Over the past several years, travelers have placed a huge value on the idea of discovering hidden gems--places that are beautiful, unique and perhaps not so easy to get to — those are really just lesser known destinations. Everybody wants to find them, but what happens when word gets out? How do you market a lesser known destination while still keeping it, well, lesser known?
- Bobby Johnson, 30A Local Properties
- Mike Ragsdale, 30A.com
- John Deleva, Miles Partnership
- Linea Gagliano, Travel Oregon
For more information, visit https://podcast.rootsrated.com.
Related Resources: The rise of 'micro-influencers' on Instagram
Hosts: Mark McKnight and Ana Connery
Producer: BJ Smith
This podcast is a production of RootsRated Media, radically simplifying content marketing through an easy-to-use platform for content sourcing, publication, and measurement.
Music for this episode by Podington Bear
- Movin On Up
- Algo Rythm Natural
- Small Bummer
- Gentle Chase
- Dust in Sunlight
- Morning Mist
- Golden Hour
- Nature Kid
- Thrum Room
The Shelby Blues by David Mumford
Anna Support for this episode comes from Toad&Co., the Original Trail to Tavern Brand. When you're looking for high-quality clothing as well as great recommendations on where to eat and drink near the trails, you're always in good company with Toad&Co. For more info, go to toadandco.com.
Bobby When you get to 331, if you can imagine, this was kind of funny as a kid, the bridge was actually a drawbridge. So if there was a charter coming through, you'd be stuck there waiting while this bridge would go up. It was one of the reasons we were always late for school. And then of course we used it to our advantage as kids. "Sorry we're late. The drawbridge was up." So yeah, you'd get to the drawbridge, you'd get through it, come down, hit one of the side roads. There was a series of roads that bring you into 30A and they were very narrow and they were not very well maintained. You know, if you run off the side of the road, you're gonna get stuck because it's so sandy. It would be easy to find a place to stay. Nothing was ever booked. And everybody just kind of knew everybody back then as well.
Mark What was a vacation day like at that time?
Bobby In some regards, that hasn't changed and you can still get that same experience that I got as a kid. I sell real estate up here obviously so I'm so grateful for that. And I don't have to sell that. You know, there's plenty of state parks here that you can go off and still feel like you're all alone. But the cool thing about it, the first time I really saw it, just to walk up on it and see this majestic white sand. I had never seen anything like that. And then the emerald green water. You know, I've seen lakes, rivers and all that stuff, like we all have, but when you see this on this fine day, which there's lots of those, we were actually in awe of it. Seeing the beach for the first time and the dunes, it's pretty amazing. And still is.
Anna Over the past several years, travelers have placed a huge value on this idea of discovering hidden gems. Places that are so beautiful, unique and perhaps not so easy to get to that are really just lesser-known destinations. Everybody wants to find them. But what happens when word gets out? How do you market a lesser-known destination while still keeping it, well, lesser-known?
Mark Welcome to RootsRated Labs.
Anna Where we explore the intersection of travel and the outdoors. I'm Anna Connery.
Mark And I'm Mark McKnight. We've dedicated an entire previous episode to what happens when a destination is loved to death. But those of us taxed with marketing a lesser known destination face a completely different set of issues. So today we're talking about how to market these hidden gems. You know, lesser known destinations that still have so much to offer.
Anna I'm a Floridian and like a lot of Floridians, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Florida. Until around 2006 when I took my first trip to the panhandle beach towns along a scenic stretch of coast called 30A. At the time, I was the editor in chief of "Florida Travel and Life" magazine and a string of developments were popping up along 30A that were totally changing the landscape. For as long as any of the locals could remember, there was nothing there but a pristine stretch of old Florida coastline with beaches so beautiful they rivaled anything I'd ever seen in the Caribbean. Back then, this place was an ultimate hidden gem.
Mark So we found Bobby Johnson, who grew up on 30A. Bobby has lived in this place since he was a kid and he can remember back when 30A was really completely unknown. At least to the general public.
