Co-Op Marketing for Destinations: An Insider's Perspective on Driving Tourism Growth & Economic Impact

A deep dive from a DMO expert on co-op marketing for destinations

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August 16, 2023

Destination marketers are always looking for creative ways to drive economic impact for their destinations and support their partners, both large and small, to sell tickets, drive room bookings, and more. That’s why we created our co-op model, moving far beyond traditional co-op and taking things to a whole new level. 

But what do Sojern’s co-op marketing programs really do for a destination marketer and their stakeholders? We sat down with Brenda Armstrong, Sojern’s new senior director of co-op development, to discuss what it can really mean for your destination. Brenda spent 15 years in the industry as a destination marketer. She’s been in your shoes and has an insider’s perspective on what a program like this can do for destination marketers to make their lives easier and make marketing budgets go further.

What was your role like as a destination marketer before coming to Sojern? 

I've been in the travel and tourism industry for 15 years. Most recently I was the senior director of marketing at VisitPITTSBURGH. I started on the public relations side, writing press releases and doing media relations, and then moved into marketing where I produced videos, built campaigns, oversaw our social media, hosted on-site promotions, and more. 

At VisitPITTSBURGH, we functioned as an in-house agency so I did all of our media planning and buying for our domestic and international leisure campaigns as well as the conventions and meetings side. Like many in the DMO world, I wore a lot of hats and had a hand in a bit of everything from planning and hosting familiarization tours; managing international events with tour operators and media; attending industry conferences with our convention sales team; building, selling, and managing co-ops with our partners; and presenting and participating in countless board meetings. It gives me great perspective for my role now because I have been in the shoes of destination marketers. I understand the challenges they face and the questions they are being asked by their partners, the community stakeholders, and their boards.

What inspired you to come to Sojern and what made the co-op marketing role a great fit for you?

What really drew me to this role was that Sojern’s co-op solution isn't like anything that's out there. Co-ops have existed for a long time and destinations have been doing co-ops for decades. Years ago, it would be print pieces where you would have 10 to 15 partners join with an eighth page ad for a collective representation of the destination. It's developed over the years, but it’s typically one-size-fits-all with traditional co-ops—you have a co-op, you run a program, the partner gets X amount of impressions, for X budget. 

What I really like about Sojern’s solution is that it isn't one-size-fits-all. You're not running the same campaign for a hotel that you are for an attraction or a destination. There are different goals, needs, and tactics. That's what really drew me to this role—it’s a solution unlike anything I’ve seen before.  It's completely catered to who you're working with, everything is based on the individual participant and it's a custom campaign. 

We work with each host, whether it’s a state, a city, a regional destination, and build a program for each of them individually based on their partner's needs and what they're trying to solve for. We find what works best for them and make it as simple as possible. 

For destination marketers who are overwhelmed with the amount of work they're handling, everything from managing events to promoting brand campaigns, to working with their front line visitors teams, to collaborating with their stakeholders on various initiatives, this is a true solution for them and for their partners who are regularly asking what the DMO is doing to drive visitor business to their particular organization. 

There's a lot going on for a destination marketer that folks outside the industry don’t really know or see. Having a solution that takes the lift off of them is incredibly helpful. They want something that will work for them, for their partners, and be an overall success. They’re looking for what really helps their destination as a whole. 

It helps that I've been in a destination marketing role and understand what the day-to-day is like, and what the asks are like. You have so many stakeholders that you're working with and that you want to help. With stakeholders being so important in the DMO world, thinking about how to solve their needs is a key piece to the puzzle. And, these solutions that Sojern has built really help. 

You were in the business for 15 years. Do you have any advice for people that are hesitant to try a solution like this? 

Finding the right solutions for you and your partners is key. That’s what I like most about this program. It’s completely customizable, scalable, and flexible. We can work with destinations in a way that’s most comfortable for them. For example, we can do the partner outreach and get folks on board to participate in the co-op. It's really based on the destination and what works best for their situation. 

