at the forefront of travelers’ minds. For Seattle, which puts a heavy focus on marketing to what they’ve dubbed “advenculturalists,” (travelers interested in both arts and culture and outdoor recreation), seasonality is key. “We’re also blessed that we’re a very seasonal city, so there’s a reason to come during the fall, during the winter, during the spring, during the summer,” says Visit Seattle’s Daniels. “We really do try and focus our campaigns around celebrating the differences between those seasons.”


Targeting Potential Repeat Visitors

Another challenge DMOs face is how to track visitors to get a better understanding of the who, the when, and the why of their visits. Using data to hone in on what a traveler might be looking at for a specific visit is also crucial, particularly in an age where consumers increasingly seek out unique experiences and expect personalization. “One of the things that we look at is a narrow casting strategy,” says Caroline Beteta, president and CEO at Visit California. “With the age of digital, you’ve got to be able to speak to consumers in extreme [ultra-specific] silos. While we focus on family, outdoor, culture and entertainment, culinary experiences and attractions, recreation, and luxury, we also believe that it’s important to get into more particular travel experiences as the consumer moves along.” And so far, the strategy seems to be successful. “Just domestically, a third of all of our domestic visitors have already visited California once in the last twelve months,” she continued. “And overall, we’re seeing a higher rise of multiple visits to California in a year over the last few years.”

Similar strategies are common at local-level DMOs, too. “Although we are unable to attain the booking information of specific visitors, our marketing team tags those [already] in our database by interest and other clusters, so that a relevant message is communicated, even down to the reader’s geographical location and season,” noted Pesquera of The Palm Beaches.

“We send targeted content that appeals to individual interests and reminds them why they love Chattanooga and provides them a reason to return,” says Barry White, president and CEO at the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We track the success of the marketing recruitment into the long-term engagement and track the popularity of our content and optimize.”

Of course, there’s something to be said about focusing resources on converting people who are showing organic interest in returning. “It really comes down to maybe not getting so caught up in the fact of driving that return visitor,” said Richard Black, general manager, tourism at Sojern. “I think it’s more about listening to the data, looking at who are the travel intenders right now … and then getting in front of those people who are showing that intent,” he continued. “That’s the moment where you really try to get in front of them and seal the deal.”

Key Updates for DMOs in 2018

In 2017, we surveyed around 300 destination marketing professionals around the world, paying close attention to trends in digital advertising and content marketing as well as how data is impacting marketing and attribution. Many of the trends we discussed in last year’s report in these areas are still going strong, as follows.


Video Continues to Grow as an Effective Channel

Unsurprisingly, we found that video was leading the way, with DMOs generally willing to devote significant resources to creating videos and working with influencers in the video space. Our conversations with DMO representatives this year indicated that the push for video continues to prevail. Recent examples include Brand USA’s IMAX film, America’s Musical Journey. After a successful run with a previous IMAX film highlighting the beauty of national parks in the U.S., the national DMO decided to launch a film showcasing the United States through the lens of its rich musical heritage. This is a particularly interesting approach in an era where travelers are moving away from focusing on visiting iconic attractions alone in favor of culturally immersive experiences. Another interesting example is Travel Oregon’s Only Slightly Exaggerated, a whimsical anime-style video focusing on the state’s biggest selling point: its natural beauty.


Interactive Campaigns Drive Engagement

Interactive marketing was also a big deal in 2017, from interactive planning platforms for potential visitors to British Columbia, to an innovative multimedia program created by Expedia Group Media Solutions on behalf of the Hawaii Tourism Authority that used facial recognition software to gauge visitors’ emotional reactions to drone images of the state. This trend continues in 2018. One recent example is Tourism Australia and Expedia Group Media Solutions’, An Australian Adventure. This choose-your-own-adventure-style program allows travelers to create personalized, visually driven explorations of the land down under, while giving Expedia Group Media Solutions and the tourism board the opportunity to collect valuable data about what travelers are looking and how they interact with the information provided to them. According to Olson Killion of Expedia Group Media Solutions, “Those kind of elements give us a feedback loop of being able to provide more data outside of click-through rates or time-on-site or other things that we might be measuring.”

