Lessons from a digital and social-oriented organization

Katie Shriner

11 November 2016

What can we learn from a destination marketing organization (DMO) that was able to start afresh? Formed in 2014, VisitBrabant had the rare opportunity to reorganize and redefine its role as a DMO. Under the leadership of General Director Heleen Huisjes, VisitBrabant made a remarkably clear-cut choice for digital marketing, with social at the heart of their strategy.

Speaking at the 2015 Social Media Tourism Symposium in Europe, Huisjes ran through the process of starting anew and stressed the importance of taking risks: “We did not develop from a blueprint with a known outcome, but we used the serendipity approach and we have real confidence that this will bring more than trying to know everything before you start.”

Here are four key takeaways from Huisjes’ presentation:

Think big and focus on the story

One of first steps for the organization was to focus on telling one clear story, instead of the myriad offerings within the region. By developing annual themes, VisitBrabant created storylines that could be marketed internationally. For example, the first annual theme of Vincent Van Gogh enabled people to connect with the Master Painter’s homeland. This story spread through digital and social platforms, and operators were able to integrate the theme into their product offerings. VisitBrabant even worked with famed Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde to create an innovative bike path that lights up in the evening with Vincent’s starry skies. While the project initially attracted criticism, it is now a major attraction for the region.

Innovation means building a strong network

VisitBrabant has built a strong network of people to support their organization. This includes stakeholders, entrepreneurs, sector organizations, educational and research institutions, regional authorities and locals. This open innovation method results in a more diverse range of expertise than can be found in one specific company. Internally, Huisjes’ explains that her team operates like a networking society. This is reflected in their new office space which consists of one big room in an old converted factory. “We are sharing everything we do in our workspace”, says Huisjes.

Make the shift to digital marketing

In shifting to a digital approach, Huisjes and her team had to resist temptations from stakeholders asking for traditional media. Focusing 99% of their efforts on digital, the DMO can constantly refine their offerings in a fast and efficient manner. Visitor data is used for marketing campaigns and product development, and is also available to entrepreneurs. Focusing on digital also allows for experimentation as witnessed in their decision to release an open Beta version of their website and app. The organization’s belief in open innovation and shared development for better results influenced this decision.

Stories are social at the core

A story is better when it comes from a visitor or local rather than the DMO itself, explains Huisjes. For this reason, VisitBrabant invested heavily into their social media communities. Ask A Local, their highly personalized digital platform reflects VisitBrabant’s goal to be welcoming and innovative. A place where locals and visitors meet, it’s designed to help Brabant’s residents feel proud of where they live and help visitors create an experience based on their needs. Huisjes also highlights the importance of involving volunteers in campaigns and events to further highlight the proud community of Brabant.

Watch Heleen Huisjes’ full presentation below:

Related reading: Change management at the DMO: Why destinations need to be proactive

Featured image credit: VisitBrabant – Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bike path


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