Bobby You know, as kids, we didn't know how cool this was. It was almost out in the middle of nowhere. I had moved here from Chicago. My parents kind of plopped me into this area here and we were kind of going, "What in the world is this?" But it was absolutely stunning. As a child, I didn't realize how stunning and looking back on it, I wish I had known how cool it was. We used to drive up and down 30A, 60, 70, to 100 miles per hour. There was no cops. If we did know where a cop was on one end of the road, we would let our buddies know that we had seen the cops and we knew where they were at. So it was always kind of us zooming around them and we had horses back in the day. And we would, you know, kind of where Seaside sits, there was no homes there. We grew up right next door to it, which is old Seagrove. We'd ride right there and then one day, somebody started building a house over in that Seaside area. We thought they were crazy. We didn't know what they were doing. And when we started hearing about, "Oh, this Seaside thing's coming," we thought, "Well, that'll never work out." Lo and behold, there it is. I think it was 1981, '82. One or two of them going in. They started cutting the roads and we rode dirt bikes all in that area and horses. I always thought that land was owned by the state. And of course it was owned by Robert Davis. He developed it and it definitely is the center point of 30A.
Mark Who lived there and why and who was visiting?
Bobby Well, it was always kind of like, you know, the southeast. You know, Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta. Mostly second homes. I mean, to give you an idea, as a kid, on a cold winter day, we would, me and a guy named Kelly Carr and Sam Wesley would drive our bicycles up and down 30A and we'd look for houses after a big freeze that were spraying water or that busted pipes and we shut their water off and then we'd send them a letter and hopefully they'd send us some money. But I mean, nobody lived here, if you can imagine that. When I think of all the kids now in the school, I mean, my graduating class was up in Freeport High School. Freeport, South Walton as a whole, there was 40 of us graduating and that included the north of the bay. Down here in 30A, 98, which we called South Walton or Sowal, there was 10 guys and girls that ran together. We had to take turns dating people.
Mark So were you aware at the time of anybody making a concerted effort to get tourists down there or was it just kind of a word of mouth thing in those communities in Birmingham and those southern communities?
Bobby You know there was. You had Cube McGee of Seagrove on the Beach Realty at that time. He was doing more grassroots efforts. There was no internet so it was all by mail and things like that. I think it was more just word of mouth. People would come down, they were trying to get away from the growth that was occurring in Fort Walton and Destin and Panama City Beach and Panama City. You'd have people who didn't want to be in the hub, obviously, and then they would be finding 30A, which is kind of tucked away off of 98. "The Truman Show."
Mark Oh, yeah.
Bobby With Jim Carrey was a real catalyst for the growth here and of course Seaside was just becoming renowned as one of the coolest little communities in the entire country. And then there was little pockets of that, then Rosemary, and all of these little communities which became architectural dream come true and builder dreams come true, became little marketing pieces for the areas and they would spend money and market, market, market. But when "Truman Show," in my opinion, when that came in here, you know, all of a sudden, we were starting to get discovered on a more national level.
Mark When you were growing up, was it always called 30A?
Bobby 30A consists of various communities. So we always used the city that we were in at that point in time. 30A Realty House, Forrester, Mickey Whitaker, the original people using that brand. They had the little logo with the sign and the Florida thing. But back then, nobody was really using it. When I first opened up 30A Local Properties, I thought, "Well, that's gonna be weird." Because they're friends of mine. I didn't want to offend them. But at the same time, there had been so much momentum on social media and SEO optimization by 30A.com and the Google searches on it were pretty amazing. There's no one that has branded it better than Mike Ragsdale, I can assure you that.
Mike My name is Mike Ragsdale. I'm the founder of the 30A Company, which is a lifestyle brand that celebrates small-town beach life that we enjoy along Florida's Gulf Coast.
Bobby Of course, the 30A brand has brought a lot growth to the area. There's no doubt about that. He's done a great job with it. And he's also, I feel, represented it well. That could have gone in many different directions, but he's definitely represented 30A very, very well.
Anna One of the first people I met on 30A was Mike Ragsdale. He was this long-haired blonde guy who was promoting one of the beach communities there that were still in development. It was called Alice Beach. He'd already been living on 30A for a few years and was the absolutely the bona fide impersonation of the 30A lifestyle. Just laid back, total surfer dude.
