This is part two of my interview with Jon Mamela. Yesterday we explored his career at Procter & Gamble, Fairmont and his path to becoming Canada’s top destination marketing leader. In this part of the interview we explore how destination marketing is different from traditional “company” marketing.
Edward: This is part two of my interview with Jon Mamela, CMO of Destination Toronto. Today, we’re going to explore the world of destination marketing, specifically his experience in marketing Canada, and now the City of Toronto. Jon, can you start by describing what a destination marketing organization does?
Jon: Sure, Edward. Organizations within the destination space can vary in terms of their mandate and the work that they do. Generally, I would summarize most of them in terms of the representation of the local community, be it restaurants, hotels, attractions, businesses of all sorts, that effectively benefit from what we define as the visitor economy. The destination marketing organization is the entity of the agency that represents those organizations in promoting and selling the destination to various source markets that are important to them, to bring new visitors into the local economy.
Edward: How do you measure success then? Is it the number of visitors that are attending? Is it the amount of dollars spent?
Jon: It really varies, again by organization and where its particular focus is. Most destination marketing organizations promote two primary forms of travel: one being a leisure traveler coming in and vacationing—as a couple, as a family. The other is the means with which you bring a meeting or what we call a business event into the community. That business event can take the form of a corporate meeting, it could be a sports event, it could be a large cultural event and the like.
The means and the measures behind those two segments vary tremendously. One, you could be at the upper end of the funnel, measurement and outcomes of it in terms of making your destination, the destination being more aware and people in your target audience are more aware of your destination, down to consideration, and all the way as a lead over to the business event site, in particular in terms of assisting through the sales funnel and through the sales efforts, actually book a meeting that comes to the destination in itself.
Measurement varies extensively. It can be attributed or at least tracked to. It means with which your hotel occupancy in your community sits at, the means of expenditures if the capacity in the means with which you can measure actual visitor expenditures at the cash register (so to speak) can also be assessed, and there are means with which you can do that buying third party data, so we take a look at that those types of measures as well.
It’s a pretty broad broad measurement scorecard (so to speak) relative to the role with which the organization will play, the segment of business they go after, and how (again) the community also holds them accountable.
Edward: Are you targeting ROI? Are you targeting, hey, I have this much money to spend. It’s going to drive this much value for our community?
Jon: Depending on the sophistication, on your ability to do so, we can. At Destination Canada, we’re used to being prior to where I’m here at Destination Toronto. We had an ROI calculation and a means of calculating an econometric model of return on investment across markets with which we invested in. That was based on quite a bit of historical data on visitation and marketing expenditure, relative also the forecasting on various elements or factors that would indicate what we would anticipate or see in terms of our performance of our marketing going forward.
I’ve been in an organization that does it both ways. The more sophisticated and larger invested organizations or larger budget organizations where I was before get to that point. You can debate and have very good conversations, whether the means with which you don’t own a cash register, how accurate that work was.
I thought it was very well-constructed with third party expertise that we had, alongside with their internal business intelligence team. At a point with which you’re truly getting down to ROI would, in absence of owning a cash register, is definitely challenging. It’s up to the organization if they’re seeking to go there or are expected to go there.
Edward: I expect you could measure revenue or measure expenditures is probably the easiest way. Is there an equivalent for profit? What did destination organizations care about in terms of the equivalent of profit? Is it the tax revenues generated by those tourists? Is it the profit of the hotel chains? Who’s paying your bills and what does success look like then?
Jon: I was going to answer to you earlier a list of options there, all the way to option (e) all of the above to some degree. The funding mechanism for destination marketing organizations vary greatly to a degree. I would say vary greatly in terms of the nuances of them but primarily fall into two means: (1) They’re based on what is called an accommodations tax, usually at the hotel level. If you’re traveling and you see a line item on your hotel bill about a destination marketing fee or promotional marketing fee that is captured by the hotels, attributed, and flowed back to the destination marketing organization, that is one option. (2) Sometimes, it can be a line item expense for a government or a regional municipality in terms of direct contributions. It’s taxpayer-based.
