Influencers are all over social media touting the latest place to see, restaurant to visit, or shoe to buy. So why haven’t destinations harnessed that power to target meeting planners? One city is about to try — and others likely aren’t far behind.
Like many second-tier convention destinations, Oklahoma City doesn’t suffer from a negative perception. It just doesn’t have one at all. But that may change fairly quickly. “We have a lot of momentum happening in Oklahoma City at the moment,” said Tabbi Burwell, communications manager for the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Early next year, the city plans to break ground on a brand-new convention center. Spanning a half-million square feet, the not-yet-named facility will have a 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 35,000-square-foot ballroom, and 45,000 square feet of meeting space. It’s one of many improvements funded by the city’s Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) program, which started in 1993 and is now in its third round, known as MAPS 3. Besides a new convention center, MAPS 3 will add a 70-acre downtown park and a streetcar system, which is already underway.
But despite all of these shiny new additions, the one thing the CVB keeps hearing from meeting planners is, why Oklahoma City? Early on the CVB realized that, even after pumping up traditional efforts — investing in a larger trade-show booth and a new ad campaign — it needed to try something different to catch the attention of event organizers who typically skim over its name. “People just don’t know really what to think of Oklahoma City,” said Seth Spillman, the CVB’s director of marketing and communications.
But unlike other cities with an identity problem, they’re working to change that not just through traditional advertising and marketing methods, but through the power of influencer marketing. “We could use help getting that message out there,” Spillman said. “[Using an influencer] would be beneficial in showing why Oklahoma City would be a place where people want to come.”
Oklahoma City eventually decided on Kristin Luna and Scott van Velsor,a husband-and-wife team who chronicle their travels on their blog, camelsandchocolate.com. Why choose a leisure-travel writer instead of a traditional meeting planner? Mostly because the CVB couldn’t find a planner with a large social-media following who could fulfill the duties of an influencer, which include writing content and taking professional-quality photo- graphs and video for various channels, including Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
Because the CVB wanted to play up the idea that Oklahoma City is not only a great meeting destination but also a place that attendees will actually want to visit, opting for a travel-writing team will help highlight the city’s attractions, restaurants, and other experiences travelers care most about. It helps that Luna and van Velsor are familiar with and write about the meetings industry (Convene covered a conference they planned back in 2013), and have already worked with dozens of DMOs for leisure- focused in influencer campaigns. (Full dis- closure: Luna and van Velsor recently created advertising content for PCMA and Convene.)
The CVB hopes the partnership will become a multiyear project, and plans to host Luna and van Velsor in Oklahoma City this summer, followed by more trips to continuously flesh out what to do and see, plus updates on the MAPS projects. All of the content will appear on a new meetings-focused section of visitokc.com as well as on Luna and van Velsor’s website. “This approach allows us to put time, thought, and on-the-ground investigative research into the best way to promote the new convention center,” Luna said.
“And I love that they want to tap us to tell the story of the destination as a whole while it’s built from the ground up, rather than simply rattling o the capacity of the destination’s convention spaces for meeting designers. There’s so much more in the decision-making process for meeting planners than that.”
The CVB is also in the process of bringing a second in influencer on board — a local event planner who will speak directly to the planner audience by, for example, appearing at trade shows on behalf of Oklahoma City and hosting planners when they visit the destination. “The idea is that we have different point people who can [respond to] the kinds of questions that we’ve heard from meeting planners already,” Spillman said, “and we know that we will hear moving forward.”
SO, WHY INFLUENCERS?
For those not up on the latest in marketing trends, an influencer is someone who is paid to promote a brand via their own blog, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social-media channels. Often they are normal people who have acquired a large number of followers, but they also can be established journalists, celebrities, industry experts, and so on. They’re quite popular. Nearly three-quarters of travelers seek out inspiration on where to go from social-media channels, according to Development Counselors International’s (DCI) Digital Influencers Report: The Emergence of Digital Influencers and Their Impact on Destination Marketing, released last month.
From hotels to airlines to attractions, almost every segment of the travel industry now regularly works with influencers to promote their products and create brand awareness, and more recently DMOs have embraced them to draw leisure travelers. However, influencers aren’t yet a popular tool for targeting meeting attendees or planners.
