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Tour group at U.S. national park site

The formula for packaged travel

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postedNovember 27, 2019

I’ve got a formula. It’s neither complicated nor original, and yet I’m writing about it. This formula has helped me think about travel destinations—and the professionals who market them—in a new way. I hope it’ll be useful for you.

The notion came to me when touring through Minnesota with Jake Juliot of the state’s DMO, Explore Minnesota. We drove from Minneapolis to the northern part of the state, where we stood in the headwaters of the Mississippi River, visited an old logging camp and a current iron ore mine, and then sauntered down the historical coast of Lake Superior.

These were rich, marvelous experiences, and I gained an appreciation for Minnesota’s people and heritage. What Jake told me when we returned to the Twin Cities, though, is that most visitors—especially inbound international ones—visit Minnesota to go to the Mall of America.

And some do nothing else. They fly in, rail over, stay at on-site hotels, shop for two or three days, and then leave. They don’t wade across a newborn Mississippi River. They don’t try out a cross-cut saw. They don’t see how the lighthouse keepers lived along the Great Lakes.

Now don’t get me wrong: I like to shop. And I found the Mall of America to be an amazing place—absolutely worth experiencing. But it must be frustrating for the Explore Minnesota folks that so many visitors never step out into the state’s forests or fish its lakes or dive into its history.

And I’m sure other DMOs share a similar frustration about their destination. Mulling over how Minnesotans might shape marketing messages to encourage mall visitors to experience more of the state—because I prefer to solve other people’s problems—I thought of a simple slogan … a play on a familiar marketing theme:

Come for the mall. Stay for the frontier.

In my own state of Kentucky, we might say, “Come for the horses. Stay for the Bourbon Trail.” And we can reverse it, depending on visitors’ priorities.

My thought is that any destination striving to attract visitors—and get them to stay longer—can boil down their pitch to a simple equation: “Come for the X. Stay for the Y.”

I don’t mean this should become every destination’s actual marketing slogan. There might not be a simple way to express your place’s X’s and Y’s, or maybe it sounds clunky.

But it’s a useful exercise for identifying what’s attracting tourists to your area—and then looking around to see what else will grab them.

So try it out for where you work or live.

Fill in the variables

What’s the X in your destination—the main draw or the thing you’re best known for? Now, what’s the Y? What places or experiences are most visitors missing that they should absolutely enjoy?

I didn’t have to go far to find help. Whenever I need answers, examples, and insight, I turn to the industry’s experts: NTA members.

Jennifer Lazarz of the City of Gallup says her guests come for three reasons: the New Mexico city is a convenient stop along I-40 between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Flagstaff, Arizona; the city has large events that draw visitors from across the U.S.; and Gallup has fantastic outdoor adventure assets.

She wishes, though, that visitors would stay to experience the area’s rich Native American arts culture: silversmiths and other artists working in homes and small businesses.

Asked to plug that into my formula, Lazarz says, “Come for the convenience. Stay for the culture.”

Two Tennessee DMOs also took a swing at it. Shelda Reese, CTP, of the Chattanooga CVB, identified several attractions as the city’s main draw—Tennessee Aquarium, Southern Belle Riverboat, Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, and others—but she’d like visitors to stay longer and experience the area’s Native American and Civil War stories as well as Chattanooga’s riverwalk, its sculpture gardens, and Bluff View Art District.

Reese’s X’s and Y’s: “Come for our famous natural attractions but stay for our unique history and outdoor playground.”

Colleen Palmertree, CTP, of Memphis Tourism offered a huge list of X’s—led by Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum, and Beale Street—and Y’s that include the Cotton Museum, Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, and tours at Levitt Shell concert venue.

How did she plug dozens of attractions and experiences into the formula? She dished out dozens of formulas. Here are a few of Palmertree suggestions:

“Come for Elvis. Stay for the rejuvenated hip Memphis scene.”

“Come for the blues, soul, and rock ’n’ roll. Stay for the taste of Memphis.”

“Memphis: Come for the BBQ. Stay for the beat.”

That last one has bumper sticker potential. But the point of this exercise is not so much to develop a snappy slogan as it is to focus on your audience … and extend their stays.

Jeff Bowe, CTP, of Experience Olympia & Beyond says his organization’s formula begins with the “state of mind” their travelers seek.

“In the case of Olympia, Washington, the X is ‘rejuvenation’ or ‘local immersion,’ and the Y is the experience—the Olympia Farmers Market, Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, or Tumwater Falls, for example.”

In Amish Country of Northern Indiana, Sonya Nash, CTP, says that visitors flock there to get the Amish experience—people, culture, and products—and she encourages them to stay longer and explore the area’s other people and their products, which range from RVs and campers to Flintstone chewables and Alka-Seltzer.  

Multiple messages

In Abingdon, Virginia, Monica Hall and her CVB team have already thought this through, and she supplied a graph to explain her messaging formula. It takes the town’s top X factors—Barter Theatre, Creeper Trail (a biking/hiking trail), and Colonial and Civil War history—and adds the local music and culinary scenes to provide a series of if/then pitches.

If visitors come for outdoor adventure on the Creeper Trail, then Hall will point them toward a show at the Barter Theatre, local dining and live music, and the area’s historical sites. If they’re coming for history, she’ll pitch the theater, cycling or hiking the trail, and local eats. And so on.

While Hall’s goal is to move visitors from one experience to another, her CVB has had mixed results. “One of our sayings is, ‘Creepers Barter but Barters don’t Creep,’” she says. “We might see overlap from people who come here to enjoy our outdoors, but not from visitors who come to attend a show at the Barter.”

Using the Abingdon pivot as a model, any destination could apply the formula to different markets. For student groups, like soccer teams (or choirs), you could say: “Come for the game (or the show). Stay for the mountains.” To faith-based travelers, you might say, “Come for the basilica. Stay for the botanicals.”

Tours, too

This formula isn’t limited to DMOs. At least one tour operator has already honed a similar approach to developing programs. Phil Sheldon, owner of HE Tours, says that his team takes a methodical approach to evaluating every destination.

“We divide what they offer into ‘iconic’ and ‘ambiance’ experiences,” he says. “Iconic sites tend to be grand, beautiful, and important stops, but are usually quite predictable. Ambiance experiences have to do with what the traveler senses at a destination, and they offer connections to the lives of people living there.”

Sheldon explains that most travelers want to see the signature sites, which might be monuments, grand buildings, or natural features that are widely recognized and provide Instagrammable moments. Ambience places and experiences, on the other hand, allow visitors to learn what locals see, hear, and taste—unrelated to what the destination is known for.

“Visiting a school or having lunch with a local family radiates authenticity about what the community is like today,” Sheldon says.

He can offer several examples of iconic and ambience in international destinations that his company packages. For example, a visit to Cairo includes the three iconic pyramids, but HE Travel also offers an optional tour to the Sakkara and Red pyramids, which are seen by few tourists and offer a more intimate encounter. And a cruise along the Nile includes the most-visited monuments but can also entail a side trip to a small village.

Although it’s ambience experiences that visitors are more likely to tell friends about when they return home, a tour operator can’t overlook the obvious.

“If you don’t include the iconic places, you aren’t likely to fill your tour, so these stops are obligatory,” Sheldon says.

Collecting ideas and input from members assures me that “my” formula is not original. Travel pros have been plying this concept for years. But with the many variations and motivations the formula addresses, I’m inclined to offer up a corollary—one that conveys the true, and often unexpected, benefits of travel.

Come for the X. Stay for the why.

Top photo by Pat Henderson