I think the popularity of having travelers or visitors into your destination, funding the marketing and sales activity is one with which a lot of destinations go to. Declared at a city level, state level, or province level, usually find it as part of a platform or focus of the government in terms of recognizing the value of the visitor economy, and investing behind is as much as maybe not to the same dollar amount but in terms of the health care line expense and the like. It varies in an organization, depending on what makes up a better organization. So, it usually happens in those two means.
Edward: I expect the feedback cycle is very, very slow. Like my wife has wanted to go to Bhutan since before we even met, and we still haven’t gone together. When we finally do, I expect tracking the visit that we do have to the marketing message here 20 years ago is just going to be impossible. How do you know what marketing is working and what isn’t?
Jon: That’s a great question. Study after study that we’ve seen and witnessing that the means of how many times one changes their mind in the past to purchase in the journey of deciding where you’re going to go and what destination rises to the top, and how quickly one can be subverted over to another destination almost at the point of the cash register was seeing something more compelling and the like, is tremendous.
The means to tie it back that ROI, and believing that with which the marketing activity that you’ve put out in the market has been the lone attribution or a big part of the attribution, is extremely difficult in this sense. And again, because most destination marketers don’t own a cash register.
When we have a sales force—as we do a global sales force that is selling business events—where it’s a very engaged one-on-one conversation into a series of engagements through the sales funnel process, they’re particularly our efforts that brought a meeting over to the destination.
On the leisure segment side, it is that Holy Grail and the means with which we worked with the likes of Google and others that we’ve tested in very interesting ways. A means with which we have confidence in the exposure of the marketing and the messaging, to what we look at when there are various technologies out there in our industry that tag browsers to show that we know we reach you on your phone and you showed up in our destination.
That attribution comes again with a lot of questions and debate whether there’s accuracy and ability to do so. Those organizations and technologies certainly support what they believe this to be true. They’re certainly valid, they’re great data points, and they can be used in various ways, but a true attribution, unlike in a lot of other categories, when (as you said) the means of choosing a destination can take years, as you’ve noted to Bhutan for 20 years, or even the next year and how many other times you’ve engaged that brand, you’re not going to be—by means of your financial ability—in touch with your journey all this time, You can even say it’s the Holy Grail; it is a bit difficult even to suggest that it’s going to be an easily provable or a worthwhile pursuit.
Edward: Given that difficulty, what do you do? What are you optimizing against on your marketing spend in the short term that you can measure?
Jon: In terms of what we look to, in terms of where you can drive behavior of a customer. Optimizing our spend, what we create in terms of the story of the community and the means with which the content partnerships and the means with which we generate content. In addition to traditional paid media options, content co-creation, publication, and dissemination is a big part of where a lot of destinations have move to, in terms of what is the story that we’re telling on behalf of the community and what are the means with which the content you create, where that gets viewed, how it gets passed along, how gets engaged with, is a big part.
An example there, for instance, while I was at Destination Canada, Korea was one of our key source markets. We co-invested into an opportunity there with which was a long-form content play that we were able to link back. Again, not with 100% certainty, but we were able to link back given the growth in the explosion of interest in the destinations that were featured in this long-form content in Canada, from the purchasing, what’s happening with travel agents and tour operators who are featuring [...] that the link to that is something with which you try to make the case.
In terms of real time optimization, we do so on performance. A little bit just in terms of the performance, the media in terms of getting people to our website, and the means with which we optimize against the mix of the media choices there, so we optimize that behavior. A behavior (for us) is a digital referral onto a partner and optimizing investments. Someone from us and moving onward to a hotel would give us an indication of someone taking a further further lead into the community in terms of inclination to visit. We will lead and optimize. We optimize towards leading a customer further down the path to purchase in many instances.
Edward: The end of the funnel is relatively easy to optimize, I imagine. What is your cost per visitor to a hotel landing page? Is it what I expect you can do? What percentage of your budget would be end-of-funnel versus early funnel in destination marketing?