Mike I moved here and had no idea what we're were gonna do. I was in an in-between place professionally. I've had some wild successes in my career and I've had some just utterly embarrassing dismal failures. And I was coming off of a couple of failures and we were just like, "You know, if we're gonna start over, why don't we start someplace we want to be? Let's pick a cool place to live and then we'll figure out what we're gonna do." And we looked a lot of different things, but we ended up here fairly by accident. I thought I wanted to be a writer and so I thought, "Well, you know, I don't really know what a blog is, but I guess I'd better figure out," because I figured that'd be a great way to start exercising those creative muscles. I love brands and I love building brands and that's something I've done most of my career. And looking for names, this area was called Beaches of South Walton, Santa Rosa Beach, South Walton. There are individual brands, like Seaside, WaterColor, Rosemary Beach. I was just looking for something to write a URL to put some pontifications on and ended up buying that URL and had no business intent for it. Had no idea it would turn into what it has become. But I just began to put content there that interested me as a person who was in love with my community and, in particular, in love with the Gulf Coast. And it just began to grow organically and it was literally a mom and pop business. And so for the first almost eight years, it was just me and a laptop. And then about two years ago, we decided it was time to take the brand to the next level as a lifestyle brand.
Mark I'm in Chattanooga, Tennessee, so we're part of that kind of Birmingham-Huntsville crowd that drives down and spends summer vacation there. And around here, you see the little sun icon that says 30A and everybody knows what that is.
Mike It's very tribal. You know, I mean, when I came up with the idea for the logo, I can't claim to have the design skills necessary to pull it off, but I told the designer that...I said, "I want a Three Sunshine A." And what's funny is I was talking to a very high-end graphic designer. I mean, like, he does work for major corporate accounts. He's not just a local guy. He's in a major city and does work for a lot of major brands that everybody knows. And I just said, "You know, I kind of have this idea. How much would you charge me?" And he told me what he would charge me, which was laughable. I was just like, "I can't afford that, but thank you." And he finally came back and just said, "What could you pay?" And I told him what I could pay, which was still a large sum of money, but it was very small compared to what he had originally approached me about. And I agreed to it because I believed that getting the brand right...and I knew he could nail it...I believed that that was an important part of where I wanted to go and so I told my wife how much we were gonna pay and she had a heart attack. So about three or four weeks pass and I haven't heard from the guy. I finally get an email that says "First draft logo" or something to that effect. So without telling my wife, I wanted to see it first, I went in, shut my bedroom door and I downloaded it and I looked at it. And for the first ten seconds, my heart dropped. Because I was like, "Are you kidding me?" I mean, I'm like, you know, "My eight year old could've drawn this." And before that thought even crossed my lips, I realized that was the brilliance of it. And I knew instantly it would work and I knew instantly he had captured the simplicity of life here. And so I told my wife, I said, "Look, now, I'm gonna show you what we got and don't panic." And again because, you know, we're talking about thousands of dollars I had agreed to pay this designer and when I showed it to her, she had the same reaction, "Are you kidding me?" And I'm like, "I promise you. It's good. I promise you it's gonna work." And so it was really one of those things that I knew from the beginning, the logo captured the essence of the Gulf Coast small town beach life that we're talking about.
Anna One of the brilliant marketing and branding lessons here is that when no one knows who you are, it sort of frees you up to be anyone you want to be. It sounds like, at one point, it was really just this string of little beach communities that frankly no one had heard of. By creating an entirely new brand, you've brought the power of all those little guys into one much stronger brand.
Mike We made a conscious decision a few years ago that, you know, there are other entities, civic entities, like tax-funded entities that promote tourism here. There are individual communities like Seaside, WaterColor, the resorts, Sandestin, that promote tourism. There are real estate companies and vacation rental companies that are all luring people here. So at some point, we decided there's enough of that going on. What we've instead focused on is capturing the spirit of the area, the feeling you get while you're here. And we view our mission is as being very different from all those other organizations I mentioned. What we're here to do is to keep people in touch with that feeling when they can't be here.
Mark Support for this episode comes from Toad&Co;, the Original Trail to Tavern clothing brand, who believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to do what they love. That's why a portion of every Toad&Co; purchase goes towards supporting adults with disabilities. From job training to outdoor adventures, your purchases go a long way to support a mission of empowering this deserving population. Through the co-founded non-profit Planet Access Company, Toad&Co; takes folks on life-changing trips to the great outdoors, as well as offering top notch job training and career opportunities in their warehouse, where every order is picked, packed and shipped with unmatched efficiency and enthusiasm. Toad&Co; thanks you for supporting what they love. We couldn't do it without you.
