Drive-to destinations are the in thing for 2020 summer vacations.

With some provincial and interprovincial travel restrictions loosening, the tourism industry is trying to anticipate traveller behaviour patterns so it can adapt and salvage what’s left of the 2020 season. The destination marketing landscape for domestic travellers has never been so fierce.

A place brand that’s in fighting shape is key to winning the battle for domestic tourism dollars.

After having to stay in their homes for weeks on end during a highly stressful spring, Canadians are out there visiting their favourite tourist destinations, taking advantage of still lower-than-average gas prices, supporting local and regional businesses and tourism, and for the first time, able to do so without encountering big crowds and international tourists.

You don’t have to look far to see the proof. Campground bookings exploded and RV sales have been hot.

Travelweek, a major source of tourism news in Canada, recently said, “Domestic travel is anticipated to hit new highs in the coming months as Canadians consider holidays in their own backyard due to ongoing border closures.”

Canada is #1 on Canadians’ bucket list, finally

In a recent survey, Travelweek also found that an overwhelming 42.7% of 3,000 Canadian respondents say that Canada would be their destination of choice should global travel resume tomorrow, compared to the next most preferred destinations of Mexico, the Caribbean and South America (20.5%).

Resources are there to help back this effort, too. In late May, Destination Canada announced a $30-million investment collaboration with provinces and territories to support the recovery of Canada’s tourism sector.

So, how do you stand out?

Most communities build their tourism brands around their most prominent attractions. Unless you’re a major destination, that doesn’t make you stand out. Be honest with yourself: your attractions and amenities are no doubt similar to those of other places.

You’ll need to think about defining your destination in a meaningful way that transcends the specifics of your offer.

You’ll also need to think about and articulate what you have that no one else does, even if it’s intangible. That said, you’ll need to pivot and adapt if the attractions that usually anchor your offer are still on hold because of pandemic restrictions. Working with smaller operators to package unique collective offers may also be key.

Often, it’s the most unexpected niche attraction or amenity that will spark the imagination of travellers.

If Canadians want to stay in their backyards, then aggressively targeting prospective travellers in your immediate region is a must. Those audiences you’ve probably only marketed to passively in the past, have now become your primary audience. Think about promoting your destination to your own residents as though they’re from another country. It’ll demonstrate that you don’t take them for granted and will build pride of place in the process. It’ll also create a stronger foundation of enthusiastic brand ambassadors going forward.

If you’ve already defined your destination in a way that excites and inspires audiences, you should cast as wide a net as COVID-19 will allow. By all means, if you have the budget, target the traveller types most likely to be drawn to what you have wherever they are in Canada.

Ride the wave you (hopefully) already started

Research has shown that during the early days of the lockdown in March, brands that remained in contact with their customers through paid and owned channels saw a sentiment spike towards their brand. We think those same brands will fare better when ramping up their marketing efforts.

A place brand is one of the most useful tools when it comes to attracting new travellers, whether it’s motivating them to stop enroute to a final destination, or go out of their way and come to your community for a truly unique experience. COVID-19 is not going anywhere soon, and it’s likely that it will be some time before international travellers will be back. If you haven’t done so already, or you hit pause on your marketing at the onset of the pandemic, now is the time to build a powerful place brand.

Act and build a brand or campaign that will help in the short term, and work for the long term.

If you are a rural travel destination – a park, attraction, region or community – within a one- or two-day drive of a major city in the prairie provinces – you have an opportunity to make a splash and capture your fair share of the available market.

Place branding has been steadily growing as a category of its own within the marketing industry. There are even annual global conferences dedicated to the subject, as well as a large online community.

There’s good reason for it. Among many things, a strong place brand can help increase community pride, and better position towns, regions and neighbourhoods as travel destinations and places for investment.

McKim has a 20-year history of creating and implementing successful place brands. We created and managed the brand for the city of Regina, Saskatchewan. We also created the Manitoba Parks and the Manitoba 150 brands. We positioned Winnipeg as a hot sports-tourism destination for the 2017 Canada Summer Games. We developed a differentiating community narrative for the City of Red Deer. Most recently McKim has been working with Economic Development Winnipeg and Tourism Winnipeg to rearticulate that city’s brand for tourism and business attraction. And McKim is also well known as the agency behind the award-winning and highly successful Travel Manitoba tourism brand, Manitoba, Canada’s Heart… Beats.

Manitoba has great fishing destinations.

From highlighting a province’s Franco-Canadian cultural offering, to featuring the adventurous outdoors in Canada’s north, from developing differentiated positioning for many large and small communities, to fostering Indigenous tourism, McKim helps destinations leverage unique characteristics and build momentum and enthusiasm.

The neighbourhood and community place brands that McKim has completed to date have been enthusiastically received, leading to excitement and passion from city councils, mayors, residents and even community news media. Most tellingly, each region rallied around their new brand, the people proudly embraced the creative vision presented by the brands, becoming powerful ambassadors who make good things happen for their communities.

Community buy in

At the city of Brandon’s unveiling event last year, Sandy Trudel, the City of Brandon director of economic development, fully embraced the process and what that city’s place brand is meant to do.

She told an auditorium full of community members and leaders that while her city’s new logo and the tagline, “Brandon Brings You Back,” is meant to be a tourism brand, it will also become a community brand that can be adopted by different organizations.

McKim’s Audra Lesosky was there to help unveil the brand. She says several community members at the unveiling event told the McKim team that the agency had “nailed the brand” and that, beyond it being attractive visually and expressing the city’s geographic uniqueness, it captured its personality in a way that moved them on an emotional level.

“To me, those kinds of comments by community members signify the pinnacle of what’s behind our place branding work,” she said. “It’s one thing for leaders who participate in the development process to embrace the overt and subtle aspects of a new place brand, but when the residents and business owners go out of their way to tell the agency that the brand has emotional resonance for them, and that they ‘get it’ upon first viewing, then we know tourists and visitors will respond as hoped, because internal enthusiasm is so strong.”

Creative’s role in place branding

While working on the rebrand for the Manitoba town of Flin Flon, the agency’s creative team project helped unveil the final concept to a crowd of community members.

Brent Morrisseau described the wordmark as featuring Flin Flon in an entirely custom handcrafted script that feels natural, free and artistic.

“It references your fun, quirky and creative side without losing sight of the beauty and serenity of the place and its connection to water.”

Carey Pradinuk presented the tagline. “We want it to be memorable, inviting and highlight the most distinctive aspects of your community. We want it to be romantic but adventurous.”

The ripple effect of some of the newly-developed place brands is being felt as communities apply their brands to assets such as letterhead, street signs, activity and colouring books, calendars, social media channels – even hockey jerseys for 5- and 6-year old players.

McKim’s Zac Easton and Tom Boresky on a trip to Thompson, MB

And as a plus, our place-branding teams are seeing more corners of our remarkable country than they ever thought possible. That’s because we know we can’t create an authentic brand for a place unless we’ve been there.

Contact us to learn more.