Tourism insights: Establishing a value proposition key to destination marketing success

Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) have evolved beyond serving merely as a source of visitor information. They play a much broader role as the voice for communities, businesses, workers and residents, and a link to the visitors they serve.

As the official DMO for Centre County, The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau (HVAB) embraces this expanded role, while remaining true to its core mission of building a strong local tourism economy by growing leisure, sports and business visitation. Just as DMO roles have transformed over the years, the manner in which the HVAB and similar organizations carry out their tourism promotion purpose has also significantly changed.

Historically, DMOs have marketed a buffet of things to see and do; marketed to a general audience; and positioned their destination as everything to everybody. This approach is inefficient and costly, and does little to differentiate a destination in a crowded, uber-competitive tourism marketplace.

The internet, social media, and the rise of influencers and user-generated content, has changed the playing field. Visitors have more easily accessible information about more travel choices than ever before. The above are all valuable tools used by the HVAB in marketing Happy Valley. However, with so many message delivery methods, it is crucial to hone in on the fundamental consumer question, “Why should I visit?”

Answering that question means establishing a destination value proposition, and accepting that it is OK not to be all things to all people, i.e., visitors. That is what the HVAB did when it rebranded in October 2019.

Penn State, for example, is a huge draw, and will especially be so in our efforts to grow sports and entertainment tourism. The challenge to that is there are still audiences that do not know Happy Valley beyond the university. Too many potential visitors do not know enough about our historic communities, beautiful valleys, thriving craft beverage and field-to-fork dining scene, or abundant outdoor recreation.

The entirety of Happy Valley is our brand, and being an affordable and accessible getaway for adults looking to escape the chaos of the big city to relax and unwind is very much our value proposition.

Visitation trends at Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park – one of our most popular tourism assets – demonstrates this value proposition in action.

Once Penn’s Cave was able to reopen after closing for more than 8 weeks in 2020, it noticed an increase in visitors from the New York City region.

“Many of these people told us that they had rented cabins, whole-house Airbnb so they could bring their entire family and get away from the city,” said Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park Marketing Manager Terri Schleiden. “They seemed to feel more comfortable in a more rural setting, where they could enjoy the open spaces our beautiful Happy Valley region offers.”

Penn’s Cave is still experiencing the trend of big city visitors viewing Happy Valley as a sanctuary.

In addition to new ways to message, the HVAB also relies on new research tools to reach the right audiences. Artificial intelligence is essential to destination marketing. AI, particularly anonymous cellphone technology, helps identify target audiences, understand visitor behavior while in the destination, track visitor spending and assess lodging performance. The HVAB shares these insights with its tourism partners to foster coordinated marketing efforts.

In providing tourism information, even the traditional visitor center model has changed. Successful visitor centers need to be destinations in their own right. The HVAB is creating The Happy Valley Store at 204 W. Beaver Ave., where visitors – and residents – can purchase Happy Valley souvenirs and merchandise. The recently opened Moshannon Valley Heritage Center in Philipsburg – a partnership with Visit Clearfield County – will introduce people to the history of the region.

In today’s competitive tourism promotion industry, effective DMOs are the ones that keep it on point in cultivating visitors and answering the all-important question of “why?”

Fritz Smith is president and CEO of The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau.