How the private sector saved Visit Mexico

In late 2018, the newly elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that the Mexican Tourism Promotion Council would be disbanded. The 800 million pesos [over US $33 million] from fees air travellers pay to enter Mexico that had been assigned to the National Tourism Promotion Fund would be diverted to fund the construction of the Maya Train. Shock echoed around the world, with many voicing concerns that it would give the opportunity for competitive destinations to step into the void Mexico was leaving behind them.

However, Mexico hasn’t abandoned tourism promotion – if you’ll excuse the train pun, they’ve just shifted tracks. Following the rearrangement of the Mexican Government, a new privately funded tourism marketing agency was created to continue promoting the nation on the world stage.

We spoke with Carlos Alberto González González, Director General of the newly relaunched Visit Mexico, to understand how they’re collaborating with industry partners as well as how data is enabling a low-budget promotion strategy.

 

Thank you for joining us, Carlos. We’re very interested to hear how you’ve orchestrated the rebirth of tourism promotion following the initial policy decision. We talk about private sector engagement with place branding strategy, but it’s interesting to see how the private sector are taking the lead in Visit Mexico. Could you explain how that happened?

 

Well, there was a complete 180 degree shift! In the past 18 years, we’ve had two parties but one vision of how the economic landscape of Mexico should look. That’s all changed – there’s another vision of the Mexican economy right now. The President is working to create jobs for the bottom part of the economic pyramid and to support that, he started to cut off a lot of the budgets and trusts within his government. They had to look for ways to handle the activities and obligations of the administration without spending. Leaning on the businessman and the private sector was the best way to keep these activities going.

So we came up with Visit Mexico. When they cut off the funding for tourism promotion, the assets and tools and social media accounts for Visit Mexico were placed on hold until they knew what to do. We’d been working with the administration to digitise tourism promotion – digitising the tourism economy, and the small to medium companies in the tourism sector, was a solution that could drive results without the budget. Then when the decision came and we were handed the contract, we were able to create three main objectives for Visit Mexico.


Can you share those key objectives with us?


The first is obviously the tourism promotion of Mexico. The second is to digitise all the tourism company providers and create a digital ecosystem so we could be more efficient in promoting the country and the experiences that Mexico has to offer. And the third objective – well, this was before COVID-19. Now our goal is to not go crazy in the quarantine – the third goal for 2020 had been to make tourism promotion 100% data driven. To start changing how the promotion was done, from investing without having data, to shifting to an insight-based approach.

When we started working with these three main lines of action, we also started consulting around the project so that we knew what questions we should answer in the years that we’ll be operating VisitMexico.com. In the end, we came up with five questions.

The first question was what’s the feeling about Mexico? And this had to be internal as well as external. Then there’s the question of what happens when our tourists arrive in Mexico. We just didn’t have the data about what happens when they walk out of the airport on arrival until they return to their own country. We didn’t know for certain where the tourist moved or where they went during their visit to Mexico.

The third question was where the tourist was spending – precisely. Then we needed to understand how we can give more possibilities to the medium and little companies so that they earn more money from the tourism sector. And the last was, how can we use all the social media posting and content that tourism and visitors generate to promote Mexico with zero-cost. Or at the very least, to be extraordinarily cost efficient.


How are you aiming to answer those questions?


Once we’d defined our three main objectives and those five questions we wanted to answer, we looked all over the world to see which platform or software other countries were using successfully and that we could implement in Mexico. We went software shopping – and not because we couldn’t develop our own software, but if we spent two years developing software and then testing it… we’d spend more time doing that than actually acting!

As a private company, I think it was easier for us to go shopping like that than for other destination marketing organisations. We did it all in just a couple of months and then started implementing the software in the pipeline of our activities to see how we could use it to help the destinations – both the states and the national government.

And then we had to solve the money problem. There’s no reliable funding stream for promoting Mexico anymore – and they used to spend a huge amount of money. [In the twelve years of the preceding two governments, 37 billion pesos - just under US $2 billion - was spent on tourism promotion through the Council.] In order to be efficient and have results, the digital way was the first thing we aimed for in order to be more efficient with much less money – and yet still achieve the results that we’re looking for.


So what was your background before Visit Mexico? We know that you’ve come from a private sector background, but what was your journey into tourism promotion?

 

I was a consultant for some companies here in Cancun. That’s where I’m quarantined right now, but unfortunately with no access to the beach – we just have to look at them through the window! But yes, I was a consultant for companies in the tourism industry, and before that I was a President for eight years at the Universidad TecMilenio – linking with the private sector and developing commercial strategies for them was a key focus for me.


Were you primarily consulting around data and digital?

 

No, it was more around commercial strategy – how we can boost the sales and the reach of companies in Mexico. But then because of helping organisations to grow reach, to segment clients and to achieve their company goals, we started to move into the world of digital and data. And we started to think that implementing this in the government would be a much more efficient way to deliver what we were already achieving. You always have a track on what you’re doing.