Jon: I would anticipate that there’s 50/50 sometimes. It varies on the year and varies on the objectives (I guess) of the organization in terms of the expectation of the community and the stakeholders, and where the focus of the business is going to be. Clearly, in a global sales activity with which we’re bringing in business events certainly leads a lot more down to the bottom of the funnel in terms of us really trying to close and win business and the like.
There is some top-of-the-funnel effort and activity is selling Toronto’s a place to bring your business meeting, so I might be more of a 30/70 split, whereas driving and attracting a leisure visitor could certainly be anywhere it’s 50/50. It’s going to be (again) on the intended outcome or what you’re trying to seek to achieve.
More and more, the importance of holding that obligation and driving home the collective community story and the content (as I alluded) getting created behind that and top of the funnel is becoming more and more important and difficult to do really well. More important is because no one else in the community is telling the community stories, much as destination marketing organizations should itself.
Edward: In that story-telling, in the top-of-the-funnel stuff, is it primarily input metrics? Is it a matter of, hey, we created this content. We think the content is good, therefore we’ve done a good job, rather than trying to figure out how much revenue has been generated by this great content?
Jon: Certainly. I would say there are output measures. Working with publishers in terms of engagement time, with content, the referrals, the forwarding on, the passing along, the means with which it actually performs with the embedding of the ability for someone to dive deeper or search your website or onto another landing page and the like.
Edward: On those output metrics, have you ever looked at the correlation between those output metrics and actual visitors over some delayed time frame? If you do a really good content campaign in 2012 and you have all those output metrics of engagement and stuff being really, really high, does it correlate to more visits in 2013 and 2014?
Jon: It can. What we’ve done in terms of working with Google here is actually taking a look at what that lag period is between engagement with content and advertising to search, and then onwards to visitation. It was (I think) the first global pilot for Google to do that with destinations. We did that as team Canada to really take a close look at that.
It can be done. It’s not done as being less confident in the results. It does cost, but the means with which the expectation of the stakeholders of the community is expecting us to prove that, certainly can vary from the work I’ve done in the past. It’s challenging, absolutely, but it can be done. It can be done and we have shown it through that work with Google.
Edward: What type of correlations do you see? Is it to the 0.1% range or is it like a 0.5%? If I get that metric up, how confident should I be that it’s actually going to do something?
Jon: That was the first time pilot that we did with Google in terms of trying to prove a point in terms of how we set it up and to test that again, similar as we talked earlier about the means of setting that up in a clean test environment but a balanced AB sample approach. Statisticians are a much more complicated scenario planning and modeling than I’m describing it here with you.
The means with which and the correlation, I can’t recall what exactly was. I’m not saying it was one, and even at 0.5 I can’t recall, but the indication was that the means of the investment would give you the impression that it was worthwhile to continue to invest, that you would see the return. I just can’t recall. We didn’t act on it at the time. It was pre-pandemic, so the industry itself in terms of here in Canada with our borders closed, to go in and start marketing to Americans, to continue to prove the model and prove the case would be difficult to do so or would be meaningless at this point.
The same type of tests I’m working with OTAs and the like are possibilities here to correlate and connect based on (again) if you’re doing high-level funnel content efforts or you’re going down to the bottom of the funnel. Tactical means can also be done with them.
Edward: That’s a nice lead-in. We recorded this podcast in early 2021. Covid shutdowns have been going on for almost a year now, but the vaccine is being distributed, so the end is at least visible. How did Covid change the way you thought about destination marketing last year?
Jon: The importance of staying top of mind, even with everything going on in the world, once our target audiences’ lives, the state of concern, security of one’s health, the health of themselves and their family, when and how would travel come back, and when the means with which people look at travel as something with which they want to pursue, all of our research is indicating clearly the importance and the high level of desire.
Travel still sits on people’s expectations when this pandemic goes to a stage of not being a pandemic, that the borders open, and the confidence and safety is addressed in terms of being able to find some degree of the next wave, the market behaving and people behaving. The importance of staying top of mind and now addressing a combination of both being inspirational, still.
