Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

February 2014

Destination Branding: How To Get the Word Out in a Crowded World

By Jennifer N. Dienst, Contributing Editor

and conferences. Since Calgary has a robust oil and gas industry, the program includes a number of ambassadors from the energy field, along with local celebrities, community leaders, and others from a wide scope of backgrounds. The current roster of more than two dozen Champions includes Gregg Saretsky, CEO of Westjet; Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary; and Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

“One of the key components of having Calgary Champions is [giving planners] access to expertise locally and identifying speakers and sponsors,” said Cynthia J. Douwes, CMP, CMM, manager of the ambassador program and event services for Meetings + Conventions Calgary. “We have this amazing city, we have event-services programs, we have monetary incentives, and now that we're able to offer this fourth pillar in our strategic offer, it just helps to strengthen our bid.”

The Champions are also depicted in advertisements that are part of “Be Part of the Energy,” a new, destination-wide branding campaign launched last March. “Everything is different and revitalized,” said Jenna McLeod, manager of marketing and communications for the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, “including our logo, our materials, our events, and more importantly our way of thinking.”

The Providence Warwick CVB has had a similarly structured ambassador program in place for more than a decade. Sheridan estimates that 30 events booked in 2012 originated from the program. “For us, it's a huge aspect of our success,” she said. “Those 30 people are going to tell another 30 people about their experience with us. It's creating a network of ambassadors that are going to say great things about the destination.”


In Scotland, VisitAberdeen's Team Aberdeen - Ambassadors program has generated up to 70 percent of the bureau's business in years past. And even though the bureau, previously known as the Aberdeen Convention Bureau, closed in 2012 and reopened as a new DMO in 2013, effectively starting from scratch, according to Andrew Pratt, business tourism executive for VisitAberdeen, the Ambassadors program had so much value that it seamlessly carried over to the new organization. “It's a very low-cost way of generating business, especially compared to trade shows,” said Pratt, adding that he's seeing other DMOs consider adding ambassador programs, especially with a more specific focus to take advantage of their local assets, including academic, cultural, and industrial resources. “It's interesting, because it seems to be a general trend, ambassador programs in different formats, whether it's more academic like what we have or corporate.”

Team Aberdeen - Ambassadors has existed for more than 10 years and has more than 400 ambassadors, many of whom come from academic fields because of the program's partnership with the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University, as well as from the energy industry, because of Aberdeen's status as “the Oil Capital of Europe.” VisitAberdeen is also part of GANG — Great Ambassador Networking Group — a relatively new collection of U.K.-based DMOs that share ideas and best practices for running their ambassador programs. The group started in 2010 and now meets once a year, each time in a different city in the U.K., for about two days.

“Because of the specialized nature [of our individual programs], where we all have our different areas of expertise, we can share the knowledge of how our programs work, knowing that we're not really competing for the same business,” Pratt said. “For instance, [Aberdeen] goes after a lot of energy, oil, and gas, whereas Manchester would go after different sectors.”

The group is open to any organization with an ambassador program, anywhere in the world, and its popularity is spreading — last year's GANG conference included the first international attendee, Douwes of Meetings + Conventions Calgary. Other curious DMOs across the world have inquired about attending. The group is also considering aligning itself with a meetings industry organization, according to Pratt.


Another type of ambassador program exists to streamline a destination's hospitality community into one well-oiled welcome wagon — the Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) Network. “Second-tier cities are using [the CTA Network] to both align their stakeholders to focus collectively on the experience,” said Schaefer, who founded and runs the program, “and as a competitive advantage when selling to meeting planners and tour operators who see the destination working together.”

More than 100 DMOs across the United States have used the CTA Network to train more than 10,000 CTAs since it began in 2006. The program offers training for anyone who works on the front line with tourists — everyone from hotel concierges to retail salespeople to waiters — in a range of areas, from the history of the destination to how to use local transportation. The idea is to better prepare ambassadors not only to answer questions from tourists, but also to understand the impact that tourism, including meetings and conventions, has on the local economy.

“We like to call it investing in people infrastructure,” Schaefer said. “When comparing a CTA city versus a non-CTA city, with everything matching up, meeting planners have a tendency to think, well, maybe we'll go to the CTA city, because they're working together as a community.”


Partnering with local companies and organizations to create a destination-wide sense of brand camaraderie is another key element of building a coherent brand, according to Schaefer — and something that second-tier destinations are increasingly opting to do. She cites Experience Columbus as a good example. In 2012, the DMO initiated the “Destination Columbus Five-Year Aspirational Plan” to increase its meetings business and rank among competing cities, among other goals.

One of the initiatives that Experience Columbus is focusing on is collaborative brand marketing, partnering with the city's many civic organizations — such as Columbus 2020, the economic development organization for the region, and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission — to more thoroughly and effectively tell the Columbus story. Besides meeting once a month, all of the civic organizations representing the Columbus area now use the same ad agency and brand assets, including logos and campaigns. “Over the last 20 years, there have been several branding efforts [for the destination], and they all failed miserably,” said Amy Tillinghast, CTA, Experience Columbus’ vice president of marketing. “This is what has distinguished this branding effort for Columbus apart from the ones that have failed in the past. They didn't have that foundational ground-floor buy-in from all the important parties.

“We all have our different audiences,” Tillinghast said, “so it's not the same message, but it's definitely consistent and cohesive, so that we're keeping that brand equity bundled together instead of letting the brand dissipate because each of us are saying something different.”

Calgary has done this as well, with Meetings + Conventions Calgary partnering with Tourism Calgary, Calgary Economic Development, and the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre to create a united front for the destination under the “Be Part of the Energy” campaign, as well as through a dedicated website, bepartoftheenergy.ca. “What I'm seeing is a shift in the desires of the community and local businesses to make the experience better and work together,” Schaefer said, adding that one of the biggest reasons for this shift is the scrutiny resulting from a rise in consumers sharing

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