Is AI-optimisation the future of place marketing?

The arrival of Generative AI has changed the rules of the game. While AI can presently only reiterate existing content, it has lowered the barrier to creating content and challenged marketers to develop truly stand out creative. We caught up with Stefan Hawes, VP of Global Marketing for Destination Vancouver, to understand how destination marketers should be responding to the emergence of Generative AI technologies and the importance of being more innovative, and niche in your place marketing.

What do you think the biggest opportunity is for destinations who are looking to engage new audiences? 

Oooh. Interesting question. Very broad though! Even though this is a technology related interview, I’m going to give a very non-technology based response.

I believe that to expand on opportunities and audiences, we have to become even tighter with our brand definitions and strategies. To go broad, we need to be more niche. We need to understand who we are, then understand how that definition fits with the expanded audiences.

I feel like the majority of work in the destination marketing space looks just like everyone else’s. It’s a positioning statement and a montage of all the wonderful things to do in that destination, perhaps tailored to a category, and everything ends up looking like everything else. It’s an undifferentiated sea of sameness. And that’s why the special few that do things differently, like the recent campaign for The Yukon, stand out so much.

Admittedly, I personally haven’t accomplished this yet. This is not me telling the industry that it’s easy. But I’d like to see more of us break free, differentiate ourselves with a clear message simply communicated, and set a path for the others. It’s my goal for 2024. And, by doing so, it’ll make it easier to connect with new audiences in a way that genuinely resonates with them.

How will advances in tools such as generative AI and machine learning impact the way that destination marketing organisations operate?

Given the opportunity, it will change everything. It can give you a strong starting point for strategic development. It can help you gain a much better understanding of your visitors, your destination and your communities, to help you with assessing opportunities within destination development. And, of course, it can aid with execution from project management to content creation to document creation.

The key thing to keep in mind is that current AI can’t create things that have never been done before. It bases its recommendations on likely patterns and statistics. So it is unlikely to have an original thought. It’s a great starting point, but teams that can then go from that starting point and add creativity and innovative thinking will still be far ahead of those who fully rely on their AI.

What led you to develop Destination Vancouver’s Digital Concierge service?

We were incredibly fortunate in that we made rethinking our digital visitor experience a strategic priority in the second half of 2022. We worked extensively with digital strategic partners Modern Craft through a process that included primary research, extensive stakeholder interviews, and a review of global best practices. This resulted in a Digital Visitor Experience strategy with accompanying objectives that was mostly finalized by the end of ’22, when Generative AI appeared. We then put our strategic work on hold for a period, to determine if AI could help us deliver on the strategies we had just created, and the answer was, of course, a resounding yes.

So, we were in just the right place to have a tool appear that enabled us to deliver on our strategy, and that made the development of an AI driven digital concierge a possibility.

Is there anything surprising that you learnt from the process?

We’re still in mid-process, but we’ve had significant surprises along the way. Working with AI enables us to do things we never could have accomplished before, but it’s also not always easy. We made some, in hindsight, poor decisions along the way that cost months of wasted time and effort. With AI everyone is learning, including some of the world’s best companies. No one has done a lot of these things before, so often the expected expertise is simply not there.

How can place brand and marketing organisations ensure they’re investing in strategic digital transformation, and not just a new solution that will ultimately end up gathering virtual dust?

There’s really two levels to this question. At one level, AI is an executional tool to aid with tactics. It can help you create content. It can help you with your research. It can help find insights in your pile of data. Those tend to be day-to-day activities where it can provide major efficiency gains today with minimal investment. That’s a constantly evolving world where teams should already be exploring tools, with the expectation that the best tools today will not be the best tools in 6 months. So use, collaborate, share, and get the efficiencies in your workflow that current technologies offer today.

At the other level, that of strategic investment into AI capabilities, it, as always, starts with solid strategic planning. What are you trying to accomplish at an organisational level in 2024?  Can AI help you deliver on those goals? If so, it’s worth the investigation to determine whether the potential gains to be had from applying AI are worth the risk of ongoing technological change.

Lastly, there has to be an acceptance that any AI-centric project comes with risk. There’s no guarantee that the implementation will be easy or that the technology won’t shift on you mid-way through. I had these discussions with our CEO at the beginning of our journey to ensure he was aware of the potential risk, and he agreed that it was worth taking. But if you choose to not do anything because of the risk, then you are certain to fall behind.

What do you think is the key to blending technological efficiencies with human creativity?

As someone who has spent the majority of my career running creative agencies, this is a very interesting challenge. At present, the best AI tools can come up with not terrible base level ideas. However, none of their ideas are truly original. They are based on patterns and statistics which, by definition, don’t allow for original creativity. So the opportunity is to work with people, either within your organisation or with agencies that can deliver creative that is above and beyond what the AI can deliver, and which provides you and your brand with a competitive advantage.

The challenge is that most creative outputs, from within DMO creative teams or from agencies, aren’t at that top level that’s better than AI. There’s lots of average creative, which isn’t distinctive or new. And that can be easily replaced by AI. The bar has certainly been raised.

Our agencies know that we got the first round of good ideas in two minutes, when we fed the brief into ChatGPT. They are aware that they have to be much, much better. I’m kind of happy I’m not in the agency business anymore.

If you had an unlimited budget, is there a technological solution that you’d love to develop for Destination Vancouver?

The biggest opportunity and threat to many elements of our industry is the creation of autonomous agents that will bypass all marketing and legacy systems in order to plan and purchase travel. This is the change that makes all of our efforts at website improvements, partnerships with third parties, or anything mid-funnel and below obsolete. With an unlimited budget, I would want to find a way to be successful in that agent-driven world and for us to find ways to influence those agents to pick Vancouver.

We’re looking at a new paradigm where AI-Optimisation becomes the new Search Engine Optimisation. The biggest difference is that no one really knows what makes the AI do exactly what it does. It can cite resources and links, but it can’t say why it served up one hotel vs. another. The tools and resources that Destination Vancouver is currently building, including what we refer to as our destination library, should help set us up for future success as the technology continues to evolve. But there’s no limit to the amount of what can be done to prepare for the radical change that is to come.

Lots to think about, clearly. Thanks for sharing that with us, Stefan – and we look forward to seeing you in Houston this May.



Destination Vancouver’s Stefan Hawes will be exploring this topic in more detail at the 2024 City Nation Place Americas conference on our panel, Understanding the Future of Place Marketing, alongside Visit SLO CAL’s Cathy Cartier. Join us this May 14-15th to learn more and to connecting with place practitioners from across the USA & Canada who are leading the way to creating vibrant, thriving places. Check out the full agenda for CNP Americas here.

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