You know, Anna, I heard Mike say a lot about these different business owners getting together and just banding together and making their own brand out of this 30A region. And it's obviously worked. It's hugely successful down there right now. We talked with John Deleva about how this all works.
Anna Well, one of the most popular ways that sort of these local entities come together is by either forming an alliance, which is part of what Mike Ragsdale did at 30A, or a lot of the hotels in a destination will often pull their marketing dollars together.
John A lot of the smaller places don't have the hotels and it's the hotels that are usually gathering what we call those 2% dollars to go into their marketing pools.
Anna This is when hotels charge an extra 2% tax on rooms and pool their money to promote the destination as a whole. It's often organized and managed by the destination itself, which is usually referred to as the destination marketing organization. City councils often have parameters. So for example, in some places like Dallas, your hotels have to have 100 rooms or more before you're allowed to charge an extra 2%. But the idea is that you pool these dollars together in order to promote the destination as a whole.
John So that's the trickier part, number one. Number two...today I'm gonna kind of contradict myself a little bit...is that with social media, there are so many people who want to be unique today and get beyond the headline Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyons and find those more intriguing, off the typical blue highway path.
Anna It's totally the cool thing to do is to look for the lesser known thing.
John There's nothing better than to have your picture next to a rattlesnake in a Chiriaco National Monument trail. Nobody's seen that or done that and that does have some cache today.
Anna Yeah. It's kind of become the new bucket list item, is to do the thing that nobody even thought to do.
John Exactly. And that element is helping the smaller town. They still don't have the dollars to get that message out there as much, but they do have that, "Hey, I bet you haven't been here yet," cache that's helping them.
Anna If you're a marketer, you really can't underestimate the value of having a social media expert on hand who can take advantage of user generated content. I feel like, in this day and age, this is a critical staff position when it comes to content marketing, perhaps more so in the travel space in particular than any other industry. Having somebody who's well-versed in social media, how to use it, someone who's innovative in their approach and understands the platforms and how to use each of them can be a total game changer for a small destination that perhaps doesn't have a huge traditional ad budget.
Mark I totally agree and one thing I would add to that, too, is you can bring in partners who have experience here. So perhaps it's an agency that specializes in this. But you can start with campaigns before you have the budget to hire a dedicated person as well.
Anna And get your feet wet.
Anna So how do you funnel the cache of user generated content into actual results? I mean, not having a budget is a huge challenge. But it's certainly not one that everyone can't relate to.
Mark You know, all of our listeners struggle with that.
Anna Even when times are good, budgets are never high enough. So how do you get that message across and get that cache to stick?
John Let's take Utah, for example. They did a campaign. It was an award-winning campaign. It was called The Mighty Five and it was about their five national parks. Everything from Arches to Bryce Canyon to Zion. And after that campaign got out there on a national scale, a lot of smaller destinations within Utah with significant tourism assets or reasons to go there started doing their own campaigns. "You've seen the Mighty Five. Now just go a little further this way. Or that way." And they started playing off it really nicely because people had come and done what they were supposed to do and now they really showed there's an awful lot more and you're not done with Utah yet.
Announcer: You know this road. You've traveled it in your dreams. Artists and adventurers have always traveled here. Found their muse in these red canyons. You were made to travel this road. It belongs to you. This is your birthright. For this is the road to mighty. The road begins at visitutah.com.
John And I've seen so many places, Kodachrome, Flaming Gorge, all these lesser known names in Utah come out there and run campaigns playing off that one and it worked well.
Mark You know, Linea Gagliano from Travel Oregon actually mentioned a very similar situation where they shifted their focus toward lesser known areas purposely to really call out some of these hidden gems.
Linea We just changed up that Seven Wonders campaign completely, partly because it was so successful but partly also to stand out from the pack a little bit. We saw that a lot of destinations were having those sort of numbers of wonders or, you know, the Big Five in Utah, which they have beautiful outdoor areas and national parks in Utah. But just wanting to stand out from the pack a little bit, but while also giving an Oregon voice to our campaign. So we kind of in a way toned it down a little bit from the huge grandeur that are the Seven Wonders and more of the, "Oh, yeah. It's Oregon. It's pretty cool here." It's a little nonchalant. Kind of like, "Yeah, we like it," which is how Oregonians view it, you know? We're not really braggy people, but we know that we've got a good thing but we maybe want to keep it on the down low just a little bit, so we're kind of cool about it. And so that's really our new campaign.
