The Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau kicked off its first citywide Santa Monica Destination Brand Summit Friday, March 24th, to bring together civic, community, and business leaders in an effort to attract more visitors and tourists to the city.
The bureau has begun a process to eventually “brand” Santa Monica as a “destination” city.
“We are all excited about the branding program and the potential it has for catapulting Santa Monica into the forefront of destination marketing,” said Santa Monica Mayor Robert Holbrook.
The Brand Summit was the culmination of more than 100 meetings in the past two years and 12 focus groups made up of tourists from Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and London.
Stakeholders and consultants gathered to discuss data and outline plans for the future.
“In order to compete successfully for visitors’ time and dollars, a destination must treat its brand identity as a strategic asset just as critical to tourism as its hotels, restaurants, attractions, and arts and entertainment venues,” said Santa Monica city manager Lamont Ewell via videotape.
Also giving videotaped messages to summit-goers were Tim Kittleson, chairman of the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau Board, and Kathy Dodson, president of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce.
Working with the bureau on this new image campaign are “branding consultants” Duane Knapp and Gary Sherwin, and advisor Bruce Baltin.
Knapp is the chairman and president of BrandStrategy Incorporated and the author of two “brand science” books.
Sherwin is an author and president of Believable Brands, LLC.
Baltin is the senior vice president of PKF Consulting, a firm that counts hospitality and tourism industries as its clients.
Santa Monica is successful in attracting tourists, Baltin said, but the city can and should do better.
An indicator of success is that Santa Monica hotel rates are high and restaurants are expensive, but Baltin said the tourists still come and hotel occupancy rates are high.
He suggested that Santa Monica take more control of its tourism industry, as do some European cities.
European cities take a more comprehensive approach to handling their tourism industries and this mindset does not occur so much in the U.S., he said.
“A city is a product — a combination of private and public sectors,” Baltin said. “The infrastructure, as well as the hotels, police, fire, restaurants, and everything else, is really the overall product that is being given to tourists when they get here.”
Knapp and Sherwin offered suggestions on how to bring more tourists to Santa Monica, complete with developing a “Brand Doctrine” and “Destination Brand Promise.”
The doctrine statement is something residents, businesses, and city officials should think about when implementing an action plan, Knapp said.
“Santa Monica must be at the forefront of consumers’ minds as a preferred, desirable, and distinctive destination,” the doctrine states.
The Destination Brand Promise is:
“Santa MonicaÖthe best way to discover Los Angeles; an unforgettable beach city experience filled with eye-catching people, cutting edge culture and bold innovations. It is the essence of the California lifestyle.”
Knapp said Santa Monica as a city should portray itself as a brand in order to be the site of experiences that tourists and visitors want.
“When you think about a destination brand, it is really about a science,” Knapp said. “This is not art, this is about substance and this science of brand mindset has been perfected by thousands of organizations around the world.”
He and other image professionals around the U.S. — as well as comedians — have been amused by Washington state’s new tourism campaign slogan: “SayWA.”
Knapp said the slogan does not appeal to him and he joked about other state slogans being considered in Kentucky (“Seven million people, seven last names”) and South Dakota (“At least we are not North Dakota).
His favorite is one possibility from North Carolina: “Tobacco is a vegetable.”
“Hype does not last long,” Knapp said. “When you think about the rationale behind the work we have done for two and a half years, it is all about perception and how we want someone to feel.”
Tourists from outside Santa Monica gave Knapp a list of the city’s strengths and weaknesses.
The top five strengths that tourists encountered in Santa Monica are friendly and healthy people, the beach, shopping opportunities, the overall atmosphere of the city, and feeling cleanliness and safety in the city.
Weaknesses are homeless people and solicitors, traffic, the high cost of hotel, restaurant and other services, the lack of things to do, and the lack of public transportation.
In addition to tourists, Knapp also asked Santa Monica residents, businesses, and city officials about their perceptions of the city.
Some of the statements that came out of these focus group meetings were that locals do not have enough enthusiasm to brand Santa Monica as a destination, the city is successful in spite of itself, the city is undergoing a “mean spirit” trend, and the Santa Monica City Council tends to make the wrong decisions.
Knapp said there are lots of opportunities for stakeholders to improve Santa Monica’s image.
One opportunity is to find a way to make tourists aware that Santa Monica is 15 to 20 minutes from Los Angeles International Airport.
Knapp said too many people believe that Santa Monica is hours away from the airport.
He also suggested that Santa Monica work with Los Angeles, Marina del Rey, and Beverly Hills to come up with a few mutually beneficial tourism campaigns.
Santa Monica should also not worry about tourists thinking that the city is too expensive.
“Everybody is happy with paying more as long as you give them an exceptional experience that exceeds their expectations,” Knapp said. “In price you have to be reasonable and fair, but you also have to provide an experience that people want.
“That’s the key to a successful destination.”
For 15 years, Knapp estimates that he has asked one question about price to 57,000 people that everyone answered “no” to: “Are you willing to pay the lowest price for every product or service in your life regardless of performance?”
Sherwin also said tourists would be willing to pay high prices if their hotel experience and experience of the city are the same.
“We want to match the quality of service with the quality of the destination,” Sherwin said. “If people are going to pay a higher-than-average room rate, they should expect a higher level of service experience from the destination as well as the hotel.”
All the various stakeholders should take five action steps together to ensure the destination brand program is a success, he suggested.
Those five steps are to hold a Brand Summit, hold customer service training for various business employees, hold hospitality sales training, hold brand development training for Convention & Visitors Bureau, and find ways of “Being Better at the Beach.”
Customer service training would be for employees who have contact with guests and it would focus on quality, knowledgeable customer service, and awareness of cultural and ethnic groups.
Brand development training involves designing a Brand Promise Guide and sharing information with all bureau staff and its board of directors.
One of the bureau’s goals is to make the Brand Promise an integrated part of bureau culture.
“This is not just an intellectual exercise,” Sherwin said. “The people who live and work here have an emotional commitment to Santa Monica, and can deliver a good service if they truly believe in it.”
Hotel employees know how to sell a hospitality experience, but not a destination experience, Sherwin said.
Hospitality employees have the belief that tourists pick the destination first, then the hotel.
A citywide strategy can be developed, Sherwin said, to give hospitality employees the skills to help tourists differentiate Santa Monica from other destinations.
Since the beach and pier are top draws in Santa Monica, a Beach Summit will be held within six months to bring together city and community agencies to create new ways of improving the beach experience.
“Being a city of people with bold innovations, we want to figure out what we can do to make the beach experience distinctive and unique,” Sherwin said.
Sherwin said brand implementation is a process that takes time and that the Convention & Visitors Bureau has decided to make the brand development effort part of its ongoing marketing efforts.
“The idea here is that a destination brand development program is only as good as its execution,” Sherwin said. “Brand implementation takes everyone, because so many of us are in the back of the house developing programs and the rest of us are on the front lines greeting and talking to tourists every day.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau has agreed to work with all of the stakeholders to make sure that Santa Monica is branded as a destination city.
“There is nothing we can do in the community without the full support from every side, whether they are on the left, right, or center,” said Misti Kerns, the bureau’s president and chief executive officer.
“This is an idea that is being embraced by many competing destinations and the brand culturalization efforts discussed are building on a strong foundation that has already been established,” Kittleson said.
A Brand Summit is planned annually.
The Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau is a nonprofit and non-member business, and has been designated Santa Monica’s official destination marketing organization.
The bureau has been charged with a mandate to increase visitor expenditures, tourism revenues, and local employment opportunities by promoting Santa Monica as a travel destination.