Brand-New Experience: How Destinations Are Making Their Mark

Author: Jennifer Dienst       

“I’m on meth.” One by one, a wizened cowboy, a young football player, and an elderly churchgoer repeat the same phrase. “Meth is not someone else’s problem; it’s everyone in South Dakota’s problem. And we need everyone to get on it,” says the 30-second commercial.

It took less than a day for the “Meth. We’re on it.” ad campaign, released in November, to go viral. The state paid the agency behind the campaign nearly half-a-million dollars as part of a larger effort to combat South Dakota’s ballooning meth-addiction problem. Social-media channels lit up with jabs at the ad, while marketing experts called the strategy flawed in major news outlets. Deb Gabor, CEO of Austin-based Sol Marketing was among them. “What’s the point of the ad,” she said in an interview with Convene a few days after the campaign launched, if it’s destined to “make fun of you?”

destination branding

Building an authentic brand identity is a complicated process for destinations. (Dusk Studio illustration)

Gabor, who has authored two books on branding and consulted on branding strategy for Dell and Visit Austin, among other organizations, thinks a campaign like this impacts the state’s tourism. “South Dakota is going to be known as the ‘on meth’ state,” she said.

However, according to a news report, South Dakota’s secretary of tourism, Jim Hagen, was on the committee that approved the meth slogan and campaign. “Every piece of research out there,” Hagen said on a local radio program, “shows that if you just have a regular, run-of-the-mill campaign like ‘meth kills’ and you show these cadaver-looking people, it absolutely has no effect whatsover.”

That the state tourism secretary blessed the campaign demonstrates that some destinations’ realities are too important to be glossed over in order to attract tourists. “Is this a campaign that makes you stop?” Hagen asked on the show in November. “You bet it is. I’ll tell you what: This morning, we’re talking about meth in South Dakota. And maybe the whole nation is.”

‘Sea of Sameness’

Thanks to the campaign, South Dakota can’t be accused of falling into “a sea of sameness,” a phrase Sarah Schaffer, Visit Baltimore’s chief marketing officer, uses “almost weekly” at the bureau, which is in the midst of revamping its brand.

It’s perhaps the most common trap of place branding: playing up what have become ubiquitous traits — celebrity chefs! bike shares! startups! craft beverage scene! All things used by every city “trying its hardest to convince you it’s exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally considered cool,” as a recent article in The Atlantic pointed out. In the end, by “trying to make everybody happy,” said Stacey Yates, CTA, Louisville Tourism’s vice president of marketing communications, “you say nothing.”

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The sweet spot is what drives home a destination’s special, singular something. “We understand that passion points are a great connector — you might be really into comic books, or you might be really into discovering African-American heritage and history,” Schaffer said about Baltimore’s new brand strategy. “Those different types of passion points are what can connect people together, and if we speak directly to them, and meet them where they are, that’s much more powerful and impactful than general, mass-market messages that are attempting to connect everyone, and then in effect don’t really touch anyone.”

When it comes to business events, that point of differentiation matters now more than ever for organizers. “Live events have the ability to make a stronger connection with people, perhaps over any other marketing activity,” Gabor said. And the host destination, she said, “is just as important as the content of the event, in terms of conveying the value of that event.”

That has been true for Gabor herself. In 2018, she attended the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Regional Leadership Academy in Detroit. This particular event, she said, drew on the theme of resurgence through the city’s own story of economic rebirth. “It was not lost on me that this event was in Detroit,” Gabor said. “The same event happens in other places … but I chose the Detroit location specifically because I really understood thematically how that added to the content and the meaning of that event.”


Visit Baltimore’s new branding, coming in 2020, will appeal to groups because “people don’t check their humanity when they go to a conference. They want to experience the city,” said Sarah Schaffer, Visit Baltimore’s chief marketing officer. (Justin Tsucalas)

Common Ground

When Carylann Assante, CAE, CEO of Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) and the SYTA Youth Foundation, sits down to begin planning one of her events, one of the first steps her team takes is finding this kind of common ground between the host destination and what’s happening in their own industry.


