With more travelers researching destinations online, does the traditional physical visitor guide have a place anymore, or is it time to shift people toward digital guides instead? Will either one be relevant five years from now?
A recent Destination Analysts webinar contains great information about who’s ordering physical visitor guides and why. It's clear that for a certain older demographic, they remain a popular resource, while other travel planners rely more heavily on DMO websites and social media channels.
We asked three DMOs to share their current experiences with and future plans for visitor guides, both physical and digital.
Q: COVID-19 introduced some uncertainties to the value, necessity, and practicality of physical visitor guides. What changes did your destination see, and how have you adapted?
We traditionally published our Visitor Guide on a bi-annual basis. The biggest change we made is shifting that cycle to only produce one annual guide. Distribution is a huge challenge as major hotel bands restrict what goes in rooms, so we will still continue to mail. While we do convert our guide to a digital version I do not believe, as a marketer and a human being, that reading a digital magazine is a good user experience. So, I am not bullish on digital guides becoming a long-term replacement to print.
In 2019, we made the decision to bring back our Travel Guide. We had not produced a guide since 2007. The reason for bringing this back was that in 2018, we did a SWOT analysis on whether we still did not need a printed visitors guide and why we may need one. After forming a committee with our board, it was determined that we needed to bring back an official travel guide for the Pocono Mountains based on some research and the needs of our stakeholders. In 2019, we launched the new Pocono Mountains Magazine, Travel Guide. In the spring of 2019, we distributed 200,000 copies of the new travel guide through our five visitor centers, our state visitor centers, and distribution into New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia.
In 2020, when COVID-19 hit, we were already 90% done with the guide so we made the decision to lower the number of copies to 180,000 and to continue to produce the guide, and we changed our distribution to NY, PA, and NJ. The 2020 guide was very successful. In 2021, we expanded the guide back to 200,000 copies and went back to our full distribution network in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia.
We also added a digital guide distribution network in 2021. We kept our advertising costs low, and everyone that is a member or pays the lodging tax gets a free listing in the guide. The PMVB covers about 80% of the overall costs of the guide and distribution costs. We look at this as a benefit to our members. We did not raise our costs until this year for the 2022 guide, and we only raised them by 3% for the early bird discount and 10% for the regular rate. 98% of the advertisers pay the early bird rate.
We did experience a decline in Augusta Experience Guide requests in 2020. Requests began to increase in 2021, but not to the levels we saw in 2019. We were in a position where our inventory of Experience Guides became limited before we could get a new guide produced. At that point, the digital guide became essential. We’ve implemented Experience Guide downloads as a KPI for our website prioritizing digital over print. Naturally, we’ve seen an uptick in Experience Guide downloads since we’ve removed the ability to order a physical copy. We expect to have our new Experience Guide out soon and will return to allowing requests for a physical copy at that point.
Q: Looking at the many ways your destination markets itself, where do visitor guides fall on the spectrum of importance? In other words, how does your DMO view visitor guides in 2022 — are they an integral part of your marketing approach, a necessary evil, or something you don’t expect to be producing three to five years from now?
If I’m looking into a crystal ball and seeing three to five years in the future, I believe we’ve left Visitor Guides behind and are letting our websites carry the load. I don’t say this with glee, as I’m someone who genuinely enjoys spending time with print publications. The visitor guide issue is a math problem. Do we have effective distribution points? Do our partners want to buy expensive print ads? Are rising production and mailing costs making this a profitable endeavor? At the end of the day, I begrudgingly feel momentum moving away from printed visitor guides being a positive ROI for DMOs.
We made the decision to have a strong marketing campaign for our travel guide that began prior to bringing the guide back. We developed an advertising campaign that we launched in 2017 with two-minute TV, cable, and OTT spots called Pocono Mountains Magazine. This campaign developed five two-minute spots that featured three of our members in each spot.
We develop new two-minute spots for each season and continue to develop these TV campaigns that now run on our own Pocono Television Network, PoconoTelevision.com. When we launched the new Travel Guide in 2019, we also developed fifteen- and thirty-second spots for the travel guide to promote in our local and regional markets, along with digital and social ad campaigns. In 2020, we did not create TV spots for the guide and limited our digital campaigns. However, in 2021 we created new fifteen- and thirty-second spots for the 2021 travel guide that ran in all our markets as part of our overall TV buy. We also made the travel guide request form more visible on our website. We also ramped up our digital and social campaigns, and we added a PPC and YouTube campaign with the commercial spots.
Our 2021 Travel Guide requests have done so well that we were almost out of guides by the end of March. We will continue to run a travel guide into the future if we still see success and the need from our stakeholders.
Our visitor guides are still an important part of our marketing mix that aid in telling our destination’s story by helping potential visitors visually connect to our brand quickly. We have experienced a slight decline in requests for a physical copy in the last five years, with more people utilizing our website and social media channels for visitor information. The production process serves as a reset for us where we can focus on the best our destination has to offer and new experiences, businesses, and events that have come up in the last year. It serves as an internal resource for our team, and we refer to it on a regular basis for content creation, story pitches, and talking points as we’re telling Augusta’s story.
I expect that we will be producing a guide three to five years from now, making the content succinct and prioritizing the digital guide, which gives us the opportunity to keep content up to date.
Q: When's the last time you refreshed your visitor guide, and what editorial/content enhancements did you make?
We haven’t changed the physical format of our guide, but we did shift our approach from what was traditionally a yellow pages of things to see and do to an editorial-first approach that is about storytelling. The reason is two-fold: first, every visitor is walking around with Google, Yelp, Trip Advisor, and our website on a phone in their pocket, making listings increasingly irrelevant. Second, our focus is on sharing local culture and the people who are shaping our city. Coupling stories of interest with prominent locals who are active in those scenes has proven an effective strategy for us.