Mark There's another benefit here because when you drive visitors to their hidden gems that don't see as much economic investment on a day-to-day basis, you can actually support the locals through that investment. Tourism can make a big difference to the economy.
Linea Everything we do at Travel Oregon is to strive to create economic impact and jobs throughout the state. And one of those places is certainly rural areas, which are usually the areas where that outdoor recreation is abundant and where we can really make a difference for those communities, too. You know, five new jobs in a small community in a travel and tourism industry could be a huge difference to families there or to the community itself in being able to have more storefronts that the community can enjoy, as well as visitors. Then all of the sudden, this great little restaurant that opened and that the locals really enjoy can make it because these visitors are coming in and helping that bottom line and they're helping that restaurant thrive and so it makes livability in those areas better. That's really everything we do and secret places can be such a huge part of that because that usually is in those really small, rural destinations where it makes a huge impact.
Anna Some places really do have a lot to gain by playing up the fact that not as many people have traveled there before.
Linea And we also find that folks are explorers now and they want to be the first to discover this destination or feel like they're the first. And they're the first to post this beautiful Instagram picture. They're the first to, "Oh my gosh. Have you seen, I'm on this coastal bluff right here that I've never seen anybody take a photo of and it's amazing." So being able to connect consumers in that way is important. And you know, Oregon, we've always been full of explorers since the pioneers came out here and so I feel like our population is still very much like that. A lot of dreamers and explorers who want to explore the outdoors. I mean, we just discovered an ice cave system here that no one knew about a few years ago. There was a new canyon that was just discovered called Valhalla that has just been discovered. I mean, there's so much here that is yet to be discovered.
Mark We're talking about a process of turning that curious traveler into a bona fide influencer. People who are explorers are willing to try out a new place and feel like they are the first to discover it, they can end up being your future influencer. And that can be so valuable when it comes to marketing your destination.
Anna I'm really familiar with Utah's Mighty Five campaign. It's a campaign that I've written about many, many times and Utah is certainly top of mind anytime anybody starts to write about the outdoors in the USA.
Anna And I know that they've had some success in recent years, after the Mighty Five campaign launched, in getting people to check out some of those lesser known areas. They often tap influencers and they tap people who are really interested, like hardcore outdoors is for them. Because really Utah is all about the outdoors. I mean, anybody who's ever set foot there knows that it's the number one thing it has going for it. Do you find that influencers often can play a big role in those situations where they can inspire a lot of user generated content by tapping influencers who already have successful following?
John Absolutely. Let's take, for example, like the movie. Remember James Franco in "127 Hours," just playing off the Utah theme?
John So in a way, that was like a two-hour commercial for Utah. Just phenomenal cinematography, absolutely gorgeous, but it was a very intense experience and only a few people could relate to it. But if somebody knows that area well or beyond that, they can talk about how many parts there are in Utah that are maybe good for 5-year-olds or 12-year-olds or people who just want to walk through the beauty without a challenge of a slot canyon. Anybody who is an influencer that wanted to broaden their audience if they just had a niche and it was about hardcore slot canyon climbers or whatever it might've been, they could easily broaden that out to any other audience because everywhere I've been in Utah, there are trails for any age or any level. Just like here in my home state of Washington. I wrote a series once. It was basically mountains where you don't need gear or guides. It was a series called "Conquerable Peaks" and it was about easy day hikes where you can be on the top of a mountain and get an incredible reward or view and you really didn't have to pay that much of a price. You could just do a couple hour walk.
Mark There's actually a term for this phenomenon and it's called micro-influencers. There's a proven inverse relationship where gaining more followers actually decreases engagement. I found a recent Digiday article from Yuyu Chen where she talks about a study and to quote it, "There is such a thing as being too popular." It turns out that once a social media influencer reaches a critical mass of followers, audience engagement actually begins to decrease. A survey of 2 million social media influencers by influencer marketing platform Markerly showed that for unpaid posts, Instagram influencers with fewer than 1000 followers have a like rate of about 8%, while those with 1000 to 10,000 followers have a like rate of 4%. So there's a theoretical limit to the power of an influencer and more followers doesn't automatically mean more engagement or more of a connection to your target audience. Now the whole article's worth reading because there's a lot of good research in there. So we'll link to it in the show notes at labs.rootsrated.com.