Carylann Assante

This month, the three-day SYTA 2020 Summit will meet in San Juan, bringing together more than 120 senior staff and executives from SYTA member companies for education and networking. Puerto Rico’s effort to rebuild following Hurricane Maria’s devastation is foundational to the summit’s theme, “Leadership and Resilience in the Face of Change.” The program features speakers and educational sessions that draw on the positive way Puerto Rico’s local community has recreated itself in order to teach attendees how they can apply the same tactics in their own organizations.

“Here’s an opportunity where an event has taken the destination itself and is amplifying their own goals and objectives through the destination,” said Leah Chandler, chief marketing officer at Discover Puerto Rico. “We love that. We love where we can — not just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to execute some cool local things or take you on a city tour,’ but — actually build out your theme around something that is indigenous to the island and what’s happening there today.”

Beyond using the destination’s story as inspiration for the summit’s theme and content, Assante and her team also highlighted the destination’s leisure assets in marketing videos, which they posted on social-media channels and sent to members through traditional e-mail marketing. She said that this destination-forward approach creates a more enticing offer to attendees — which, in SYTA’s case, are educators, volunteers, and others who provide opportunities for student and youth travel — and is an integral part of her planning process for all of SYTA’s events.

“I can’t think of one meeting where we haven’t … strategically thought about the destination in that way,” Assante said. “So often I hear that attending meetings is expensive with travel costs and time away from the office, so if you can find added value to create an authentic experience or connect them locally, they will see that attending the conference has more value.”


San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, has weathered many battles and storms. (Discover Puerto Rico)

A New Identity

Almost every destination has something that may not work in its favor, whether it’s lingering misconceptions or a less-than-positive history, and it takes a skillful approach to be authentic. Colombia hit the mark in 2008 when it ran commercials with the slogan, “El riesgo es que te quieras quedar.” (“The risk is that you’ll want to stay.”) The line hints at its turbulent past without detracting from the message that visitors are likely to fall in love with the country. Since 2008, tourism to Colombia has increased from a little more than 1.2 million visitors to 3.1 million-plus tourists in 2018.

In Puerto Rico’s case, the challenge was a perception problem. More than two years ago, the island was hard hit by Maria, the third-costliest Atlantic hurricane in history. At the same time, its brand-new DMO was tasked with building a new brand identity from scratch.


Leah Chandler

But when they began talking to consumers about how they viewed Puerto Rico, “what we learned was pretty surprising,” Chandler said. Instead of the expected negative perception due to the recent storm’s devastation, she found that most consumers actually didn’t know very much about Puerto Rico. “And what they did know was really centered around exactly what you would expect, which is the beautiful beaches,” she said. “Of course, we have those in spades, but we have such a bigger story to tell.”

The DMO used that lack of familiarity as inspiration for its first campaign, a series of digital ads along with a commercial driven by the tagline, “Have we met yet?” The iconic, vibrantly colored doors of Old San Juan buildings visually anchor the campaign, as well as symbolize the idea of welcoming new visitors to the island. “This idea of re-introduction and being your neighbor, it tugs at the heartstrings, it brings this feeling of warmth and inclusivity,” Chandler said.

It also helps to push the message that it’s easy for other U.S. citizens to visit, as they won’t need a passport, flights are plentiful, and English is widely spoken. “So, we’ve got the left and the right brain for people who are considering us as a leisure or a meeting destination,” she said.

So far, the message seems to be working. In April, Puerto Rico will host the World Travel & Tourism Council 2020 Global Summit, one of the industry’s most important annual events, she said. At press time, booking pace for both leisure and group travel into 2020 was more than 30 percent higher compared to a year ago, and the Puerto Rico Convention Center’s 2018–2019 fiscal year was also its best yet, in terms of attendance and the number of events hosted.


Puerto Rico has more to offer than its beaches, including Castillo San Cristobal, one of the destination’s lesser-known assets for tourists. (Discover Puerto Rico)

Secret Sauce

Most DMOs are more pressed to identify what makes them different than address negative perceptions. “I think the most forward-leaning DMOs are … trying to stand out and differentiate themselves from the crowd,” Schaffer said. For Baltimore, Schaffer and her team knew that those points of differentiation center on the city’s arts and culture, history, and diversity — “in many senses of the word,” she said.

