What Makes A Destination?

As a travel marketer, you’ve probably thought long and hard about how to improve awareness, drive bookings, build REVPAR or yield and create lifetime return visitors.  One obvious strategy is to become a “destination,” which we define as a place that is known for a specific activity, lifestyle or attraction.  If you are blessed with a natural resource such as the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef or Bermuda’s pink sands to build on, it becomes somewhat easy.  However, over time and with sustained effort any location can become a destination.

Many of the most successful travel destinations are known for one specific activity.  When you name these destinations, what they are known for comes to mind immediately.  A few of the most iconic examples include: Las Vegas = gambling (aka Sin City), Nashville = Music City, Twin Cities = shopping (Mall of America), Orlando = Disneyland, Napa = wine and, well, my hometown of Milwaukee is still known for beer.

While these destinations have been tied at the hip to their respective activity, there are also a number of others that have recently become known for something special.  One that comes to mind is the Mediterranean island of Ibiza which has become the premiere EDM (electronic dance music) location in the world, drawing tens of thousands of young trendsetters with deep pockets who come to see the world’s top DJs and dance until dawn.  On the other end of the spectrum is Branson, Missouri. Billing itself as the “Live Music Show Capital of the World,” it targets red white and blue, mom and apple pie, middle-America.  While these destinations are different in almost every way imaginable, both have gotten to where they are by consciously choosing a brand identifier and then doing everything possible to reinforce the desired position.

One of the fastest growing travel categories is that of medical tourism and there are a number of locations that are positioning themselves as the top medical tourism destination.  The current leader is Thailand, drawing more than 1.2 medical tourists each year who come to take advantage of costs that are 50 to 70% cheaper than the US.  In Rochester, Minnesota the community, the Mayo Clinic and private companies are investing $5 billion in the Destination Medical Community Initiative which will leverage the Mayo Clinic’s leadership position in medical care into a high end medical tourism destination.

Our firm, Boelter+Lincoln (B+L) has a 30-plus year history of working with the Wisconsin Dells, the “Waterpark Capital of the World.”  Located smack dab in the center of the state, approximately a three hour drive from Chicago and two hours from Milwaukee, the Dells draws more than three million visitors annually who spend well north of one billion dollars.   The story began in 1946 when a Milwaukee native named Mel Flath brought the first amphibious truck (aka “Duck”) to the Wisconsin Dells.  Flath launched the Dells Amphibian Line, which gave 90-minute tours in the Wisconsin River, exposing tourists to the area’s famous sandstone formations.  In 1952, Tommy Bartlett brought his water-ski based Thrill Show to the Dells and the area began to be a popular vacation choice for midwesterners.

The water park era began in 1979 with the opening of the Noah’s Ark Waterpark.  Approximately ten years ago we began promoting the tag line of “The Waterpark Capital of the World!” for the Dells and since then have relentlessly promoted this as the brand identity.  The Dells is now the Midwest’s top family vacation and continues to grow and expand.

Finding the unique identity by which to build your location into “the best” or “the world’s largest” destination begins with choosing that activity which is relevant to your existing assets, audience and brand equity.  Also, it only makes sense to build on a niche or activity that is sustainable and has the potential to attract large numbers of visitors.   The next step is to build your destination brand and target that audience most apt to be interested.  Now who will own the title of “World’s Top Yoga Destination” or the “Premiere Cross Country Biking Region” or even “Rutabaga Capital of the World”? (Ok, sorry, one of my favorite vacation spots of Cumberland, Wisconsin already owns that title and I’m not sure how many fans of these waxy, bitter root vegetables there really are.)  You get the idea, the possibilities are endless.