From tourism marketing to location marketing

Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia is, coincidentally, shaped like a banana. It’s also a hub for creative and digital industries, and Tourismus NRW e.V. have just launched a new strategy to reposition the region internationally. ‘Urbanana’ – or, an urban banana – is a philosophy, as much as it is a strategy, of shedding light onto the beauty of lesser trodden paths and those who love and co-design their urban spaces. Before she joins us at City Nation Place Global this November, we caught up with Heike Döll-König, CEO of Tourismus NRW e.V. to discover what the impetus was for the strategy and how they’re moving forwards as a region.

What makes a place attractive is changing. How are you adapting your strategies in response? 

In North Rhine-Westphalia, we have started to think conversely. We’ve turned around the thinking of ‘working where others go on holiday.’ If anything, we think you should take a holiday precisely because others work there!

This is how tourism becomes location marketing. For contemporary tourism, working has paradoxically become more essential than a holiday. It’s only when there is purchasing power that (still) enables places to have other, more diverse income perspectives than specialising  in the needs of tourists, do destinations retain what distinguishes their authenticity. It is therefore necessary to find a new balance between the demands on the city and the tourism space. Admittedly, in a destination that, as stated, is of late birth in terms of discovery and identity as a tourist destination, this is easier than where "overtourism" has long set the agenda. But in both cases, it also creates space for something new.

Without this space, tourism around merely ticking off of a bucket list does not bring enough interested people to NRW - despite the fact that there now are six World Heritage sites. In North Rhine-Westphalia, we are therefore also trying to turn the classic division between target group and products upside-down. We direct the spotlight towards places where innovations are being created and are working alongside the people who shape them.

What future changes do you hope to make to ensure your organisation is successful?

For us, creative industries and tourism belong together. Welcoming stakeholders of external creative backgrounds together with the local creatives - and understanding tourism as a secondary effect – is our basic principle. It brings us in line with the goals of our office for economic development as well. We’re targeting the internationally oriented, digital-savvy professionals, whose mindset includes a high degree of mobility in both the literal and figurative sense, and who cannot find enough inspiration without a certain degree of subculture. Whether as a qualified specialist, owner of a project or of their own start-up, it is precisely these minds that seek – and, at the same time, shape - these creative environments that are indispensable for the emergence and sustainment of new developments.

So tourism and location marketing meet, and really everything is quite simple. However, creative scenes cannot be "settled" or created, nor do they understandably tolerate being degraded to the status of objects of tourist sightseeing. Faced with this dilemma, we in North Rhine-Westphalia have merged product and target group in the context of our project "FLOW.NRW" and the brand "urbanana" developed for the centres of Cologne, Düsseldorf and the Ruhr Area.

It is important to us and our partners that the messages of creatively and digitally active urban milieus lead to strengthening their own scenes and their own activities, as well as making them visible to like-minded and curious people. That is why we enable the makers and shakers of the creative and digital industries to communicate with more reach. As the first tourism organisation, we therefore no longer advertise ourselves, but conversely place advertisements in the media of the creatives; we let them have their own say, in their own way, in their own and our channels. Tourist channels by themselves can contain multi-faceted views of a destination, but all too often, the original and authentic qualities are rarely visible to potentially interested future citizens or tourists.

Events also support this new cause. We’re excited about new and experimental formats, such as the world's first augmented reality sculpture exhibition in Düsseldorf; it allows us to specifically place messages convincingly for our target audience of those of an exciting but polycentric metropolis of European stature, held together by "flows" such as art, innovations, media and entertainment.

What does that mean for the future?

The conclusion is that we as tourism professionals are no longer really effective on our own. And certainly not along the lines of the old metrics. Instead, we need new alliances and new KPIs. If tourism plans to have an impact on the quality of life we need to cooperate with those in the area of recruiting, with universities or contact points for the start-up scene. These are vital new playing fields. The fact that visitors and potential residents discover the place as their own, with its possibilities not only for professional development but also for leisure activities and with the energy of a "place to be", is more important than the mere number of overnight stays generated.

There’ a new focus on – or a return to – the good functioning of the place, rather than asking ‘where from’ or ‘how many’ when we look at the impact of our tourism marketing. And we’re expanding out tourism networks far beyond traditional marketing and distribution partnerships. A change in the aspiration of tourism organisations is creating new dialogues with the relevant stakeholders to develop strong place positioning with those who are the creators of their destinations. This is even more true under the credo of digitalisation. So we’re allowing others to step forward. Let us instead see our task in orchestrating the voices and creating networks for the benefit of those who accept the destination as their place and learn to love it, no matter for how long.

Thanks for speaking with us, Heike.

Heike will be joining our leadership panel at City Nation Place Global this November 9-10 to explore how strategies, structure, KPIs, and more are evolving in order to take advantage of emerging opportunities and prepare for new challenges. See the full agenda here.

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.