When ratings and reviews arrived at the destination
It’s still in beta but Destination Recommended promises to help destinations get their message out, no matter their size or budget
Jim Brody is passionate about destination marketing. “I love working with destinations - I get their passion, their authenticity and even their need to be involved with politics,” he says.
That passion has led to a career in digital travel spanning over 20 years. In the mid 1990s he created one of the first travel content sites - VisitNewEngland.com - in the US for Mystic Media in Connecticut. “This was back in the day when the internet was in HTML 1.0, and marketing people for the region's attractions and big lodgings all thought the entire medium was too grey," he recalls.
Then at Kaboose.com (now part of Disney) he headed up family travel, before joining TripAdvisor where he spent almost eight years setting up an running its destination marketing efforts, first domestically and then internationally. Brief stints followed at Oyster.com and Travelzoo before he launched Sense of Place to work with destination marketing organisations (DMOs) on content strategy.
His latest venture, which is still in beta, is Destination Recommended and comes in response to “speaking to dozens of DMO friends” who told him there was nothing like this. “While there are certainly other sites, like TripTuner, that focus on the top of the funnel, they do it differently, and without any focus on user generated content (UGC) ratings and reviews, and certainly not with a partnership for any destination that wants to participate,” Brody says.
We put some questions to Brody to find out more.
EFT: So what’s the big idea?
JB: I have always wanted to give destinations something to work with that would help all of them - no matter what their size or budget or where they are. The idea is that users will come in and rate and/or review a particular destination overall, as well as specific experiences such as snorkelling, hiking, shopping and so on, in those destinations. Destinations, which are core to this mission, can partner for free - providing content that helps better define that destination, and nudges the interested user further along in the planning cycle. As content volume grows, DMOs will also be able to get some marketing intelligence and data from that content such as:
Word clouds of review content
Rankings of different experiences compared to the competitive destination set
Points of origin for those viewing the content and so on).
EFT: Who are these destination reviewers?
JB: People who love those destinations for one, people who love travel for another, and people who just like rating stuff. Just like TripAdvisor or Yelp, users who provide the content will be a subset of those looking at it. There is a great intersection of those folks who follow their favourite destinations on social media, so the one thing we are asking DMOs to do is to tell their social networks whenever we feature them. And the content creates an endless number of Top 10 Lists to do just that!
EFT: How does this differ from sites like TripTuner or ArrivalGuides which look pretty slick visually?
JB: TripTuner has a pretty cool widget, and the design is more contemporary, but it completely lacks UGC, so it's utterly different. I think there is certainly room for both, as they look for different users. One user prefers an algorithmic path at the top of the funnel, another user-generated content. Same for ArrivalGuides. In the broadest sense they are competition. Just like Lonely Planet or your favorite travel magazine, they are dependent purely on editorial content, which they offer in the form of pdf downloads. There is no user-generated content, or ratings of any kind, and that's a very big difference.
EFT: You haven't officially launched yet, but can you outline what have you achieved to date, and your next steps?
JB: We went into open beta to begin the process of building audience, user generated content and DMO content partners in mid August. Closed beta (invite only to make sure everything works and the site doesn't break) was the three-week period prior to that. I am in discussions with some larger DMOs to partner for an official launch at one of their events over the next six months. The plan over the next year is to get the ad placements up to kick in revenue, while reaching out to DMOs to grow more partnerships (and therefore more DMO content and more eyeballs for UGC). In addition, we are already growing our own social channels to pull in more consumers, and registered users (over 250 and growing) on DestinationRecommended.com will begin receiving our weekly ‘Destination Inspiration’ email once a week.
EFT: What’s the business model? How are you funded?
JB: Right now I am self-funded. This is a lean and mean effort, but I will be looking for a first round shortly, and will use that to get to as many DMO's as possible to grow traffic. Going forward, I'll let the rest of the industry fund this effort through text link ads on the destination pages that direct people to relevant topics: Where to Stay, How to Get There, What to Do, Where to Eat and Getting Around. The plan is to follow the tried and true method and build traffic, with initial revenue coming through ad network text link placements.
EFT: Do you foresee any difficulty in raising money?
JB: Raising funding is relatively new, but the media plan is rather tried and true (build solid content, build the audience, then build the revenue) so there should be interest. Needless to say, it will be easier to get funding once the ads are up and whole concept shows solidity.
EFT: More broadly, what trends are you seeing in destination marketing right now?
JB: Trends for DMOs have a cycle to them (certainly the digital ones). So this year seems to be all about leveraging influencers and live streaming video on social networks. Overall though, in destination marketing there is a trend away from paid media (especially the template-based placements) like banner ads and text links. If you combine their non-profit/government cultures of stretching their funding as far as possible with the naval-gazing, political pressures, and redefinition of goals going on worldwide, this totally makes sense. So if you have redefined yourself as a DMO, you want to spend less on marketing. And if some candidate is running for office pushing the idea that your organisation is irrelevant, you want to be effective as possible for as little expenditure as possible. This was always the drive behind more PR, media placement push and FAM tours (which are all infinitely less expensive than the consumer ads they buy).