by Pádraic Gilligan, Chief Marketing Officer, SITE & Managing Partner, SoolNua
Top 3 criteria in destination selection
Outside of ICCA, there’s no official or universally accepted ranking for destinations according to their position on the MICE hierarchy. That said, we all kind of know where we belong or sit in that constellation of destination planets and stars.
Tier one countries, cities or regions are places like Italy, New York or California where that trinity of selection criteria – access, infrastructure and destination appeal – harmoniously coalesce into a beautiful symphony. They’re places we can easily get to, with magical places to stay and, crucially, we all want to go there. In other words, the brand is really strong but so too is the execution.
Move down a notch or two to destinations in the tier 2 or 3 position and the situation changes. Tier 2 destinations will still have OK access, infrastructure and appeal but not at the same level as Tier 1. Think Seville, Spain or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia or Charlotte, North Carolina. Tier 3 destinations may lack one or more of the 3 criteria entirely – now we’re talking Florence, Italy or Xian, China or Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Which one should you focus upon when dealing with destination selection?
I was recently asked to speak about Incentive Travel to a group of destination marketing professionals gathered in Edinburgh, Scotland (Tier 2?) for the Spring Meeting of European Cities Marketing (ECM). During an interesting discussion we stumbled on the question: if you were a lower tier destination, in terms of building a compelling proposition for the incentive travel sector, should you focus on access and infrastructure or destination appeal?
Most destination marketing organizations know how difficult and challenging it is to increase air access. Once upon a time a country or city could rely upon its national carrier to build out a network as much for political reasons as for commercial considerations. This is no longer the case with “national” airlines increasingly being sold to corporate conglomerates and being run purely for commercial gain, not national pride.
The same applies to global chain hotels. Destinations will continue to build and develop great hotel properties but without the global chains to deliver international service standards and provide the GDS systems to connect to the global marketplace, there will always be a credibility deficit. When Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton came to Ireland in the early noughties, Ireland started to attract an upper layer of incentive travel programmes previously unavailable to it. But these hotel groups know their market intimately and will only come to a destination when they can prove ROI.
If you can tackle access and infrastructure you will definitely move up the rankings as an incentive destination but, in real terms, how easy is that to achieve? It’s the stuff of endless lobbying, ceaseless political machinations and, let’s face it, gnawing levels of frustration. While it’s a core function of destination marketing organizations and, as such, absolutely has to be done, it probably makes more sense for DMOs and other destination players to work on destination appeal which, ultimately, connects inextricably with nation or city brand.
The primacy of destination appeal when selecting a destination for incentive travel programmes
For the incentive travel sector we can state categorically that destination appeal always trumps access and infrastructure. The research bears it out without equivocation. When asked to nominate the top criterion for selecting a destination for an incentive travel experience, over 1000 respondents to the Incentive Travel Industry Index opted for destination appeal by a significant margin.
So where does all that leave us? It confirms the primacy of brand – if a destination can build a compelling brand value proposition then that will mitigate issues in terms of access or infrastructure. We can see the truth of this with reference to, say, Montreux, Switzerland.
Montreux is off line with no direct air access. You must fly to Zurich or Geneva and then board a train to Montreux. Zurich may be a European hub for air access but not at the same level as London, Heathrow, Paris, Charles de Gaulle or Amsterdam Schiphol and Geneva is not a hub at all. Yet incentive travel programmes flock to Montreux due to strong brand positioning (and Claude Nob’s Montreux Jazz Festival plays a massive role in this).
But how do you build a compelling nation or city brand in the first place? Simon Anholt, author of many books on nation branding and founder of the Good Country Index doesn’t believe you can “brand” a country the way corporations brand products. And, of course, he’s right. There are far too many variables and moving parts in the make-up of a nation to bully them into the shape of a brand. However, you can deploy the science of branding to identify and call out aspects of the country or city that’ll form the narrative structure around which to weave your story.
Selecting a MICE destination – be know for something
At the heart of this is becoming uniquely known for something. In the 1980s with poor access and no international chain hotels, Ireland built its “incentive” brand around its human qualities – the warmth, friendliness and unpredictability of the people, the great storytelling, the deep connections to past traditions. Ireland was presented, above all, as a “feeling” and the public / private partnership that promoted Ireland overseas to incentive buyers modelled this perfectly.
More recently Eric Bakermans (Netherland Board of Tourism & Conventions) greatly enhanced the nation brand of the Netherlands with his hugely creative Mr Holland campaign. Eventually running for 5 years, Bakermans channelled everything appealing about The Netherlands for meetings and incentive buyers into the persona of Mr Holland, a blond musician in an orange suit who became the centrepiece for Insta-friendly scenarios at the Dutch booth at key MICE exhibitions. Pivoting around live encounters, the campaign was also activated across digital platforms and Social Media. Over the 5 years of the project Holland’s profile rose sharply and the country became known as a highly engaging, creative, exciting destination.
Building access and infrastructure require bricks and mortar plus all the time, energy and patience needed to learn the political dance steps, secure the permissions and funding and negotiate around the regulations and restrictions. Building a brand may be harder again but the barriers to success, usually, are not political or financial or time-driven. They’re mainly the limits of our own courage, creativity and vision.
Pádraic Gilligan is Chief Marketing Officer at SITE and Managing Partner at SoolNua, the specialist agency he runs with Pat Delaney and Aoife McCrum.