A less tangible element is what Schaffer calls Baltimore’s “youthful spirit,” which she said is “more of a mindset around being proud of our unconventional character and having a puckishness to our personality. That we are unconventional. We’re not institutional. We’re not as button-down. We’re more casual than our neighbors.”

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Visit Baltimore was able to put a stamp on that personality because of its collaboration with the local community during its more than year-long rebranding process, Schaffer said. The CVB hosted workshops “to really get at the heart of what our local residents felt embodied the essence of Baltimore,” she said. “There were a lot of really lively conversations around not just who we are, but where we’re going.”

The exercise helped Schaffer and her team visualize and narrate how the new Visit Baltimore brand would put a human face on the city. “Not just talk about place, but also talk about people, so it was really important that the people who live here are a part of that conversation first,” Schaffer said. “We also know that our greatest ambassadors are those who live in the city and the immediate five-county region. If all of those folks are bullish on Baltimore, then we’ll be set up for success because those are our ultimate ambassadors and brand champions.”

Visit Baltimore will debut its new branding in April, and Schaffer said the logo as well as the new marketing campaigns will be a “radical shift” from the DMO’s current and previous brand identities.

“Telling those human stories and putting humanity first is important. That’s not something that may be different from what others are doing,” Schaffer said, “but we understand that putting people at the heart of it is so critical in telling the story of a destination.”

The messaging will resonate with groups, she said, because “people don’t check their humanity at the door when they go to a conference. They’re still people and they still want … the universal human truths. They want to experience the city, just as they would if they were on vacation.”


The Frankly Philadelphia campaign, launched in 2018, speaks to the city’s personality and pivots to the familiar icons of Philly, like City Hall (center), cheesesteaks, and “Rocky” references. (Kyle Huff for PHLCVB)

Pivot to the Future

When the American Heart Association (AHA) held its national scientific conference in Philadelphia in November, it was the city’s 338-year-old history that provided the inspiration for the entertaining peak point of the event’s general session: a rousing performance from cast members of “Hamilton: An American Musical,” which had made its Broadway Series debut in the city a couple of months earlier.

“But they used that to pivot to the future,” said Julie Coker Graham, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, likening it to “a respect for the past, but also [a nod] to innovation and what do the next 20 years of heart health look like.” She said that organizers often use the city’s deep history to analogize their organization’s own journey, referencing the birthplace of the U.S. as what came before — “the foundation that got us here, but what does our future look like?”


Some of Philadelphia’s gritty sensibility was conveyed in AAN’s annual meeting program artwork.

Associations, which make up a large segment of Philly’s meetings business, tend to be forward-looking, Coker Graham said. They often ask, “‘how do we retain — if not grow — membership?’ I think our brand is able to do that nicely.” Because even though Philly is one of America’s oldest cities, it has successfully shifted the perception away from an outdated, industrial city to one that is forward thinking and vibrant, she said. The city was one of only two U.S. destinations to make National Geographic’s list of best trips to take in 2020, for example, with the magazine citing that shift as a major draw.

But Coker Graham pointed out that it’s been important for the CVB to not shy away from the past and the city’s natural grit. She said the CVB’s Frankly Philadelphia campaign, launched in 2018, speaks to the city’s personality and pivots to the familiar icons of Philly, like cheesesteaks and “Rocky” references.

It also visually highlights facets of Philly lesser known to visitors — like “neighborhoods that show the Eastern State Penitentiary, when in the past it would have been the National Constitution Center or the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” Coker Graham said. “It speaks to the character of the city much better.”

‘Unapologetically Candid’


Christine E. Phelps

That multidimensional character has helped book events like the American Academy of Neurology’s (AAN) Annual Meeting, held in May 2019. They chose Philadelphia, said Christine E. Phelps, AAN’s deputy executive director, because it gave her team the opportunity to continue to “move away from just the traditional medical meeting, to a meeting that looks at its members from the mind, body, and spirit point of view.”

