For destinations with a college or university, schools keep a constant flow of visitors pouring in. Savvy destination marketing organizations (DMOs) can seize the opportunity to ignite impactful tourism and meeting sales.

We talked to Brooke Kastner, Vice President of Auburn-Opelika Tourism, home to Auburn University, about how their relationship fuels unique events and opportunities, and how other DMOs can navigate complex dynamics to create distinct offers.

The university is by far the biggest draw for people to our area — whether it's for a sporting event, or as a potential student, or a conference.

Brooke Kastner Brooke Kastner, Vice President, Auburn-Opelika Tourism
Collaborate on Events

Imagine finishing a half-marathon on the 50-yard line of one of college football’s most boisterous stadiums. Your feet on the grass, face on the jumbotron. That’s the opportunity the team at Auburn-Opelika Tourism gave visitors when they partnered with Auburn University for the War Eagle Run Fest.

“I got chills just walking in and seeing the people coming through [Jordan-Hare Stadium],” Kastner said. “Their faces were on the jumbotron as they were coming into the stadium. There was all this fanfare and their names were being announced. It was really a magical experience.”

Kastner pointed to a few key factors that helped create a smooth process:

  • Be detailed and prepared

  • Showcase how the event benefits both the college and the city

  • Open and consistent communication

“There was a lot of research done and information gathered before we presented it to the city and the university because we knew that we were going to have to get our ducks in a row before we did,” she said. “We helped them to see some opportunities to generate revenue throughout the year when they might have some fields or facilities that are not being utilized.”

University partnerships can unlock opportunities to present locals and visitors alike with unique and unforgettable experiences. Giving them access to notable assets like iconic stadiums, stops, or scenery can increase the draw for potential participants.

“I feel 100% confident that there were a lot of people who participated in that race just because they were going to be able to finish on the 50-yard line of Jordan-Hare Stadium,” Kastner said.

A participant in the War Eagle Run Fest crosses the finish line in Jordan-Hare Stadium

Access Alumni

Nostalgia is a powerful force. Many alumni have a strong connection to their alma mater. Unlike new visitors who may need more persuasion, alumni already have a sense of trust and loyalty towards the university and its surrounding community. Their built-in affinity for your destination makes them an ideal audience for digital campaigns and initiatives. 

“Alumni weekend” packages, sporting and campus events, behind-the-scenes tours, and more can create a powerful draw for graduates. Some universities even offer alumni loyalty programs, which create another avenue for DMOs to explore.

And don’t forget to engage alumni associations. With hubs around the country — and the world — they can help you harness a large network.

“We do a lot with the Alumni Association,” Kastner said. “There are Auburn clubs all over the country, so we do a lot with them to target those different areas — whether it's the Auburn club of Southern California or Los Angeles or whatever it happens to be. There are Auburn alumni all over the world.”

To Campus … and Beyond!

Universities have their own tourism gravity. Sporting events, family weekends, student visits, campus events, alumni events, and more draw visitors to the destination, allowing DMOs to focus on taking them from campus to local businesses, hotels, and attractions. 

“Every football season we run a campaign about things that have changed since last football season,” Kastner said. “Restaurants that have opened, or different attractions that might have changed, or different things to do that weren't available for last year.” 

Campaigns don’t have to surround sports. Some DMOs also promote “town and gown” tours as a unique experience that expands the scope of traditional campus tours to explore the cultural and historical ties between the university and the destination.

Red brick buildings with black shingled spires rise above green trees next to a cobblestone walking path cutting through flat green grass spaces

Inspire Planners with Intellectual Capital

It comes as no surprise that universities are ripe with intellectual capital. Sharp DMOs can leverage these resources to elevate their meeting sales efforts.

Connecting groups with authoritative local speakers, unique facilities, and university-inspired activities can support your pitch and cut through the competition.

Imagine, for example, showcasing your destination's eco-friendly conference facilities alongside a presentation by a renowned local professor on sustainability initiatives. It’s a powerful combination that establishes credibility and creates a unique selling point for a planner and their attendees.

“There are certainly people who have meetings here and are able to host events or meetings on campus,” Kastner said. “The beautiful Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center opened last year and is one-of-a-kind. There's nothing else like it in the world: a teaching facility with classrooms, a restaurant, and a hotel. Groups come in and can have an event with a master sommelier doing a wine tasting for them, or a world-renowned James Beard Award finalist chef can teach them how to make a souffle. It's something they wouldn't know, or have the opportunity to access, if they weren't here.”

It's something they wouldn't know, or have the opportunity to access, if they weren't here.

Be Prepared, Flexible, and Thoughtful

Universities can make great partners, but can be complex to navigate. Your preparation to anticipate and overcome challenges separates a smooth process from an unsuccessful one.

“You know, with an organization that huge, there are so many different layers and so many different departments,” Kastner said. “We knew there were going to be questions, we knew there were going to be concerns. So to have all of that information already ready, that helped a whole lot.”

Like any good relationship, a good partnership between DMOs and universities requires mutual effort and benefit. Before you propose a new initiative, put yourself in their shoes to make sure it aligns with their goals and needs.

“I think just make sure that you do your homework are not just thinking about your own objectives and your own agenda, but really what makes sense for whoever it is that you're working with.” Kaster said.

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