And the other thing we knew we could achieve was particularising the strategy for key groups and segments without spending tonnes of money on billboards and airport signs.

Right now, we’re working with two main companies in Israel that have amazing communication software and social listening tools and we’re using that to shape the tourism promotion.


How long did this take – from the government turning off the money tap through to having enough money to achieve all of this?


Just a couple of months really. The government cut off the budget for tourism and that was it, so we had to come up with a plan where we could gather private money and sponsorship money that could be invested in the promotion of Mexico – and we had to be quick.

We’ve made deals with the Discovery Channel so that we can have TV space and digital space, and we use this to sell sponsorship to automotive companies, retail companies – any private company with an interest in promoting Mexico.


So you secured the media space and sold it on to others to use?

 

Yes.


And they’re not all tourism companies either? They saw the value in promoting Mexico?

 

Absolutely. We have 312 thirty-minute shows with the Discovery channel every year that we’re producing. So we can integrate brand placement into the shows and that then gives us the money to continue operating and investing.

We have a plan to come up with our own channels, but this was quicker and more efficient to get things running quickly. It was a cost of the times – we needed to start promoting Mexico, and this was the easiest way for us to start placing sponsored brands and promotion within Mexico and the US. Of course, we can’t sell anything at the moment due to COVID-19.  We also have a deal with the Yankees in NYC so we can promote in their stadiums. We can use their channels to reach the New York market with the Yankees as our communicator.


COVID-19 had caused everyone to stop and rethink. Do you think that your data approach will give you an advantage in your recovery?

 

Our Tourism Minister recently launched the crisis management strategy that we’ve come up with. We’re already had a great video out, but now we’re moving to market-based messaging as well. Visit Mexico are going to be managing the strategy for the country, but there’s just one message between all of the states.

We’ve partnered with APCO on this, as they were the communications agency who managed the H1N1 Influenza crisis in Mexico. At the time, they were just focussing on the health crisis and had to communicate around the tourism industry. Here in Mexico, there are millions of families who rely on tourism, so we need to create positive messages to support them. We need to position Mexico today, during and after the crisis as an empathetic, authentic country – and also the best travel option.

The first part of our strategy is to communicate empathy with the Mexican states and our sixteen key markets. The second part is to be present in people’s houses during the quarantine, and then the third part is geared for recovery. As soon as we can start communicating, we can launch a new ‘Come to Mexico’ campaign.


So what are you doing at the moment? Where are you at in your strategy?


At the moment, we’ve just begun launching campaigns for our key markets – with a particular message for each country. They’re framed as personalised letters to each nation – so the Canadian one speaks to them about their unique experiences during the virus. The perspective is to send empathy messages to say that we’re wishing you well, and that we hope to see you again as soon as possible.

Our main difficulty with our international campaign strategy is that we have to be able to make quick decisions. We have to be reacting to countries as they come out of the crisis. We’re running a social listening platform which we can use alongside the intelligence from the APCO offices in our 16 key markets to gauge the social mood of the country. It would be rude to promote tourism in a country that’s not yet ready to travel. So that’s something we’ll be keeping a close eye on.

On a national level, we know that the first thing that will reactivate is local and domestic travel, so we’re going to be quite aggressive in our message to Mexicans that we need them – we need them to travel local, to shop local, to eat local because we need to help support our businesses. Deloitte has made predictions on how the economy will flow in each country, but it’s terrible. The absolute best is a country losing only 5%. We have to help the local economy re-establish itself.


How does this collaboration work between the state teams?

 

With this strategy, we’ve created a complete message of what Mexico will deliver both internally and externally. We’ve made a lot of partners. There’s a special partnership in Mexico, a communication council of 200 of the biggest companies and they fund and share campaigns against corruption, against domestic violence – all social welfare issues, created without looking for profit.

We’ve arranged a campaign with this council – since we’re not looking for profits in this campaign, and they’re working with us to promote the strategy. Visit Mexico are creating the message, the council will support us with the media, and the states are collaborating with the strategy and contributing a little money. A lot of the initial money was from the Tourism Minister, and we’re putting in money as well. So we’re able to secure the production and digital strategy with the backing of the states, and then this council is going to enter and boost the message within Mexico, the US and Canada.

We have one united front against the crisis.


This is a very unique campaign though. Going forwards after the crisis, if you have one place brand for the nation and the states are doing their own thing – will that fragment the brand or are they happy to adopt it?

 

Honestly, we don’t know. In Mexico – and indeed in many countries – the states are independent and they can do what they want. But we hope that with this strategy, and as united as we are to face this crisis, that we can regroup all the tourism promotion within the Visit Mexico brand. They can have their solo efforts, but still align it with the broader Mexico brand so we’re not in a tourism trade show with four different brands like we were this year. I think the crisis will make this happen and bring the states and federal government together on tourism. We’re hopeful.


Carlos, thank you so much for your time. It’s an amazing story and it’s been great to hear more about it.


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