August 5th, 2013

OPINION – Tourism Marketing: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Tourism Authority Cutbacks Latest Blow to Visitor Industry

headshotThe disagreement earlier this year between San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and local hoteliers over the future of the Tourism Marketing District (TMD) created a great deal of uncertainty in the local visitor industry and sparked renewed discussion about the importance of destination marketing.

After several months of wrangling, the mayor, city council and industry leaders finally came to an accord and our hospitality sector was seemingly back to the business of selling San Diego, though with significantly fewer dollars than anticipated.

Now comes news of drastic staff cuts at the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA), further compounding the local tourism sector’s ability to market San Diego.  That’s because most of the marketing money the city is collecting from a 2 percent hotel room surcharge cannot be released due to two lawsuits challenging the levy.  A definitive decision on the litigation and ultimate fate of the TMD will likely not be known until October, at the earliest.

Though the mayor himself has never questioned the obvious benefits or necessity for marketing San Diego, some tourism industry detractors argue there is no need to promote San Diego to visitors, that the region sells itself.  Given its strong, longstanding appeal and desirability as a premiere travel destination, must we really spend millions of dollars annually to market San Diego? The answer is an undeniable and unequivocal YES.

Selling a tourist destination is no different than selling a consumer product.   Cities must establish top of mind awareness to effectively promote their brands. Otherwise, it is out of sight and out of mind. Although already popular among many travelers, the San Diego brand must be aggressively and repeatedly sold in a fiercely competitive marketplace.  Failing to do so will only jeopardize San Diego’s enviable position as a top tourism spot and cause it to lose ground to other destinations.

To understand the importance of tourism marketing, one need not look further than some of the world’s best known and wildly successful consumer brands: Coca-Cola, Nike, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung (now a bigger worldwide advertiser than Coca-Cola) and McDonald’s, just to name a few.

Do you think there are many people who have never heard of  Coke or perhaps McDonald’s?  I doubt it, and let’s be honest, so do you.  Why then do they continue to aggressively market their brands and spend more money this year than last to sell their products?  Because they know the moment they cut back, take their foot off the accelerator, they will concede market share to competitors.

While some uncertainty and questions may surround the future of the TMD, there should be no question about the importance and need for destination marketing.  The continued success of San Diego’s tourism sector and overall economy depend on it.


4 comments to OPINION – Tourism Marketing: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

  • Tony Di Bona

    You are right on the point and a directly focused opinion regarding our marketing importance for San Diego tourism. We have been preaching the same ole tune for years regarding the marketing effort
    for a successful tourism draw to our town.As you wrote we have got to keep the pedal to the metal.
    Tony Di Bona

  • Sal – I couldn’t agree more. And a sad aspect no one talks about is that because we aren’t marketing now, there are conventions and meeting 2-5 years from now that will be held elsewhere because we aren’t in front of them now. Everyone will wonder, why is our business down?

    I sold the national meeting of an organization of which I was a member with a 1,000 person meeting five years before it actual was held here. But this lack of understanding has gone on for a while.

    Check out this op-ed I wrote in 2005:

    Turning the Good Ship San Diego the Right Way
    Don’t Cut the Tourism Budget…again!
    Posted: 05/24/2005 at 12:00:00 AM PDT
    Updated: 05/24/2005 at 02:02:23 AM PDT
    by Mark S. Burgess

    It’s budget time again, for the City Council and the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau.

    Ok, first a disclaimer…the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau has been a client of ours for almost ten years. I registered their domain name,, and we built their first web site and every version since. However, they’ve elected to add some capability that we don’t provide, so as of August they will no longer be a development client. So, I get to say what I really think about funding for Convis and you have a chance to hear it unvarnished.

    For a Navy town, here’s a convenient metaphor to describe things in the tourism business here: it takes over 2 miles to turn an aircraft carrier, like, for instance, the USS Reagan recently which joined the San Diego skyline. Think about that for a minute. The Captain has to decide well before he can see the piece of ocean he’ll be crossing to make the turn.

