Ten essential lessons all places should learn from a year of COVID-19

Just about a year ago, we released an article looking at how  DMOs and EDOs were already evolving their roles to support their communities during COVID-19. Looking back, it’s staggering to see how quickly we were able to turn our activities around. Certainly, at the time it felt like we were all six steps behind and running to keep up, but it’s worth acknowledging how much we did manage to achieve.

However, there’s still a long road ahead of us. What learnings from the past year will continue to shape and evolve place branding and marketing strategies as we plan for the future? We reached out to our Expert partners to understand what they considered essential lessons for destination marketing and economic development teams around the world.

1. Flexibility and adaptability are critical

Adaptability and speediness to react. It’s important to look closely at how fast nations and places in general were able to move in terms of taking action. Moving forward, we need to be cognizant that crises happen, and consistently ask ourselves whether we are prepared to react in a swift and effective manner. Plan to be flexible, because there’s no telling what will come next.

Jose Torres, President, Bloom Consulting

2. Take the time to understand how international perceptions of your place are shaping your brand image

Despite borders across the world remaining closed and the thought of travelling to a foreign land still an improbable dream for most, there has been a universal interest in how different nations, regions, and cities around the world are responding to the pandemic. These perceptions, differing from country to country and between various demographics, are central to the reputation of place brands. Now is a better time than ever to understand how those views are shaping your brand’s image and to align with the new values, aspirations, and hesitations of the world as we attempt to return to normalcy.

Parul Soni, Associate, Brand Finance


3. Dig deeper into customer and community sentiment

I believe the biggest lesson that places have learnt is that they can’t rely on the past to predict the future. Historic customers may not customers of the future. As things continue to move fast, every place has had to move even faster and to understand and dig deeper into changing customer and community sentiment and attitudes, scoping out not only those most likely to visit, but also those most likely to add the most value for the future. Those places which understand the most beneficial and sustainable potential market capacity and then innovate to track those arrivals and visitors and community benefit will recover fastest in the future.

Debbie Hindle, CEO, Four Communications

4. Build meaningful engagement with multiple communities

A scan of what is being talked about at the leadership level in the industry points to the inarguable fact that alignment and the need for real and meaningful engagement with multiple communities of interest, as well as a pressing need for digital improvement, are all accelerated by this crisis and will play a significant role in recovery. There is no substitute for stakeholder engagement, the hardest part is taking that first intimidating step.

Caroline Dawson, Director of Business Development, Simpleview

5. Local User-Generated Content is here to stay

The pandemic has allowed DMOs to create closer ties with their communities. In doing so, they have realized that what attracts visitors isn’t just their attractions, but the people behind every great experience—that’s what makes your destination truly unique.

 Many years ago, we realized that authentic visuals are the most compelling type of content that travellers are seeking. This past year, we’ve seen DMOs use local UGC to build trust and confidence among locals and visitors, show what’s open, and reinforce health and safety messages. We believe that these locally told, first-person stories are here to stay. They can pair beautifully with the stories destinations are already telling travellers, and will make your destination more visible and relevant than ever before.

Dan Holowack, Co-Founder & CEO, CrowdRiff

6. Digital is king and bringing experiences to life online will be key to success.

In the past, place brands relied on their physical assets to drive revenue and fame. In a world where we can’t travel, digital has become the go-to for places to bring their experience to life. Going forward I see more places looking to bring their experience to life digitally, or in other places. Estonia has just launched their E-Residency program as an example. With travel unlikely to launch full-scale anytime soon, destinations should start looking for new ways to recreate their experiences in other places - a pop-up Rio Carnival in the European summer anyone? Brands that free themselves from the shackles of their geography will be the winners.

Gary Bryant, Executive Director, Strategy, LANDOR & FITCH

7. Don’t be hyper-present – instead encourage independent innovation in your private sector

For me, the biggest lesson I hope cities have been reminded of is that their role is to create an environment that supports their residents and businesses, but then to get out of their way. We saw cities provide support and resources but then let go of certain restrictions on businesses and pedestrians in many areas and it let people naturally adapt and solve problems and face challenges. That should be the standard approach not just a response to a crisis.

Ryan Short, CEO, CivicBrand

9. Challenge your assumptions and make sure your strategy is data-led

In my opinion, what 2020 has taught us is that we live in an extremely volatile world and that past experiences cannot be trusted anymore to plan our future. To succeed in these troubled times, the only real solution is not to make any assumptions and to monitor closely the real status of your destination and the potential evolutions that can affect it.

In complex environments like the current one, the use of constantly updated quantitative data and insights to guide your decision making can have a decisive impact on the definition of a successful course of action. The reward of adequate policies and measures is to place your destination in a privileged position ahead of the competition for recovery. Cases such as the Dominican Republic, Dubai or Israel seem to confirm it as they have respectively introduced better health and safety measures, even Digital B¡Nomad Visas, to ensure travellers are warmly welcomed back to their favourite holiday destination.

Emilio Ines, VP of Destinations, ForwardKeys

10. Diversifying builds resilience

There are a number of important lessons that I think places have learnt from the pandemic. Firstly, the need and ability to diversify and not just rely wholly on one type of visitor whether that is international tourism, domestic or MICE business. Second, the opportunity to capitalise on new trends, particularly the desire for increased engagement with the landscape and to undertake a more “experiential” form of tourism. Thirdly, the way we work has changed significantly and going forward certain types of jobs and occupations will have more flexibility than they did previously about where and when they work. Destinations need to be ready to adapt to this changing landscape, reimagining their high streets and engaging businesses in creating destinations which are great places to work, live and visit. And fourthly, we have all seen the vital role which DMOs have played in supporting tourism businesses through this crisis. Ensuring that destinations have the resources to manage the visitor economy well is vital if we are to deliver a sustained recovery for our sector.

Deirdre Wells, CEO, Go To Places

Community is everything

The forced introspection and recalibration of the past year has surfaced a number of rock-hard truths. While every place is grappling with its unique issues, there are important common themes about what matters most that we all must recognize.

1. Neighbourliness matters.

When global connections are abruptly severed, the robustness of local networks is critical. The vital importance of community players – from small businesses and not-for-profits to civic-minded neighbours – hit home this year. From neighbourhoods to cities and regions, places need to ensure people feel invested in their locale. Feeding that sense of belonging takes constant nurturing through engagement.

2. Inclusion counts.

While the pandemic raged, it also tore the veil from many long-standing social and economic inequities. Historical injustices are being called to account. Whose history do places celebrate in their monuments and icons? The mantra, “Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion  is an action. Belonging is an outcome.” is almost a haiku-like roadmap for civic leaders. There are no simple answers but a commitment to greater inclusiveness will reap long-term rewards for place resilience and vitality.

3. Creativity is a natural resource.

When forced to break the way-we-do-things mould, people and places have found surprising depths of adaptability and ingenuity. Libraries became food distribution hubs, manufacturers morphed into PPE producers, legions of makers created masks. The ability to make bold, creative moves to meet the real reads of communities by tapping into the creativity and imagination of locals is one of the biggest lessons I hope places all embrace.

Jeanette Hanna, Chief Strategist, Trajectory

Related reading:

Putting Baltimore on the map as the USA's most inclusive destination

Four big challenges we face in 2021 to Build Back Better

Three ways place brand leaders can foster innovation and creativity in a virtual workplace

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