Travel’s one of those most inspirational categories that you can connect with people on but also the importance of health and safety. You’re not coming across as a destination purely not by health and safety alone and you’re coming across as if your Clorox or something to that effect, where the efficacy of your product is fully depending on the brand reputation. The need to recognize health and safety, the balance of health and safety, and the experience one would have has now risen in importance to the customer and the traveler.
What exactly is the experience I’m getting on the other end? What can I expect? What is the physical separation and distancing that businesses and experiences are delivering? What is sanitization going to be and such? There’s no turning the light switch off and this pandemic disappears and behavioral shift just goes back to what used to be. It’s not going to be like that in our indication of the research, so the needs on marketing the destination will have to have a very careful and an appropriate balance of messaging, without getting to the point where it’s so factual and sanitized, overused means with which the inspiration is lost because inspiration is going to be equally as important.
Edward: That gets me to another thought. I often say that marketing is less about advertising what people think and often more about things as fundamental as product. Now, at least in most organizations, a product is part of the organization, but for destination marketing, not only does your marketing or not control product but your whole organization is a control product. The product sits under all the hotels, attractions, airlines, and sanitation departments effectively for the city that you’re marketing to. Do you ever have to try to have any impact on the product or do you just live with the product that you’re left with and focus on the advertising?
Jon: In terms of the direction we take, we don’t focus in terms of the development and the progress in terms of product. We don’t own anything, we don’t manage anything as you’ve alluded. Some organizations in the destination marketing space have a pretty aggressive look at product development and would possibly have a means of either co-investing or facilitating co-investing and direction in terms of what gets designed and developed in their local community.
Here in Toronto, we don’t. When I was at Destination Canada, we were neither at that national level, by any means. You are—including coming out of this pandemic—going to be a means of taking a very—as we do—close eye on. Who’s going to make it through at the other end of this pandemic? What’s their business vitality look like?
We have a very different compliment instead of a product that we can market coming out of this—at least in the near term—and where we will be in the future. That is part of the unique challenge and the means with which the effort to rise above any singular product or experience. Being able to encapsulate that collective experience within the community in a way that you’re not putting logo soup or a means with which it’s just a quick flash of this, show this, show that, show this, and at the end of the day people don’t know what you actually stood for.
Edward: Is there anything you can do to influence those products, though? Is there anything you can do, like hey, is there a way to improve the quality of the hotels in the country, or the distribution of hotels, or the entrance fees to national parks? Are there any leverage you have at all to influence the product itself, or you’re just left with creating the content with what you’re given?
Jon: More the latter. You’re certainly not doing so in absence of having numerous number discussions, staying connected to your community, and stakeholder engagement that we put dearly in terms of the importance of staying closely connected to our industry. The decision’s often on a private enterprise’ standpoint of owning a property or managing a hotel, to an attraction.
If anything, we can provide intelligence of who the visitor is, what they’re looking for, how their behavior, attitudes, and consumption patterns change. We could provide the intelligence, but the means to really make an impact on what you described—in terms of a decision outside of our hands—we certainly could be an advocate and a point of view at the table on things but certainly by no means do we try to drive that change or expect we could make that change.
Speaking of your notion of park passes, it wasn’t our decision at Destination Canada but working with Parks Canada to make parks accessible in 2017, which was Canada’s 150th birthday. It was a big move to expose the parks and I think they’ve done even further activities of the sort since to make parks accessible to many more Canadians and visitors. They’ll cover that. Clearly, parks are an opportunity to continue to promote and showcase all that there is to offer in that vein. That decision wasn’t ours, but we capitalized on it when I was there.
Edward: It sounds like you can collect information about what your customers or potential visitors are looking for, and you can feed that information to the people who are building the products. In a way, that’s your lever of influence. Your lever of influence is effectively knowledge dissemination that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Jon: Absolutely. Again, through the means of financial data, credit card data, and direct debit data, we and other fintechs can track where and what type of categories are visitors from various markets buying, where they’re buying, what season and the like. Coupled with model data, we have the ability to take a look at an anonymous fashion where people are moving in and around the community.
