Dollywood: Focusing on the Guest Experience, Nurturing Industry Partnerships, and More

Pete Owens and David West share what makes the Dollywood brand special.

February 2, 2023

At Sojern, we’re focused on helping travel marketers around the world utilize innovative solutions to make the most of their digital marketing. Because of this, we work to highlight travel industry leaders making a significant impact in the industry and showcase what makes them special. We sat down with Pete Owens, vice president of marketing with Dollywood, and David West, executive director with Herschend Family, to discuss their experiences managing the Dollywood brand and its digital presence.

What are the key challenges you're dealing with as leaders in the attraction space and leaders of the number one theme park in the US?

Owens: It is a little uncertain as to what's going to happen with the economy, and that is something that is always worrisome. We're blessed with the location of the park. We have always been somewhat recession-resistant because we are adjacent to the only major free and also most visited national park—the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That's helped us stave off really deep recessions, and that's proved out over the last 20 years with the mini-recessions we've had. So, that’s one.

Secondly, the landscape of how people are communicating is constantly changing. Generationally, we're in a time where there are five different generations within the workforce and are active in the economy. There's such a great difference between Boomers, Gen Xers, and our youngest generations and how they're communicating, how they're consuming things, and what they expect.

It's a question of how you manage and balance those things because, at Dollywood, it is a multi-generational experience. It's an experience where moms, dads, grandmas, and grandpas are bringing their kids, and our goal is to bring families closer together and provide them lifelong memories that they can come back and repeat.

Are there any consistencies you're finding across either the generations or the regions?

Owens: I think one major consistency is the music. That's something that is kind of homogenous within Tennessee because of the music that originated here—Bluegrass, Southern Gospel, and Country have their roots here in the hills. What we've seen through the years is central Europeans and folks from the UK are all very interested in the music and the history of the area, but their view has been mischaracterized from an entertainment standpoint because Hollywood has depicted the south differently than it often is. That is a hurdle that we have to get over sometimes.

We've been blessed with being able to exceed people's expectations for many years. All visitors come with different expectations. When they get here they are blown away by the quality of the experience, the themed environments, the attractions, and the quality of the shows and music. We tend to get repeat visitation from lots of these folks. We have season pass holders that are from the UK that come during the holidays because of our Christmas festival. We've had a strong central European visitation with tour operators that are based in Germany bringing folks to the area. We've even started to see folks that are in the Asian markets exploring this area.

What can other hospitality companies in the industry learn about your recent initiatives?

West: Ultimately, every marketer wants to send the right message at the right time to the right person that will resonate with them so they can make a purchase they feel good about. We are continually working with our research division team to look at our guest feedback. We're using that information, the research, to really highlight what people want, which is in this case, it's the Smokey, it's the outdoors, it's the location.

With Dollywood, we realized that this is one part of an entire trip. You're not going to just be here. We would never tell our guests, "No, no, don't go to the Smokey Mountains and go for a great hike." We would absolutely tell you to do that and so I would say a lot of our messaging is not always just about ourselves. It's about the area, it's about what drives people to come to visit.

How have your partnerships helped you thrive in the digital space?

West: Our partnerships in the digital space fulfill a role in showcasing the area and driving people to visit. Like the state of Tennessee, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and Sevierville, all participate in messaging that resonates. We're all going after the same human being as a collective and don’t want to waste money. So when you start poking around the Smokies and raise your digital hand, you get inundated with eight different messages, which is not ideal for the user, and it’s not ideal for us. 

I think that is the next level of targeting, which will have a much higher success rate in the end because we'll be able to spend money on more depth and breadth. So I really think that continually optimizing for that secret sauce, maximizing our dollars, and having that efficiency creates a better experience for everyone.

Owens: Also, if you're going to partner, you need to partner. If we're partnering with you, we're putting our brand behind you. So whether it is one of the cities or the state or another partner, it really does need to be a true partnership. So that's number one.

Number two, you've got to be realistic about what you're able to achieve. You have to invest a significant amount of money where you're able to campaign to provide brand awareness. As Dave said—area awareness, then brand awareness, and then you continue to invest and dig in deeper as to what brand elements you're trying to promote or trying to sell.

What's your favorite thing about working with Sojern?

West: Sojern has been a partner of ours since we started the process of destination management from an attraction standpoint. Given the landscape of cookies, anonymity, and now Google analytics, Sojern navigating all of that is a huge asset to us and I think it pushes the rest of the industry.

I don't know if you heard this story, but when Tennessee was having their meeting a couple of years ago, they said, "All right, we have a Sojern Co-op, and we're doing $200,000, and it's first come first serve.” I literally stood up in the meeting and I said, "I'll take every dollar." Then, they had to create a rule for us because I did that and said, "Okay, your match is going to be $30,000 or 40,000." That's because it serves what we want to do and triples our value.

Because Sojern can manage all of that, it helps Dollywood in the end. It helps because it's a piece of the puzzle that has great value to what we do. It really is our campaign, but we layer it in a way that helps everybody. Sojern continues to push that cooperative opportunity when it can get really complicated.

Continuing Learning from Peers in the Travel Industry

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