The job of destination marketers has become dizzyingly complex. As always, they have limited to no impact on the content of the product they sell. How a destination's landscape, culture, geographic location, wealth, governance, resources, history, arts, infrastructure, stability and cuisine fuse and balance is largely beyond their control.
So, traditionally, their job has been to take what is given to them and weave an appealing story that reflects the destination and resonates with travelers.
But their role as storytellers has been usurped in large measure by the broad community of travelers themselves, whose messaging about their experiences reaches potential visitors at an amplified volume and more quickly via social media. And that messaging can be at odds with a promotional campaign.
On the upside, tourist boards have tools they could only have dreamed of five years ago.
Karen Clarkson, VisitBritain's vice president for North America, said the destination marketer's site currently has a "love wall" where travelers can build, post and save itineraries based on geography or themes or interests, giving her real-time, relevant insight.
"It's about the pace of change, agility and being able to stay ahead of the curve," she told me.
Three travel marketers I met with this month -- Clarkson, Singapore Tourism Board CEO Lionel Yeo and RailEurope North America CEO Frederic Langlois -- underscored the challenges and opportunities all marketers face as a result of rapid globalization, shifts in technology, communications platforms and generational preferences as well as by the legacy issues of image, word-of-mouth, product maturity and positioning.
Clarkson, with an attractive destination and a marketing team as sophisticated as any I've met, said that U.S. visitors, while still the highest-value arrivals, are down 1% in an otherwise bumper year. Competition within and outside Europe is fierce, and she faces a "perceived familiarity" problem. Moreover, the number of visitors who never leave London remains stubbornly stuck at around 68%, despite efforts to move them out into the wider U.K.
Yeo faces different issues as a mature destination. He said Singapore has introduced a number of "game changers" over the past few years, issuing two casino licenses to integrated resorts (including the Marina Bay Sands), bringing in Universal Studios, building the world's largest aquarium, launching the world's only Formula 1 night street race and securing women's tennis championships for the next five years.
He is benefitting from his location near China -- the new Chinese traveler loves to shop in Singapore -- but he's eager to move the needle for inbound Americans and is still searching for the right positioning. Is it that Singapore presents an "Asia 101" experience? Is it the mix of local and global offerings or that, as a cosmopolitan city with strong ethnic communities, one can find a great meal for $3 or $300?
And how, as a mature destination, can he compete with hot "new" destinations like Abu Dhabi or, for that matter, Myanmar?
There is one mature destination that RailEurope's Langlois sees going from strength to strength: Italy. Thanks in part to improvements in its high-speed rail offerings, he believes it will be his No. 1 market in 2014, and when Expo 2015 opens in Milan next May, he expects that the destination and his own business will explode.
In a way, Italy proves the ultimate value of content connected to contemporary sentiment.
On one hand, VisitBritain is doing everything right. Clarkson has a firm understanding of social and traditional media. She keys in to the travel preferences of millennials (whom she feels are leading trends, with baby boomers now following). She seeds creative, sharable digital initiatives that end up everywhere from YouTube to Spotify. U.S. arrivals are flat, but without her team's efforts, they would sag noticeably.
Likewise, Singapore is doing a remarkable job in creating reasons for Americans to visit, though those reasons are often likely perceived as presenting unique variations on familiar themes available elsewhere (gaming, Formula 1, ethnic cuisine).
So what is Italy doing differently?
I was invited to Rome in 1989 to address Italy's travel community on how to improve tourism from the U.S., and I encountered a group as disorganized and fractionalized as I have ever met.
Italy eventually came to the realization that its diversity was its strength. And the world, through its changing preferences, came to meet it halfway.
Italy projects the qualities currently prized by travelers across generations. Its focus on regionalism provides a wide variety of "authentic" experiences in which travelers can immerse themselves. Visitors have come to discover that there is no one "Italian food," for example, but food from Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Sicily, etc. And all of it looks beautiful on Instagram.
Similarly, its "romantic" qualities, not easily defined, are nonetheless captured in aggregate through tweets, Facebook and blog posts.
Being agile and aligning your story with current market preferences are the new baseline for destination marketers. But content, as defined by travelers, will tip the scales.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.