30 April, 2019

“Picking up visitors" was yesterday - Myths in destination marketing must be demystified

by Pietro Beritelli and Christian Laesser

Please note: This contribution is an abstract of a paper in the recent “Jahrbuch der Schweizerischen Tourismuswirtschaft”. An English version is attached (click here to download).

Current approaches to destination marketing with the aim of "picking up/ attracting visitors" with the help of communication and sales promotion are under increasing pressure. Much of (destination) "marketing" is habitual, because everyone is doing it that way and it is concluded that it is having an effect. We oppose this: "Attracting visitors" through tourism organisations has never really worked and will work even less in the future.

The term "visitor pickup" colloquially stands for the assumption that tourism organisations of all kinds (DMO) can acquire new or additional visitors for a destination, above all with the help of communicative measures. We put this fundamental assumption and some of the working methods that go with it - which sometimes come across as principles - to the test, in a somewhat polemic way.

Below are a few examples and our counterarguments in condensed form.

Assumption 1:Destination branding by DMOs “lures” visitors to the destination.
Our counterargument: Destinations and service providers are resources for visitors to co-create their different experiences. These differences result in completely different perceptions and positions. Destination brands of DMOs are at best (territorial) markers as logos and vague and interchangeable in the sense of communication campaigns. The latter contradicts real branding.

Assumption 2:The more communication DMOs have ("background noise"), the more visitors will come.
Our counterargument: DMO-driven communication to get visitors rarely reaches the (potential) visitors, since such a communicative signal is only one among many others.

Assumption 3:The more DMOs are present ("show presence"), the more visitors will come.
Our counterargument: The DMOs are present where their financiers and donors are and where other DMOs are present, since one must not be absent.

Assumption 4:
The more marketing DMOs do, the more visitors will come.
Our counterargument: The vast majority of "evidence" is unfortunately either based on spurious correlations or, in the worst case, even inverse causalities (see chicken-egg problem).

Assumption 5:
DMOs attract new visitors through social media and with the help of influencers.
Our counterargument: The decisive factor is the sender of the message, not the channel. It is therefore better to enable visitors to communicate in terms of content and process than to communicate on their own.

Assumption 6:
The higher the awareness level of our destination, the sooner visitors will come. Therefore, DMOs must increase the degree of awareness of the destination.
Our counterargument: We know many places in the world mostly not because of marketing measures of DMO, but we decide for a destination not because of their degree of popularity.

Assumption 7:
DMOs have to see that one dreams of 'their' destination. The 'inspiration' and 'dreams' phases are an important part of the decision cycle of (potential) visitors.
Our counterargument: We dream of many places and will never go there. Destination decisions are different than the ones for consumer goods. A journey is the result of many small individual decisions. One also speaks of a portfolio decision. There is not really a starting and ending point for this; rather, decisions are made continuously, options are revised or even cancelled.

Assumption 8:
DMOs can bring visitors to their destinations with their own digital distribution channels.
Our counterargument: DMOs themselves sell less on digital channels than one would hope. If a visitor visits a DMO website, it is usually after he has made a decision and has already booked some central service elements. Also with regard to the B2B business the possibilities are limited, since they have no access to services and prices so far, unless they take entrepreneurial risk themselves as incoming operators.

Assumption 9:
One cannot really measure or prove the effect of marketing measures (communication) anyway. But it always brings something.
Our counterargument: How visitors arrived at a destination decision (and also other travel decisions) can very well be reconstructed. You only have to ask the visitors the right question: "How did it come about that ...?"

Assumption 10:
New DMO structures (mergers, acquisitions, etc.) bring new visitors to the destination.
Our counterargument: Reorganisations and mergers under DMOs at best create operational cost reductions and the financing of (own) experts. Organisational size can also be the basis for offering qualified employees career prospects.

The above - admittedly somewhat polemical - comparison shows where the fundamental challenge for DMOs lies. Since they themselves do not offer and sell any main tourist services and since they normally do not operate the most important attractions for which the visitors visit a place, they simply cannot "attract visitors". On contrast, DMOs can only exert a decisive influence on travel decisions as independent providers, close to and together with service providers. In concrete terms, this takes place when a DMO, for example

  • conceives, organises and carries out a cultural or sporting event largely on its own (event as a temporary attraction that triggers demand);

  • operates an important tourist attraction itself (unlimited in time; e.g. important museum, sports centre, castle);

  • takes over processes for joint product and offer design tasks (moderation and support);

  • acts as an incoming operator and thus sells service packages at its own risk (and cannot compete with its own service providers, but can compete with other operators).

Hence, what we need in the future is less "marketing frills" and more hard core service service for the visitor and support for the service providers. We are looking forward to other opinions and the resulting discussions.

For further reading on the state of the art of destination management and marketing, refer to the three "St. Gallen Consensus on destination management", the tangible outcomes of three conferences "Advances on destination management and marketing":

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