Successful destination marketing relies on market research and good partners.

David West, Executive Director of Destination Marketing for Herschend Family Entertainment, talked with provokebetter’s Whitney Hahn about guest research and the importance of developing cooperative relationships with DMOs for attraction marketing. To David, the appeal of the area is just as important as park ticket sales.

Herschend Family Entertainment is America’s largest family-owned entertainment company, attracting several million visitors each year to their two flagship theme parks: Dollywood in the Great Smoky Mountains and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. Home to thrill rides and attractions, water parks, live entertainment, and exotic animals, Herschend’s properties are popular summer destinations for families. But that’s not all; Herschend also stretches its family fun to two aquariums, various dinner theaters, and The Harlem Globetrotters. Their national and international visitation is steadily growing, reaching more families and creating more “memories worth repeating” through their emphasis on guest research and linking arms with CVBs and DMOs.

Attraction and destination marketing go hand-in-hand

David recognizes that for guests coming to Dollywood, the park is likely not the only place they’re going while they’re on vacation in the area. Their experiences are also shaped by the location and other local attractions. For guests of Dollywood, the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains is just as much a part of the memory as the roller coasters and water slides. With this in mind, David reached out to Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s CVB to work in “co-op” fashion this summer to promote Gatlinburg area tourism and Dollywood all in one. “It has had such a positive impact on both sides of the aisle,” he says.

David believes that attraction and destination marketing are one in the same and should be working together to tell a cohesive brand story about an eye-catching part of the map, operating with the mindset that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Developing these co-op relationships benefits all parties involved, and potential guests are presented with everything they want to know about a destination, neatly wrapped in one complete package.

“[Partnering with the Gatlinburg CVB], to me, is this winning moment — where you really can not compete with one another, but you complement one another.”

Understanding your guests’ desires, goals, and patterns

Part of this complementary relationship comes from conducting thorough research to figure out where tourists and visitors are coming from and how they are spending their time. David promotes understanding how your visitors travel and then forming partnerships around their travel patterns to best sell your complete destination experience — one that is based in the results you’ve uncovered through your guest and market research.

David emphasizes that guest research should be “baked into the formula” of any successful attraction and destination marketing strategy. “My advice to any DMO listening: It will help you make decisions so much better, and it will help you defend them.”

How to maximize your guest research

  1. Send surveys to your guests to find out where they are spending their time outside of your attractions. Where are they staying? Where are they having dinner? What is their favorite part of the surrounding area? Find out what is most important to them about their experience.
  2. Don’t underestimate social media engagement. Post polls, share photos and tell compelling stories, and then measure your results to determine where to go next.
  3. Get out there and talk to people! Genuinely engage with your guests on a personal level. Find out where they’re from, what their favorite ride or show is, and what else they are hoping to discover about your destination. You’re bound to get some valuable, ground-level insight into your attractions.

About the marketing expert: David West is the Executive Director of Destination Marketing at Herschend Family Entertainment. He brings a destination marketing approach to their family of amusement parks and attractions like Dollywood. He focuses on the sustainable and relationship-driven growth of long-distance travelers and seeks to bring more families to his attractions and destinations to make more “memories worth repeating.”