Mirroring and layering those two—although they’re not connected by any means—starts giving us quite a bit of insight in understanding behavior without intercepting and interviewing a ton of people. You’re gathering it anonymously in the background. That’s invaluable information and insight. You see the shifts pattern-wise by season, by origin, by visitor, year over year as well. It’s incredible value that our stakeholders do really appreciate.
Edward: Jon, one of your big successes at Destination Canada was driving visits from Korea. Can you spend a couple of minutes just walking through how you did that, what the impact was?
Jon: Absolutely. It was one of my career highlights in terms of the success that it drove. I think every CMO would probably lean more to my data side than my gut side in terms of making a call on something. This is a bit of both. Having trust in my team in Korea who came to me with a strategy and a plan, the long-form content within Korea and the TV series were extremely popular.
Arguably, we filmed at the various locations and we’ve all heard the success stories of New Zealand, Iceland, and other places within the popular HBO series. The opportunity was presented to us that this new series is going to be chosen in terms of destinations around the globe, and we were approached as one of many destinations to see if we would have interest in hosting the filming crew to film the show.
Important with the team and a great group that I had working with me in Korea was ensuring that the storyline was authentic to Canada and that it wasn’t just a misplacement of a storyline and a place that doesn’t seem natural, or just seems out of whack. You just lose confidence and that could be any means you’d want to go and see that place because it just didn’t even connect with the story.
Fortunately, the story was a really odd mix of both humor, sci-fi, romance, drama, all embedded together in a great Korean style fashion with content creation. They make it work. We went in with pretty much all chips in to see if this long-form content series that was going to promote Canada overall but a particular region of Canada in Quebec City could, in fact, connect with travelers.
The team certainly sold me on the idea that Korean travelers and many travelers also in the Asia-Pac region were very keen and made travel trips and decisions on where popular film series in Korea also took place. Seeing that first-hand in the [...] really quite surprised. I don’t get popular fans of certain shows will do that here, but it was more of a general trend there.
We went all-in, collaborated with our local national airline—Air Canada at the time—and with the Fairmont Hotels, and put together a [...] to bring the crew over. These are top A-list actors in Korea, filming various segments of the show in Quebec. The result of this series—I think a 13-part series—where we weren’t in every minute of the show in terms of the destination but very important points in the story, including the closing point which is the romantic conclusion of the story, happened in Quebec. The popularity of this just went above and beyond anything we would have expected.
Now, having the benefit of having Korea’s equivalent to Brad Pitt and another movie star–caliber actor doesn’t hurt either, but the outcome was hundreds of millions of views of putting Quebec on the screen of everybody in Korea and beyond. From television to social media, in counting, we had over a billion views of this content. It’s incredible. The means with what was then putting a place on the map almost, somewhat overnight in terms of the popularity of people wanting to go and see the scenes or the location of the scenes, to see these in Quebec.
Kudos to some of my colleagues in the industry who were sold on my case, that this actually had potential. It was one of those [...] you think the data’s right in terms of the potential, but you got to go with your gut. This is something worth pursuing and fortunately it really did.
Edward: Did it translate into actual visits?
Jon: Absolutely it did. The hotel, that particular Fairmont property with which it was filmed, saw incredible growth. I can’t speak to the particular hotel performance per se. It's just on top of my memory, but our visitation from Korea was well over double digits, like into the 10% and 20%, 30% growth that we were seeing coming into the country overall. Recognizing how popular that was, that was a big driving force of who was coming in.
Edward: How fast did that happen?
Jon: Within a year. The benefit of having a director fly with Air Canada helps, so people could get here quickly, direct from Korea to Toronto, or Vancouver, or to Quebec City. It was pretty quick. And the means with which we stood out in the market for sure and capitalized on the series itself through really an omnichannel approach with which we promoted on social channels. We had the actors commenting on their experience in Canada. In addition, we did [...] and intermediate was all in, but the anchor and the crown jewel of it was that TV series.
Edward: John, thank you so much for your time today. This has been really great.
Jon: I really appreciate it. Thank you, Edward.