It’s a DMO dilemma. Destination marketing organization (DMO) websites are chock-full of fantastic content — where to stay, play, eat, sleep, and the list goes on — but that very richness of content means their websites sometimes can feel unwieldy to the average visitor.
Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence offer one way to help DMO website visitors streamline their hunt for information and inspiration. This solution appealed to Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, with an additional caveat — because the destination is known for the personal and warm welcome given to visitors, it combined the “high-tech” chatbot with a “high touch” way for visitors to communicate via text.
We spoke with Crystal Hinds and Kim Chapman about the DMO’s new chatbot and text website offerings.
Digital Operations Manager, Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism
Director of Hospitality and Information, Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism
Q: Crystal, what made Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism consider chatbots, and what research did you do?
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism decided to look into chatbots after my predecessor, Marie Curren, met Meilee Anderson from Visit Rainer at Simpleview Summit in 2019. After Marie retired, Jack Gravolet, our digital operations specialist, recommended investigating it more for our 2021 planning. From there, we reached out to Meilee, and she told us about a previous chatbot she had invested in and compared it to her current, easier system, called Frase. After Meilee’s rave reviews, we met with Frase, learned more, and decided to test it out with their easy month-to-month program. We ended up loving it, and it is very helpful for answering higher funnel queries and for better navigating throughout our website!
Q: Kim, your destination's welcome centers are an extension of the Southern hospitality you exude to visitors and are a "high-touch" approach to providing visitor information. How does having a chatbot impact that high-touch brand voice?
The chatbot and our new one-to-one texting platform allow us to meet the guest where and how they choose. Every guest has different communication preferences, and tools like these allow us to serve the guests in the manner that they choose. Sometimes, a face-to-face conversation in a welcome center is preferred, while other times, they have a quick question, and the chatbot or texting options are more convenient.
Q: Crystal, from a content standpoint, what sort of preparation did you have to do before launching the chatbot and within the first few months?
To prepare for the chatbot, we needed to ensure that our content was up-to-date and accurate on our very robust website. After completing that large project, we looked at our top-performing pages, trained the chatbot on questions we thought would be commonly asked, and answered the questions through the chatbot system.
We also created call-to-action buttons to drive visitors to sign up for our vacation guide and e-newsletter, plus drive traffic to our lodging and things to do pages. Furthermore, we made sure to customize the welcome and fallback message with hyperlinks out to our Welcome Centers, texting option, email, and maps to our locations.
Along with general complaints and questions about current beach conditions, some of our most surprising questions/comments are:
- “Where are the nude beaches?”
- “What time do the dolphins come out?”
- “Is there anything I can do barefoot besides the beach?”
Q: Kim, tell us about the availability of text conversations that started along with the chatbot.
I love the story of how our texting platform started. It originated as an idea from a team member in our welcome centers as another way to reach our guests. Due to other projects and the pandemic, we sidelined the project for a few months but were able to return to our research process. We researched several vendor options looking for the product that allowed us to have that one-on-one approach. After a recommendation from another CVB, we found our solution and have been very pleased. My team working in our welcome centers also answers the guest texts — seven days a week.
Q: Crystal and Kim, what advice do you have for other DMOs considering adding a chatbot to their website?
The best advice I can offer is to be sure to first review your website content and make sure it is accurate and up to date. Also, I would recommend choosing an AI-based solution for your chatbot to help eliminate a lot of extra work. Finally, get ready to learn more about your visitors than you could imagine!
Do your research and homework. Take the time to find the right product for you, as there are so many solutions and vendors. Also, think about how you will use the product now and what options for growth exist.