Increase Revenue with Tourism Boards, Part 1: Annapolis Discovered

Images: Ben Isenberg / Symmetry Agency / Annapolis Discovered

The best partnerships are mutually beneficial. An owner and their partner. An operator and their guests. A venue and its community. When both sides respect one another and benefit from the relationship, everybody wins.

When everybody—proprietors, guests and communities—wins, a business greatly increases the odds that it’ll see long-term success. What’s great is that there’s another partnership that can help a business thrive for many, many years.

Tourism boards are valuable partners, helping restaurants, bars and nightclubs in their cities increase visibility and traffic. The more eyeballs that see a destination’s culinary and nightlife offerings translates to more tourists, convention traffic, and other visitors. Those visitors, of course, mean more revenue. The operator and tourism board relationship can truly be mutually beneficial.

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In this two-part series we’re going to dive into this type of partnership. First, we’ll examine the relationship between Symmetry Agency and Annapolis Discovered, and how an innovative approach to outreach and marketing benefits the culinary and nightlife scene in Annapolis. In part two, we’ll look at Philadelphia Distilling—the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Award winner for Distillery Bar of the Year—and how they work with Visit Philly to boost brand awareness, distillery traffic, and visitor traffic to the city.

Part One: Symmetry Agency

Ben Isenberg, a principal at Symmetry Agency, was at the forefront of the evolution of tourism boards. He helped to usher in a new era of experiential and content marketing used to drive tourism—and increase revenue—to a certain destination.

During the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas, Isenberg explained how tourism boards work traditionally; how he and Symmetry Agency work with a tourism board, Visit Annapolis and Anne Arundel County; and how operators can benefit from tourism board partnerships now.

Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs)

Traditionally, tourism boards are funded by hotel tax, explains Isenberg. A percentage of what hotel guests paid in fees went to the county, providing the county with the funds to market the destination. The traditional plan was simple: the more marketing the county was able to do, the more people would visit, creating revenue for the county.

Following the traditional model, brands were created under the DMO, such as Visit Annapolis, a hotel organization called Experience BWI (about 60 hotels), Weddings in Annapolis, and Annapolis Discovered. It’s that last one, Annapolis Discovered, that Isenberg says represents the evolution of tourism board marketing.

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The old model was referred to as a convention visitors bureau, or a CVB. That’s because the sales teams trying to attract visitors were often attached to hotels. CVBs were focused on a “heads in beds” approach to tourism but the evolution is what Isenberg calls a destination marketing organization, or DMO.

The Tourism Board Evolved

Symmetry Agency, Visit Annapolis and Anne Arundel County and their partners—restaurants, bars, hotels, museums, and other businesses that benefit from tourism—operate as a DMO, and many cities have adopted the same strategy or are considering doing so. The focus has shifted from convincing groups to purchase hotel blocks for conventions to storytelling and experiential marketing.

Part of the shift toward DMOs was driven by Symmetry Agency’s CEO and his desire for the agency to be relevant to both consumers and members (partner organizations). Another driver was improving the perception that restaurant and bar operator had of CVBs. They didn’t see that type of organization as helpful to their businesses compared to other channels. The DMO has changed that perception for the better, providing those operators with value and a voice.

Symmetry Agency and Visit Annapolis evolved how they approached driving tourism and increasing revenue; they had already evolved from operating as a CVB focused on hotel rooms to becoming a DMO. They needed to kick things up another level, and that meant evolving their marketing approach as well.

Both agency and client took this desire to evolve seriously, conducting focus group study tests, surveys, and economic impact research. They found that dining and restaurants exceeded the expectations of people who experienced them during their visits to Annapolis. In fact, they blew other interests—shopping, tours, museums, art galleries—out of the water.

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This revelation led to the DMO to communicate to their partners that the way the city of Annapolis was being marketed wasn’t as effective as it could be because the group hadn’t embraced the dining and nightlife side of the city, which clearly resonated with visitors.

Annapolis Discovered

Annapolis may not currently be at the top of the list of American foodie destinations, but it’s well on its way to getting there. A new generation of family-owned restaurants, chef-owned concepts, and mixologists is changing the dining and nightlife landscape of Annapolis. New chefs with modern, on-trend and trendsetting approaches to cuisine are opening restaurants in the city. Mixologists who are tired of only serving calls and beer are opening places to serve craft-cocktails.

That shift (evolution, really) in Annapolis has provided the DMO with eye-catching marketing materials they’ve never had before. This has changed the content play and marketing strategy for the better. However, before the DMO was able to fully realize their new approach they needed to find the missing piece to their marketing puzzle: the community.

