Imagine marketing a company that doesn’t sell anything, but has a global audience. Or selling a brand that doesn’t produce anything, but demands discretionary income to consume. And imagine doing it so successfully that you’ve demonstrated a decade of consistent growth without cutting resources, and through a recession when all your industry peers were cutting back.
These challenges may seem insurmountable to some, but for VISIT DENVER, the city’s Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, it’s a labor of love for the residents and tourists that make Denver what it is today. Justin Bresler, VP of Marketing and Business Development, answers some questions about what it takes to market the Mile High City locally and beyond.
How is marketing a city different than marketing a business? We don’t own anything. You can’t buy anything from the Bureau. You can’t ‘buy’ Denver. We don’t own hotels, we don’t operate restaurants, or operate tours. But there is a sales funnel in travel, just as there is in lots of businesses.
You (as a traveler) may be dreaming of a destination but don’t go for five years. There could be 10 other places ahead of it. But it’s not like you have five cars in mind and you are going to buy one every year for the next five years. I think that’s what is different about travel. And once we do our job, we must track the results by proxy. We measure through website traffic, engagement, hotel visits and some of those other tangibles we don’t ‘own.’
What’s unique about Denver as a brand? Compared to other businesses, and/or compared to its tourism competitors?
Travel is an interesting sector because you must have discretionary income to do it. And that may ebb and flow over the course of years. Travel – and international travel – has become a lot easier and some respects a lot more affordable. So, our marketplace is global. And, because travel is a discretionary purchase, we are competing with other destinations, but we also are competing with things like ‘am I going to redo my basement this year?’
While travel is a ‘considered’ purchase it’s certainly something people can see as necessary in their lives. When they do that, they have to connect with a destination. Lots of destinations market themselves with some kind of “lots to see and do” messaging. But every destination has lots to see and do. We try to do things differently in Denver.
Denver has a unique market because we aren’t just an urban destination. We have the rest of the state to help pull people in. We know that people who want to come here want that combination of city and mountains. Years ago, we were just a gateway to push people to the mountains. That’s changed over the years. Now, you have to ask someone the question, “How do we get someone from Chicago to want to spend time in Denver and not just in the mountains?” We ask ourselves that all the time.
It starts with the outdoors, layered with some great urban experiences. The Denver brand position is an outdoor city full of urban adventure.
With that outdoor city/urban adventure messaging, you can line up the “brand pillars” neatly underneath that. The things that we use in the city are outdoor activities – call it light adventure. We might be the gateway for extreme mountain biking, but the experiences you’ll have in the city are open to everyone. It might be the B-cycle program, Yoga on the Rocks or drinking craft beer on an outdoor patio. That’s become a big draw in the city – the outdoor dining scene. Some people mountain bike or ski, but everybody eats. Five to ten years ago, it was Downtown and Larimer Square that held the urban dining options. Now, Highlands is a hot spot, so is River North and South Broadway. You can go to any part of the city and get a great meal.
Denver is one of the fastest-growing markets in the country – what challenges does that come with?
The things that make Denver a great place to live also make it a great place to visit. We want to make sure that locals don’t feel visitors are a burden on the city. Tourism is clean money. It’s one of the few places that a city can invest and bring back a big return. We can say to residents, ‘if it wasn’t for tourism, each family would spend $600-$700 more each year in taxes to enjoy the same services they enjoy today.’ Visitors have a much lower impact on the city because they come in and go home. The tourists are the 20 percenters that make a good year great for the restaurants and the performing arts complexes and other attractions in our city.
What do you consider the greatest accomplishments of the VISIT DENVER team? And why?
We’ve grown tourism for 10 straight years. Some of those years were tough economic years. If you look at 2008-2009, the statics we were seeing showed not that fewer people were traveling, but they were taking fewer trips and traveling shorter distances. So, we decided we would work on marketing to the 600-mile radius around Denver. That’s a function of being flexible and good planning. As soon as the worsening economic situation was pretty clear, we did a whole retreat as a leadership staff and asked ourselves, ‘how are we going to respond?’ We were able to maintain our budgets while our peers were cutting. It was just smart financial management and smart media buying. We actually grew during that time. So, the thing that I’m most proud of is the $6 billion economic impact that tourism brings to the city. It’s a function of good leadership, having the budget to do the things we need to do and having the patience to not chase something that is so short-term.