    Right now San Diego has some of the highest hotel and occupancy rates in the country. There isn’t a store you can order that from. There isn’t a law you can pass to make it happen. It’s something that takes nurturing of a public perception, the steady, sure tickling of fancies all over the country, the building of mind share so that warm equals San Diego; fun equals San Diego; relaxing equals San Diego; good food, exciting attractions equals San Diego and rich arts and culture equals San Diego.

    Now, here’s the problem: how easy do you think it is to say: warm equals Orlando; fun equals Orlando; relaxing equals Orlando; good food, exciting attractions equals Orlando and rich arts and culture equals …well, okay, so Orlando is a stretch. But what about warm equals Las Vegas; fun equals Las Vegas; relaxing equals Las Vegas; good food, exciting attractions equals Las Vegas and rich arts and culture equals…ok, one more time, Las Vegas is a stretch.

    Then there’s Los Angeles, Hawaii…not to mention places outside the country.

    In 2003, before the Convis budget started getting cut, 11th in the US for spending on tourism, while we’re seventh in population. Guess who spent more than we did:

    1. Las Vegas; $138.7 million

    2. Orlando, Fla.; $38.1 million

    3. Hawaii; $37.7 million

    4. Reno, Nev.; $33.9 million

    5. Kissimmee, Fla.; $21.9 million

    11. San Diego; $14.9 million

    Now, with the third round of cuts with the initial proposal at another 10% making it 30% in three years, we’re in danger of slipping out of sight…literally. With another cut it will be down to $8m…or ranked in the fifties…when there are only 35 cities in the country with a million people or more!

    We live here and see how great this place can be. We know about all the casinos, the beaches, the great restaurants, the wide open country in the county, the great arts and cultural events calendar we support. The fact that this budget is based on the Transit Occupancy Tax….a visiting fee paid by visitors and not by us…makes the cuts even more cruel. (Note: For you visitors reading this, be assured: we appreciate every penny and rest easy with the fact that we have one of the lowest TOTs in the country which means you really are getting San Diego at a bargain!)

    We know it’s great here…how do we lure more folks, more decision makers deciding where to spend that vacation money so we can charge them that tax? Where will those people hear about us? Who’s going to sell the city?

    The Hilton Corporation might promote some great San Diego hotel rates. The Marriott Corporation might offer some excellent packages. Southwest just wants to sell a ticket and we’re a likely place, for now. But how likely is it that they’ll spend more than they can make putting up billboards, running tv commercials and promoting meetings in multiple hotels besides their own in cities all over the country?

    “Oh, we’re famous!”, you say. There’ll be movies shot here and tv shows, and famous people and everything!

    For a while. (Can you imagine that carrier in its turn.) Pretty soon, families will have traditions that take them to the beach in Hawaii, to Disney World in Florida, to lots of places that aren’t here. That TOT tax we collect will go down and the extra money the city thinks it will get to help solve its present budget crisis will get smaller and smaller.

    It won’t happen right away. The fact is, the San Diego CVB has done a great job of selling San Diego around the country. It’s peers just voted it as one of the best CVB’s in the country. That will last for a time…(see the carrier start to turn the other way.)

    Besides the horrific timing related to San Diego’s financial crisis, the CVB made a problem for itself…it forgot to sell itself to the larger community in San Diego. They painted a rosier and rosier picture of the travel business here in San Diego, unfortunately, even during a time when it wasn’t doing as well as pre 9/11.

    So, by the time San Diego decides it needs that golden egg, the goose will already be mortally wounded. Sure, the native charms of Sand Diego will help. But remember, there’s some really ugly stuff that might start taking center stage. How about the fact that we have the third worst roads in the country. What about our water problems? And there’s more. As there is always negative to be found that might get the focus if someone isn’t selling the city! How would it be to have most people think of us, not as a great place to spend a vacation, but a lousy place to buy a house or own a bicycle!

    So, with that City Council, please don’t go for the easy money, feasting on next year’s planting seed and dooming future harvests. Don’t start a turn on USS San Diego that will run us aground with no way to stop it in time.

  • SalGiametta

    Yes, Mark. It must be pedal to the metal!

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