The world of tourism is in a perpetual state of disruption. Gaining attention and maintaining relevance is a significant challenge. But it is our collective challenge as destination marketing organizations (DMOs) to make our destinations stand out in a crowded global marketplace. We do this by sharing what makes our destinations unique - the special qualities and real stories that resonate with people. Central to this approach is the cultural truth that the essence of any destination is its people. It's their stories and perspectives that truly define a place. Therefore, the critical question we face is: How can we harness the power of local storytellers to create a global impact?
While DMOs have long considered residents in marketing, it was largely to gain social license in representing the community. The focus was not so much on actively recruiting the community to come along for the ride as active participants but more on circumventing their disapproval.
And then the pandemic happened.
With no visitors, locals and residents instantly became our only customers. Our industry desperately needed their support. Connecting with residents was no longer about consenting to a message delivered to others; they were now the principal target of that message. And we needed them more than ever.
Thankfully, Torontonians responded. They rediscovered their city. They found new neighbourhoods, tasted new flavours, and tried new arts and cultural experiences. They dug deep. We did our best to spark more curiosity and discovery through our innovative "Never Have I Ever..." campaign. We created neighbourhood guides revealing hidden treasures, crafted unique itineraries, and threw down creative challenges designed to inspire Torontonians to dive deeper and experience more of their city.
It’s a special thing to rekindle an old love. And out of all the awfulness the pandemic wrought, perhaps this will be a positive legacy. Our genuine hope is that, as people travel again, that spirit of local exploration and discovery remains, and in between trips to other destinations, residents will remember the thrill of new discoveries throughout our city and keep seeking more.
This experience also proved the remarkable influence and extensive network of our community. Torontonians didn’t just re-discover their city; they became true ambassadors. They enthusiastically shared their discoveries on social media, spreading the word to friends and family. As a city where over half the residents were born outside of Canada, these shared stories crossed borders and oceans, reaching a global audience.
As we move forward, retaining the valuable insights we've gained is crucial. The question now is: How can we elevate local storytelling to create a significant global impact?
To address this, here are some community engagement strategies for consideration:
- Make the case for why: take the time to explain why tourism matters to the community and how residents can play a role. Engage them in a shared mission to lift the destination.
- Social media challenges: consider locals when developing social content, highlight hidden gems, share lesser-known stories, offer photo/video contests, and lean into neighbourhood challenges.
- Instagram-worthy public spaces: create and promote public art or installations around the city to encourage social sharing and deeper exploration. Gamification can also be explored through public art.
- User-generated content (UGC): leverage local storytellers in content and campaign creative. Celebrate local stories, amplify these perspectives, and create opportunities for others to do the same.
- Community volunteer programs: create meaningful opportunities for volunteers at major festivals, cultural or sporting events to foster a sense of ownership and pride among residents.
- Discount, loyalty & membership programs: incentives, discounts or loyalty programs at museums, attractions, or events enable locals to see and do more. Annual memberships are another great opportunity to provide value and increase engagement.
- Welcome newcomers: engage with local community organizations that support newcomers, providing information and resources to connect and engage in local culture, festivals and activities. Make it easy for those new to the city to get to know it.
The pandemic changed our relationship with residents for the better. At the same time, technology platforms now enable a deeper level of engagement in a shared mission between residents and DMOs, recruiting and deputizing residents as both customers and powerful storytellers for their communities. Their authentic experiences offer a relatable and compelling perspective of a destination. This grassroots approach can also foster a sense of pride and ownership among residents, leading to more sustainable and community-oriented tourism development.