Since bringing back the guide in 2019, we refresh the content, design, and cover every year. We look at this as a marketing campaign, and the guide needs to convey what our destination is doing each year. We utilize all our marketing research and data to determine what content and design will best fit our overall marketing plan for that year.
We are currently refreshing our Augusta Experience Guide with an anticipated release in the coming weeks. The design will be reflective of our “Come See AugUSta” campaign, which is bold and vibrant, inspired by the concert posters and albums of Augusta native and Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown. We are expanding our Lay of the Land section to capture the vibe and don’t-miss experiences in our local neighborhoods. We’ll be expanding our Downtown section to highlight our newly defined Downtown districts, touching on what visitors and locals can find in those districts.
COVID-19 gave us the opportunity to focus more on our outdoor adventure scene. From kayaking, world-class biking trails, hiking, the Savannah River, and the Augusta Canal National Heritage area, you can find it in Augusta’s River Region. We are expanding the outdoor activities section and moving it closer to the front of the book. We will highlight our “Come See AugUSta” itineraries curated by locals based on travel interests to include, but not limited to, Arts & Culture, Family Friendly, Outdoors, History, and Live Entertainment. You’ll see more listicles and eye-catching callouts over long-form editorial.
Q: Let's talk about QR codes and their role in your visitor guides and other marketing. Along with that, what other tactics do you use to drive visitors to your website when in-market that you have found effective?
Our citywide welcome program for conventions and meetings features QR codes driving to our website. We also have maps at visitor centers and other collateral sprinkled about with callouts pushing to the website. Heck, we wrap trash cans in the downtown with graphics showcasing our brand and website. Wherever we can, we’re pushing visitors to learn more on our site because that is the absolute foundation of all our marketing efforts.
We have been utilizing QR codes in our guides since 2019 for driving readers back to our blog to expand on the content in the visitor guides, as well as for promotional items, our golf card, places to stay, things to do, events, offers, and more. We utilize QR codes on signage at our five visitor centers to drive visitors to the landing page for the town the visitor center is in. We also have digital kiosks in each of our visitor centers for visitors to create itineraries and learn more about the things to do, eat and see in each of the towns and destinations. We utilize QR codes in print ads, TV spots, and on our Pocono Television Network.
We are loving QR codes and utilizing them in a variety of ways in our marketing. For the visitor guide, we’ll be incorporating QR codes where needed so users can go to the corresponding section on our website for detailed information. I think QR codes relieve the pressure to include everything about the destination in your guide. The more content and long-form editorial you have, the higher the page count and printing costs. We are producing table tents for local hotels and businesses. They will include a QR code to the digital guide on one side and a call to action on the other to visit Augusta & Co., Augusta’s Experience Center, which resides on the first floor of our building at 1010 Broad Street in Downtown. At Augusta & Co., visitors have a physical location to go for information, handmade goods from local makers, an art gallery with rotating exhibits, souvenirs, and even tastings of local brews and spirits.
We are also developing digital slides with a call to action and QR code to view our digital guide that they can use on the screens in the hotel. This is a great no-cost option that we’re looking forward to implementing. In speaking with our hoteliers, they do still want to have some physical copies of the guides for their lobby areas and behind the front desk to assist guests as needed. We have also incorporated QR codes in our print ads so we can track performance and have found a way to make them look appealing and not take away from the ad creative. Our Community Engagement team developed decals with our “AUG” star icon that are featured at many of our local businesses, attractions, and restaurants that have a QR code that directs to the Trip Builder tool on our website.
Q: Tell us something you're especially proud of regarding your DMO's marketing efforts — digital or physical.
This is a loaded question because over the last two years we’ve created more content than I ever thought possible. Our team has been operating under a philosophy of “don’t wait to create.” If you have an idea and the team agrees it is valid, you are empowered to make things happen. Not everything is going to be a home run, but we’re also not going to get caught watching the paint dry (a classic reference from the movie Hoosiers).
We launched our own TV network in 2017 called PTN, the Pocono Television Network, as a digital and .2 channel at PoconoTelevision.com. Since its launch, we now have two in-house reporters and three videographers; we’re on 12 cable systems, nine of which have a dedicated channel for PTN, while the others air our monthly Pocono Mountains Magazine one-hour show in their line-up. We’re also on Roku and Fire TV with dedicated channels. We’re in just about five million homes with our cable partnerships.
This is one of the things I’m most proud of accomplishing over the last few years. Having this during COVID-19 was a huge help with getting the message out and partnering with our health systems, community leaders, nonprofits, and more. It was huge because we were able to run a live weekly COVID-19 update with our three health system presidents and film at the East Stroudsburg University TV studio. We ran these live on PTN and our local cable network, Blue Ridge Cable TV 13, every Friday for 14 weeks.
This then morphed into a monthly one-hour show that mixed community and tourism that we launched in the fall of 2020 and continue to run on the first Sunday of each month. It airs on our network and all our cable partners, Roku, Fire TV, YouTube, and Facebook. So, if you were to ask me in 2015 when I took this job if we would be running a TV station, I would have thought you were crazy. But I’m so proud of our entire team for this accomplishment, and they are the ones that make all of this happen!
I’m especially proud of our “Come See AugUSta” destination marketing campaign that showcases Augusta’s diversity and sense of community. Once COVID-19 hit, we had to make tough decisions with budget and programming cuts, but we decided to stay the course with campaign development knowing that it would be critical to our industry’s recovery.
So there you have it. Three DMOs, three different approaches to visitor guides. It’s clear there’s no one right approach to visitor guides and that what works for one DMO doesn’t necessarily work for another. Visitor guides, both physical and digital, are just one part of the marketing ecosystem.