Cultivating the Destination Experience: May 2018

With the Victoria Day long weekend marking the kick-off to the summer season, we are excited to see tourism operators across Ontario’s Highlands once again opening their doors and working together to generate buzz and encourage visitors to Come Wander.

We know that today’s consumers are increasingly skeptical of advertising, and prefer to turn to referrals from trusted sources such as online review sites, media coverage, and endorsements from popular influencers and other travellers to make travel decisions. As a region with a strong brand platform, and within this, a strong brand promise, it’s more important than ever that we live up to the promise we’ve made to visitors by delivering exceptional experiences and exceeding expectations at every opportunity. In so doing, we can harness the potential of positive word of mouth and create a loyal following of advocates and storytellers that want to share their experiences far and wide.

The power of online word of mouth in today’s market was a key focus of the series of Tourism Stakeholder Sessions we hosted across Ontario’s Highlands earlier this month and will help guide our approach and priorities as we move forward together as an industry.

Word of mouth from happy customers has always been a key to business success, but what’s different today is the landscape. While advertising and marketing messages serve as a starting point to raise awareness of the experiences we have to offer, they are but one voice of many. Countless conversations about us are happening every day, online, and word travels much farther and faster through online networks. It’s crucial that we take a proactive role to manage the stories out there about us and be a part of the conversation, because it’s happening regardless.

Forging authentic, long-lasting bonds with customers takes time and nurturing, but it all starts with delivering incredible experiences that people value and want to share. We have a strong regional identity and a highly-targeted audience, both anchored in Come Wander. We have a new strategic model that is aligned with shifts in consumer behaviour and taps into a wide audience that can share our stories more broadly.  With this framework firmly in place and resonating with visitors and our industry, we can begin to take action on enhancing the destination experience, so that we can create more remarkable stories and as a result offer more opportunities to engage with our audiences.

Our focus on putting the visitor first and on developing as a destination are not new. OHTO already offers a number of supportive programs for tourism operators and partners looking to strengthen their visitor experience, including:

  • IGNITE– A small, immersive training program developed to create greater emotional responses to the products we offer. Over the course of 3 days, participants have a chance to learn and try their hand at best practices in experience development, from the foundations of focusing on a key customer, to the experience design process, right through to how to price your experiences in a way that actually enables you to charge more, not less for your experiences.

Just last month, a group of tourism stakeholders from Frontenac County, Lennox & Addington County, and Tweed were the fourth group from Ontario’s Highlands to partake in IGNITE and exciting changes are already happening. Participants have shared key learnings around the possibilities of teamwork in strengthening a community; the benefits of creating positive memories, which in turn become positive reviews and recommendations; and the importance on focusing on what you can do best rather than stretching too thin or chasing a variety of potential markets.

  • OHvation– A free mystery shop program that provides a way to see your business through the eyes of a perspective visitor. The criteria for this assessment goes beyond common aspects of customer service to capture a snapshot of the full visitor experience, including a review of your online presence and booking process.
  • Tourism Development Partnership Program (TDPP)– An application-based program, TDPP is an opportunity to access financial and strategic support for projects that reflect the destination experience mindset, align with the Come Wander brand platform, support OHTO’s strategic objectives, and can demonstrate long term benefits to the region.

As we move forward together, we are further exploring ways to better assess and evaluate our offers as a destination, which include developing tools to measure the following:

  • Online Sentiment Analysis– This will capture visitors’ perception of Ontario’s Highlands by assessing all the touchpoints visitors have with our destination online. It will provide insights into the consumer impression of our community vibrancy, culture and history, outdoor adventure, and relaxation offers; and will also reveal the quality of the fulfillment experiences like booking processes, access to additional information, ease of access to the region, sufficiency of accommodation options, service received from frontline staff, etc.
  • Operator Effectiveness– With this, we’ll get a better sense of the readiness of our industry to meet the needs of our visitors and a clear picture of what needs to be done at an operator level to improve this.
  • Customer Journey Mapping– This will help us more deeply understand the needs of our customers at different stages along the path to purchase.

These tools will allow us to gain real time insight regarding how we stack up as a destination from the perspective of our visitors and will equip us with the ability to ultimately better play into an individual’s decision around choosing our destination over another. We are looking to leading destination marketing organizations, such as Destination Think!to support our next steps around this process and are excited bring you along this journey with us.

Finally, we know that strong destination experiences are created by strong and engaged communities. When we work together to rally behind the brand platform, strategy, and destination experience approach, we can enjoy greater collective success.

We are thrilled that more than 30 people have already expressed interest in joining what we’re currently calling our Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Innovation Hub. The aim of this regional Hub is to bring together individuals who are eager to expand their knowledge and expertise in destination experience development for the purpose of bringing that knowledge back to their communities and assisting with turning ideas into action. If you missed signing up at a Tourism Stakeholder Session, but are interested in collaborating and joining this Hub please contact me.

Wishing you a wanderfulsummer season ahead,

Stephanie Hessel

Tourism Development Coordinator, OHTO