“The reality is that a lot of studies have shown that meeting planners are not really influenced by social media when choosing meeting destinations as they are through other forms of media,” said Daniella Middleton, vice president of DCI, “so it’s a hard argument to sell.” Indeed, only 3 percent of meeting planners say they use social media to learn about destinations, according to recent research from DCI. But still, DMOs are beginning to show signs of interest in using in influencers to connect with both planners and their attendees, whether directly or indirectly.
Given the industry’s demographics, it makes sense that a meetings influencer will look different from a leisure influencer, but it also makes sense that there will be overlap. Take Oklahoma City, which wants to sell everyone — planners and attendees alike — on its destination as great not only for business but also for pleasure. So influencers like Luna and van Velsor, who can easily straddle that line, fit that role nicely.
All told, the team presented 17 live streams through Facebook Live, Periscope on Twitter, and the social-media channels of two influencers — generating a total of 15,000 posts on social media resulting in more than 34 million impressions and engagement from more than 3,800 contributors.
Beyond covering event highlights, the show touched on a variety of destination-related topics and featured locals giving advice on where to go and what to do. One segment featured Jason Stock, brewmaster for Squatters Pub Brewery, who talked about Salt Lake City’s beer culture, his favorite restaurants, and what he loves most about living in the city.
Moderating these live segments were two well-known names in the meetings industry — KiKi L’Italien, CEO of Amplified Growth, and Je De Cagna, executive adviser for Foresight First — who within the context of ASAE’s community can be considered influencers. Having them converse with brewmasters and other interesting local figures is a great example of how a destination can use influencers to get attendees excited about being there — and, in this specific case, extinguish stubborn outdated perceptions, such as that you can’t get a drink in Salt Lake City. “Our use of [influencers] during ASAE was so beneficial in that they added a great deal to our efforts,” said Shawn Stinson, director of communications for Visit Salt Lake, “because they had a strong following among the group we were targeting — ASAE members and meeting planners — and due to the fact that they added that unbiased, third-party voice and endorsement of Salt Lake to the conversation.”
AN INEVITABLE OVERLAP
There aren’t many other examples of destinations using influencer marketing, but some marketing experts think eventually it will catch on — with numerous variances. The rise will take longer, serve multiple purposes, and look very different from what we’re currently seeing in leisure travel. But it’s safe to assume there will be some overlap with leisure.
For example, Experience Columbus runs influencer campaigns targeting leisure travelers in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. But “one of the top three reasons those geographic locations were targeted was specifically because of the number of association headquarters located in each city,” said Lexi Sweet, public-relations coordinator for Experience Columbus.
Some DMO professionals think influencer marketing will catch on as an effective tool to help groups with attendance building. “If we’re doing something that’s working well from a leisure standpoint with an influencer campaign, and we know that attendees are essentially leisure travelers,” Oklahoma City’s Spillman said, “then why would we not try to market to them in a way that’s already been successful for us from a leisure standpoint?” Added Stoll: “One of the patterns we’ve seen is there’s a lot of stuff that starts in B2C and then it spills over into B2B. The leisure side has a significant impact on the meetings side, because a meeting planner is worried about attendance. And the more attractive a destination is on the leisure side, chances are it’s going to drive attendance.”
Middleton says we may start to see more DMOs repackaging leisure-focused content for the meetings segment to get more bang for their buck (because oftentimes influencers are paid). “What we’re seeing is that DMOs are more open to conversations about how to repurpose the content from leisure influencers for the meetings industry, and I think that is a good segue,” Middleton said. “If you work with an influencer in the leisure space, and they’re showcasing how great and interesting your destination really is, you can repurpose that for a bid.”
As for destination-focused influencers who specifically target planners — that may take more time to develop. However, both Spillman and Middleton think it’s not such a big stretch, because — just like everyone else — planners already are somewhat unconsciously influenced by what they read and see on social media. “Just because they are meeting planners doesn’t mean that they only learn about things [from] industry magazines,” Spillman said, “and only think about dates, rates, and space.” Middleton added: “Remember that meeting planners and decision makers are consumers, and they are on social media for their own personal consumption. So I would argue that there is some sort of influence.”
The challenge lies in finding an influencer who is an authority in the meetings industry, has a large social-media following, and has the time and inclination to churn out new content every day. “There are not that many people in the U.S. who can move the needle, so any way a destination can get in touch with those people is one that they will try to leverage,” Stoll said. “I think the opportunity is humongous, if somebody figures this out.”