With our co-ops, Sojern brings our advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technology that is used by travel industry leaders around the world to the destination and their partners at affordable levels so that partners of all sizes are able to benefit from the program. That’s incredibly important to destinations. You need something that can help everyone. With our match program option, smaller partners that need to drive visitation can put an investment into the program, the destination matches that investment and Sojern then matches, giving them 3X the value of their investment. Then, we take our sophisticated technology and apply it to these campaigns to drive business. These partners really need help accessing these types of tools, and we can bring that to them in an affordable way. 

It’s funny, destinations are all so similar, but so different at the same time. There's different funding models, different organizational structures, different guidelines and regulations that you need to follow, different boards you answer to. But at the end of the day, they have the same goals—to drive visitation, support tourism partners and drive the local tourism economy. That's why we have three different program models within Sojern’s co-op options because everybody has different needs. Getting your partners involved with your programming so that you're all working in stride toward that same goal is so important. Destinations need to work together as a community to drive visitation with the DMO taking the lead and that’s what our co-op solutions are all about.

What are the top three reasons a co-op program is beneficial to a destination? 

First and foremost, the custom targeting and custom programming for each partner. A campaign for an attraction that wants to sell tickets to incoming visitors is not going to be the same as a hotel looking to drive room bookings or the same as a destination that's looking to bring visitors and pull business from competitive markets. 

The second piece is the reporting we provide. Participants will have full transparency into their campaign performance based on their individual KPIs, whether that be tickets sold or room nights, website visits or video views. We also provide a detailed Economic Impact Report for the host where we're able to show real bookings to the destination along with a ton of other useful insights. You’ll see things like return on your ad spend, the number of travelers that came as a result of the combined efforts, number of room nights booked, flights booked, and overall economic impact for your destination. You can take this reporting back to your board and your stakeholders and say, “we put X amount of money into a campaign to support our partners and it brought an economic impact of X to the destination.” It shows that you're putting your marketing dollars to work, which is often very hard for destinations. 

The third piece is that we can support stakeholders of all sizes. It really is that tool that answers to those stakeholders that are asking, “what are you doing to drive business to me?” It can incorporate large and small businesses, and it’s especially helpful to the ones that don’t have big budgets. They are instrumental in the community and they are the ones that often need the most support—and that's something that the co-op is able to help with.

What can a destination marketer expect in terms of the onboarding piece if a destination marketer is worried about bandwidth? 

There are a number of ways that we can work with the destination on the co-op process. And really, it's a collaboration. It's a collaboration with the destination or the host to really make things as simple as possible. We can work directly with the destination or through an agency. From an onboarding process, we've got many ways to help present these options to their partners and participants. We’ll share collateral, host webinars, we can come and speak in person to clients—there are a variety of ways that we can support the destination. We can even do split billing, which seems small but it can make a big difference. 

We then collaborate with individual partners to build that custom campaign set to their KPIs and what they're looking to get accomplished. We help them place pixels, we can build creative assets if needed, we set them up with a login where they're able to access and monitor their campaign performance 24/7 throughout the campaign, and we're there to answer any questions through the entire process. We're a very hands-on team, ensuring that the partners themselves are taken care of and understand what's happening with their campaign. With this solution, we want the destination and their partners to feel completely taken care of. 

Any final thoughts that you think are important for destination marketers to know?

The thing about destination marketers is that they truly care about the destination, they care about their partners and they have a strong passion for what they do. And, I love that I can say that the people at Sojern have that same level of passion to help their clients. We love nothing more than driving success for them. We want to help. We listen. And, we have a whole team behind the scenes that is continually building solutions for the future. 

This program works because it was built to solve challenges that DMOs face. It has taken something that, at its core, was valuable, but historically challenging and created a solution that has the flexibility to really work. 

If you told me five years ago that I would have co-op development in my title, I would not have believed you. But, what drew me to this role and what I love about these programs is they really help. It helps the destination, it helps destination marketing teams, it helps the community partners who are so important, and it helps the destination tourism economy. 

Want to support your local partners and drive economic impact for your destination? Connect with a co-op marketing expert today.

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