When I sat down to write this blog, I thought of how much the tourism industry has changed since I’ve been with the visitors bureau. It’s somewhat of an ironic turn of events—our tourism mission in Blount County has evolved into one that focuses on our heritage, history and the preservation of that culture, while at the same time the way we communicate with visitors and potential visitors currently has its foundation in the latest technology.
Today, the marketing plan for Blount County’s tourism industry is one that we wouldn’t have recognized a few years ago—a combination of traditional marketing and public relations, with a strong emphasis on online communication. It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have a blog to share information; there was no facebook to connect with our past and potential visitors; we couldn’t have even imagined tweeting on Twitter; we didn’t share our pictures and videos of events through YouTube; and our Web site was functional, but it wasn’t the necessity that it has become today.
A recent trip led me to really evaluate our online presence, and it inspired the topic for this blog. On our weekend escape, just like the trip many visitors make to our community, I found myself repeatedly searching online for information. If we wanted to go to dinner, I’d check out the Web sites of the local restaurants, reviewing the location, menus and pricing. Then, I would also look at reviews of the restaurants to see what other people had to say. When we went to a local attraction, again, I found myself online gathering information. If a Web site was out-of-date, not functional or didn’t have accurate information, I would simply move on to the next site until I found one that appeared to have the “look” for me and the information I needed.
While I have known for a long time that having an online presence was crucial to our business, and to each and every tourism-related business in our community, this trip reinforced this idea, and I wanted to use this blog as a way to encourage you to re-evaluate your online presence.
Gone are the days of putting up a Web site and forgetting about it. Today’s visitors want interaction, information and immediate response, and if you aren’t willing or able to give that to them, they will simply move on to someone who can. This means LOST business at the stroke of a key, despite the quality, character or unique attributes you have to offer. Online marketing provides an easy way to tell your story, sell your business and brand yourself, and while a quality Web site is an investment, much of your online communication can be done through free tools, like facebook and Twitter.
So what am I suggesting? First, look at the tools you are using to communicate. Too often the unknown scares people, so instead of using online tools, like starting a facebook page, you ignore it, which means you are missing an opportunity. And, even worse, if you aren’t online talking about yourself, someone else is probably online talking about you, which can lead to loss of business and damaged reputation.
Now, I’m not saying that traditional approaches aren’t an important part of the recipe for success. We still have visitors call for information that we mail to them, people stop in just to talk and a well-placed billboard can still drive people to your business. So, your plan should probably include a good combination of traditional advertising, marketing and public relations as well, but the online element is a critical factor for today’s traveler and one that can’t be ignored.
Next, evaluate your “look.” Do your Web site and other online presence give potential visitors the impression it should? If you are outdoorsy, does your site reflect that, or if you’re upscale, is your site upscale? Look at those who you consider to be your competitors, and compare your site to theirs as well. By ensuring your “look” matches the image you want to create, you will attract the target audience you are trying to communicate with.
Finally, are you engaged? You should regularly update your Web site so that visitors can see that it’s an active site with up-to-date information. If you’re on facebook, don’t “sell” too hard, but make sure to regularly post interesting information and keep the site active.
So as you look ahead and address how to evolve to continue to thrive in today’s economy, I encourage you to focus at least some of your efforts online in order to reach today’s busy travelers.