Annapolis Discovered local seafood dish

As Isenberg says, the hotel chains in the city are great and run by nice people. But what about the local independent restaurateurs and nightlife operators? The DMO needed to also tell their stories and give them their shot at 15 minutes of fame.

Symmetry Agency had created a destination website that listed restaurants, bars and other points of interest for tourists a few years back. Isenberg, however, had a feeling that a content-driven website would really drive tourism to Annapolis. About two years ago he built a destination blog site to test that hypothesis: Foodie Annapolis.

“Let’s get off the corporate site where everyone has to be fair…and let’s let the locals tell their stories,” says Isenberg of the new approach.

The blog site built an engaged audience and created profiles across social platforms and YouTube to support it and increased reach. They built an online community that engaged in the real world. A couple of years later, Isenberg tested various online marketing concepts with a focus group in Philadelphia. The group revealed that they would never go to any Visit [insert destination city] website because they perceived them as being uninteresting. The participants wanted exciting content and blog posts.

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That discovery led to Symmetry Agency reworking Foodie Annapolis and relaunching it as Annapolis Discovered, further expanding their reach by creating an even more engaged community.

Mutual Benefit

The DMO in Annapolis has learned valuable lessons. They’ve learned how to work with restaurant, bar and nightclub operators. They’ve learned to utilize experiential and content marketing techniques. Symmetry Agency and Annapolis learned that they needed to offer operators something of value, something that was worth their time and effort.

For instance, the Annapolis DMO realized they needed to keep the food and beverage vibe they had created with Foodie Annapolis and build it out. Since transforming into Annapolis Discovered, the social community has grown. More writers have been added and promoted to create followings. Jeremy Olsen, for instance, has developed a drink of the month feature. Video content that focuses on everything from Annapolis history to food and beverage is being produced.

Annapolis Discovered, once Symmetry Agency had changed course, quickly came to understand that restaurant and bar operators are busy people with many irons in the fire. Destination marketing efforts need to offer a substantial ROI for them to be convinced that working with the DMO is worth it. Before the CVB transformed into a DMO, evolving into Annapolis Discovered, getting operators to work with the tourism board was often times difficult for all parties involved.

There’s now a mutually beneficial relationship involving culinary and nightlife operators and Annapolis Discovered. The operators receive something of value, the DMO receives content they can utilize to boost tourism. Everyone involved, therefore, has the very real potential to increase awareness—of the city, of the restaurants, of the bars, etc.—and revenue.

In this case, the DMO created a relevant, engaging platform in the form of a content-driven website. Operators saw the value and provided content in several forms: fact sheets, stories, new food items, new cocktails or beers, menu redesigns, photos, video, etc. The DMO then created social, blog and video platform posts using the operator-sourced content. Everybody won and continues to win.

Another development is seen in Annapolis Restaurant Week. Some markets already have a such a promotion, but many do not. The angle taken by Symmetry Agency and the DMO is that not only is Restaurant Week promoted via an events site, it’s also marketed via the content platform, featuring every venue involved. This further strengthened the tourism board-operator relationship. It also led to a venue-driven promotion that’s executed every Wednesday evening all throughout spring, because it’s worth operators’ time.

Read this: Increase Revenue with Tourism Boards, Part 2: Philadelphia Distilling

One of the best results from this relationship came in the form of a feature in Food & Wine titled “Discover Annapolis: 300 Years Young.” As Isenberg said, because he’s now able to get great content like professional-quality images from restaurants and tourism has helped grow the DMO’s marketing budget, they can approach highly visible publications to boost Annapolis.

Isenberg Takeaways

  • An operator should always have current hi-res, professional-quality photos, fact sheets, and their stories ready to give to their city’s tourism board, CVB or DMO, and the press.
  • An operator can see results similar to those of Annapolis Discovered if they approach their city’s tourism board, CVB or DMO and start a conversation. Operators should tell them what they want and ask how they can get there. Point to this case study to give them a roadmap to build a similar relationship.
  • Even better, likeminded restaurant, bar and nightclub operators who want to benefit from tourism board relationships should form a group.
  • If an operator is already a member of a less proactive CVB or DMO, they should ask for a meeting (planning for an hour-long discussion) with the communications director or marketing manager. They should explain who they are, tell them the story of their brand, and tell them what they want. Having assets ready—photos, planned events, menu changes planned for the year—is imperative.
  • Operators should tell their tourism boards, CVB or DMO, and the press how they’re different from other restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Join us next week for part two. We’ll share how Andrew Auwerda, president and co-founder of Philadelphia Distilling, leverages his relationship with the city of Philadelphia’s tourism board to increase brand awareness, distillery traffic, and revenue.

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