The pandemic turned the international tourism tap off overnight. As a consequence, domestic tourism has been thrown into the spotlight. So, what attracts us to visit some regions over others? Place branding specialist Nick Sampson shares his view.
I recently spent a weekend in Palmerston North for an athletics meet my daughter attended. I hadn’t been there since the last century, and while I might have been looking in the wrong places, it seemed little had changed.
Early Friday evening in the CBD square was strangely deserted and there was little on offer. To be brutal, my weekend in ‘Palmy’ was dull. A portal back to beige ‘80s. Which was how I remember the place.
Two hours up the road is New Plymouth. It was dull in the ‘80s too. But around that time the New Plymouth District Council (NPDC) began a programme investing in what some idealistically called ‘spiritual and cultural infrastructure’.
A council’s core purpose is providing and maintaining things like water, sewerage systems and roads etc. But a visionary group including a young mayor, councillors and the chief executive, believed investing in other areas was just as important.
Things like culture, events, recreation and gardens. As well as being more supportive of the hospitality and visitor sectors. They maintained this would be good for the community, attract people to the region and stimulate the economy.
Not everyone agreed.
Early on, the NPDC underwrote the first Taranaki Festival of the Arts to the tune of $200,000 (I worked on the feasibility study for this), which was later joined by WOMAD and other events.
It invested in the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Puke Ariki, the Len Lye Centre, public art, an aquatic centre, the coastal walkway, garden festivals and much more. Many in the community objected. Ratepayers got angry.
The anti-arts brigade came out in full force. There were fierce, public spats inflamed by the local paper. Councillors and mayoral candidates took sides.
Today the region is thriving. Sleepy New Plymouth has become a ‘cool’ destination. The successful ‘Taranaki – Like No Other’ brand has a national profile.
The food, beverage and hospitality sector are exploding. Visitor numbers have skyrocketed. The region’s population continues to grow. Events, concerts, garden and food festivals, WOMAD, Americarna, Len Lye and Puke Ariki (to name a few) nourish locals and draw thousands to the region.
I work in Auckland with a diverse team of young people. They’ve all visited New Plymouth in the past two years. None have been to Palmerston North.
This tale of two cities is made more interesting in the Covid context. Domestic tourists are parochial. Effective place branding has never been more important in terms of raising profile and challenging jaundiced preconceptions.
But there’s more to it than that – two things come into play.
A well-conceived place brand is essential – supported by well-executed marketing campaigns.
But brand equals reputation, i.e. what you want people to think of you. So, exploring and defining what you ‘uniquely’ offer and stand for, and how this should be expressed is vital first.
Consultation with the community and people at the visitor coal face ensures the right messaging. It also creates buy-in, so everyone marketing the region sings from the same ‘messaging hymn sheet’.
But – and it’s a BIG but – places need to offer ‘stuff’ people want – environments, events and attractions.
Often more than beaches, lakes or mountains, although these can obviously be hero drawcards. Growing the ‘stuff’ that improves quality of life and attracts visitors requires vision and investment from local government. Along with the resolve to stand up to the segment in every community that opposes anything new. If destinations don’t offer enough ‘stuff’ to feed the mind, body and soul, people just go elsewhere. It’s why so many of us (used to) holiday overseas.
For nourishment, fun and adventure. Likewise, if a region doesn’t market this with a differentiated brand and the right messaging, its attraction strategy only consists of (often misinformed) word of mouth.
The work started in Taranaki in the 1980s is paying big dividends. It’s been challenged at every step. But, today, there’s a sense of positivity and uniqueness associated with the region. Brought to life with multiple attractions on offer for families, foodies, music and art fans, petrolheads, the adventurous and the not so brave.
All-year-round. Rain or shine.
Taranaki has proven to be ‘like no other’. That couldn’t be more important for the local economy right now.
And other domestic destinations would do well to take a leaf from the region’s book.
Disclaimer: Nick grew up in Taranaki and worked on the development of the ‘Taranaki – Like No Other’ brand.