Anna You see this a lot with family travel influencers, for example. And I think it's really what gave birth to the travel blogging industry. People with smaller but more loyal followings really can influence behavior and drive engagement. And oftentimes that's simply the locals.
Mark The marketer's challenge is just to find these passionate individuals who are out there.
John It was me and a cousin of mine and we kind of just said even though our business is creating travel apps, today we shut our phones and all we use is a map and our mouths and we ask people that we meet along the way, "Where should we go?" In one particular place, we saw a guy wearing a shirt that said "Mississippi Blues Trail" and I asked him a few questions about that and I said, "Well, where are the best blues, in your opinion, in this state?" And he sent us up to Clarksdale. It was 220 miles away and it was 8 p.m. and we took his advice and we didn't get there till after midnight. But the next four hours, we had an incredible experience literally until the sun rose, hearing unknown blues only off a guy's word we had met a few minutes before.
Mark I think you don't want to forget about the locals. Most really want to share their love and passion for the place. And if you talk about local insider knowledge, that's really the core of RootsRated and kind of how we started. On the consumer side, we're connecting retailers and brands and people who just love to get outside and we're trying to make all this information accessible. And you see people who want to do that everywhere you go. Obviously not every listener can expect a movie to be filmed in their backyard. So how can you market your hidden gem? We've outlined some really helpful ways marketers can stretch their budgets. They can make the most of user generated content. They can tap into the cache associated with a lesser known place. Harness the power of micro-influencers. Also we're encouraging people not to forget the locals.
Anna Marketers can use hidden gems to promote a sense of place, establish authenticity and make connections, whether those connections are to the land itself or the locals who live there. Sometimes it pays to think small. Small can be good in the world of travel and tourism. Who wants crazy and crowded when you can have authenticity?
Coming up on the next episode of RootsRated Labs.
Mark So Evan over here is putting on...it looks kind of like a watch or one of these fitness trackers, I guess.
Evan Yeah, this is the armband that tracks your, the sweat response, your heart rate. Kind of looks like a Fitbit, to be honest. It's got a nice, long screen face. Clips around, real sleek design. It's a lot of metal components to it so it's pretty cold.
Mark So Evan, what does this feel like on your head?
Evan I got a funny shaped head, so it kind of...It's a little wet.
Mark What's this little drone looking thing over here?
Evan I've actually not used that yet.
Man And that's the EEG reader right there. That's where we connect you [inaudible 00:32:55] Bluetooth, so this is really what's new about it, is the fact that it's Bluetooth. They've been doing EEG research since the '50s and they've been doing it in a lab with...it would have maybe 50 sensors and cords coming out of every sensor into a computer and you had to be very careful not to move. Everything was done via video or pictures. So there's been a lot of research actually that shows that just looking at pictures of natural environments puts you in a more meditative state. So now we can actually go out, out of the lab and into the field and start testing people, you know, as they're actually going through the process.
Mark The Mighty Five clips you heard in this episode can be found on the Visit Utah YouTube channel. You can find links to those in the show notes page for this episode at labs.rootsrated.com.
Anna This podcast is brought to you by RootsRated Media. We provide content marketing software and services to outdoor brands, DMOs, and anyone looking to reach active travelers. For more information, visit labs.rootsrated.com.
Mark Hey, we'd love for you to subscribe to the show on iTunes, Google Play or anywhere else great podcasts can be found. If you like what you hear, do us a favor. Write a review. Share the show with a friend and colleague or do any other things, print it out, send it to your grandmother.
Anna We want your voice on future episodes. Record a voice memo and send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call and leave us a message at (423)521-5477.
Mark Don't forget to include your contact information if you call in so we know how to reach you if you have follow up questions. Look forward to answering your toughest questions and learning along with and from you.
Anna This episode was produced by B.J. Smith. Special thanks to our guests, John Deleva, Linea Gagliano, Bobby Johnson, and Mike Ragsdale. Thanks for joining us at RootsRated Labs.
Originally written for RootsRated Media.