That included experiences she describes as “edutainment” to help offset the meeting’s traditional education and didactic sessions — like the opening party, “The Philly Spectacular,” at Philadelphia’s historic Reading Terminal Market, and a session that dove into how Philadelphians in the 19th and 20th centuries made contributions to the field of neurology. AAN’s physician attendees also had the opportunity to volunteer at the one-day only Brain Health Fair, a free community event for local neurology patients, caregivers, students, and anyone interested in brain health. “The site of the city is very important,” Phelps said. Because the meeting lasts seven days, she said, “the city has to hold up for the attention of the attendees.”

More often than not, Coker Graham said she sees events building the city’s iconic sites into their program both visually and experientially. In 2017, when Philadelphia hosted the NFL draft, the NFL built a stage in front of a replicated façade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which included the iconic steps made famous in “Rocky.” “We wanted to highlight … real staples of this city to show this event is Philadelphia and part of Philadelphia,” NFL Director of Event Operations Eric Finkelstein told media at the time.

Coker Graham added, much of their past branding plugged the city’s convenient location on the East Coast as well as its walkability, but in the new campaign, “the city is unapologetically candid. The personality is definitely bold, in some cases outspoken, depending on the topic. I think it comes across that we are this gritty, working-class town … and there’s a can-do attitude. Philadelphia is open to different perspectives — that’s what the city was founded on and we embrace that.”

Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.

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Visit Baltimore’s new brand strategy will hit upon travelers passion points, perhaps including all there is to do at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. (Justin Tsucalas)

Build a Better Event Brand

destination branding

Deb Gabor

According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, emotion, not reason, is what drives almost all decision making. Sol Marketing’s Deb Gabor echoes that thinking. “The way that people make decisions is very emotional,” she told Convene. “Having a brand that appeals very, very deeply and connects with people by helping to elevate their self-concept by being associated with it, is the thing that differentiates one from the other.”

She provided these strategies to help organizers build a brand around their events.

  • Really dig in and figure out what is unique and singular about you that no one else can claim. When you have a strong enough, clear enough, defined enough brand, that really speaks to your core DNA such that no one else can imitate it, that’s when you have a brand.
  • The best brands in the world become part of the people who use them.Think about how to elevate [attendees] in their lives and careers, how to make the brand part of the person they are.
  • Make attendees irrationally loyal toy our brand so that they wouldn’t consider missing your event no matter what, because it means so much to them.
  • When incorporating a destination into the event brand, remember that the destination is 100-percent part of the story. Look for ways that the event and the destination can become one in terms of telling a story about that attendee that helps elevate their self-concept.
  • Approach the assignment of branding your event as inclusive of the destination by looking at it in 360 degrees. Look at every single touchpoint your event is going to have with your attendees, from the minute they find out about their event to checking in to their room.

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Landing in Music City

When Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) brought its Annual Conference & Exhibition to Nashville in September 2018, which also happened to be the organization’s 70th anniversary, Nashville’s signature elements of music, art, and food played a main role in the conference’s brand and theme.

“Nashville’s brand will always be Music City, which encompasses music of all genres,” said Deana Ivey, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “However, the brand has evolved over the years to reflect the creative community of Nashville, originating from the music industry. Creatives attract other creatives, which is evident in the city with the growing number of award-winning chefs, makers, and artists.”

“I think creating a sense of place and allowing the local aspects of a destination into your event only enhances the attendee experience,” said Deirdre L. Clemmons, CMP, ACI-NA’s senior vice president of events and strategic partnerships.

“I think it can definitely influence an attendee decision if you are marketing and highlighting the local destination,” Clemmons said. For example, ACI-NA included hot chicken in its menu and built two sound stages on the show floor, which featured local artists. “We are now experience designers and working with the CVB or local host allows you to incorporate the local flavor into your event.”

ACI-NA branding

ACI-NA incorporated the neon signs and replicated street signs of Nashville’s famous Broadway into the exhibition entrance as well as used guitar-pick-shaped floor clings as directional signage.

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