According to an Expedia Group Media Solutions spokesperson “the most popular/requested holiday recommendations include relaxing trips, coastal and aquatic experiences, romantic trips or trips with a partner, and trips 8-12 days in duration. Additional microsite insights illustrate which Australian experiences and itineraries are most popular among users; this data can help inform creative and content strategies for future campaigns, and allow Australia to optimize its marketing efforts.” Moreover, the program has likely been instrumental in inspiring travelers to book trips to Australia. Data from early stages of the campaign’s run shows that from March-May 2018, hotel demand increased from 20 to 40% year-over-year in certain regions of Australia. The demand for flights was even more marked, with year-over-year increases ranging from almost 20% for Victoria clear up to almost 60% for Western Australia.


VR and AR Are Yet to Take Off

Some of the DMOs we spoke to this year expressed less interest in virtual and augmented reality than those we spoke to in 2017. “We did some virtual reality videos, and have not seen a really good acceptance of them,” said Mark Everton, CEO of Visit Oakland. “I’m not sure that technology has a long-term opportunity for marketing for DMOs … We find it works well when people are exploring meeting spaces or convention centers or hotels, but I’m not sure it’s really giving people that opportunity to really understand what a community or what a destination is providing. I think there are better channels to do that,” he continued. However, it is still too early to gauge how these technology sets may impact the space in years to come, and it may be worth revisiting the potential of both once the supporting technology platforms are refined.


Leveraging Data for Advertising and Attribution Remains Crucial

Last year’s report also emphasized the importance of using data to maximize their marketing and advertising campaign strategies. Such data, when used correctly and efficiently, can also give DMOs key insights into what works and what doesn’t while helping them justify their marketing spend to key stakeholders. While general tools such as Google Analytics can provide invaluable insights for destination marketers, there are a number of specific platforms designed with DMO needs mind, including big players such as ADARA, Arrivalist, and Sojern.

Using data smartly and effectively continues to be a big focus for DMOs in 2018, with new products being rolled out to help destination marketers refine their efforts, both in terms of marketing and in terms of measuring success. At the end of 2017, for example, Arrivalist rolled out a new metric, Arrival Lift, which, in the words of Cree Lawson, the company’s founder and CEO “[measures] the increased rate of visitation from devices that have been exposed to the DMO’s ads compared to the rate of arrival from devices that have not been exposed to ads.” Such a metric can greatly help DMOs increase their reporting efficiency. “Many of our clients are taking Arrival Lift and pairing it up with, say, economic data from tourism economics, or spending data from credit card companies, and they’re now able to calculate ROI on the fly, where it used to take six months to compile a very static report,” he said.

Key Takeaways

The role of DMOs is shifting, from Brand Marketers to Brand Managers … and Beyond

While DMO success was once measured by how many conventions they could attract and how many hotel rooms they could fill, such indicators are no longer enough in an increasingly democratized — and fragmented — industry. In today’s environment, DMOs must take on the additional role of brand manager, and not just when travelers are in their pre-trip or planning stages. City apps can be useful in this regard, particularly if they are set up to allow DMOs to simultaneously drive visitation to key stakeholders and collect visitor data for later use in marketing and attribution. And it’s not just tourists that the successful DMOs of the future should be focusing on. Many in the industry believe that DMOs can take on a bigger role in areas ranging from attracting outside investment to partnering with local businesses to helping residents mitigate the challenges inevitable to current industry issues, notably overtourism.


Emphasizing Unique Experiences is Crucial to Attracting Repeat Visitors

A big question for DMOs this year concerns attracting repeat visitors, particularly in an era where travelers are presumed to eschew going back to the same spots over and over again in favor of finding the next new or off-the-beaten-path location. One of the best ways to do this is by focusing on the diversity of experiences a destination has to offer. Destinations with distinct seasons might leverage differences in summer and winter activities to their advantage, while places that enjoy a consistent climate year-round might put a heavier emphasis on highlighting lesser-known ways to experience their destination. Of course, to do this successfully, destinations must rely on data to both track visitors and target them accordingly.


Video and Interactive Media Continue to Dominate Digital Storytelling

DIgital storytelling continues to be at the forefront of DMOs’ content marketing efforts, with an increasing focus on video. DMOs’ efforts to create engaging video content has run the gamut, from Brand USA’s music-focused IMAX film to Travel Oregon’s anime-inspired travel video. Interactive media is also another area savvy DMOs want to explore — Expedia Group Media Solutions in particular has been instrumental in helping DMOs create campaigns that allow visitors to explore a destination’s offerings while providing marketers with key data indicators about what piques traveler interest the most.

Endnotes and Further Reading