Spotlight: Visit St. Pete/ Clearwater

Destinations facing challenge with resilience and creativity

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater’s On-Brand Communications

Resilience and creativity have always been hallmarks of the travel industry. At Miles, we’ve been inspired by the innovative ways that destinations and organizations are exemplifying those qualities, adapting to meet the extraordinary challenges presented by COVID-19. We will be spotlighting those efforts here each week to help share that inspiration throughout the industry.

Read on to find out how Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has found a sweet spot between communicating important travel safety information and maintaining their light-hearted and engaging brand voice. 

Challenge: Finding Balance

As we navigate the uncharted waters of reopening cities across the U.S., the demand for information is undeniable. According to Destination Analysts, nearly 80% of Americans who plan to travel this year will research how the destination they choose to visit is managing the COVID-19 situation. Visit St. Pete/Clearwater (VSPC) needed a way to share critical and sometimes complex information about their destination with locals, partners and potential visitors—all without compromising the playful tone their brand is known for.

Strategy: Be True

Embracing the challenge, VSPC created a Travel Updates digital hub to share the latest information with locals and leisure travelers, communicating in the tried-and-true, engaging VSPC brand voice. Tips around “beaching responsibly” are peppered with funny and empathetic side comments that meet readers where they are (stuck at home like the rest of us). VSPC has also created videos that hit a positive note and complement the written content, emphasizing “Brighter Days Ahead.”

While aiming for VSPC’s signature friendly tone, the consumer hub still provides practical, timely information about which beaches, parks and businesses are open, as well as details on restrictions or requirements for those who visit them. A community approach, close relationships with partners and weekly meetings with county organizers are making this possible.

Results: Trusted Resource

In remaining true to their brand voice and working closely with local businesses and partners to provide reliable information, VSPC has become a trusted resource in this time of uncertainty for industry partners, locals and leisure travelers. Strong email open rates, a recovery in website traffic and doubled traffic year-over-year to their partner site are all indications of success.

To learn more, we emailed Vice President, Digital & Communications for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Leroy Bridges, to ask about VSPC’s strategy behind sharing information during this difficult and complicated time.

VSPC has a very defined brand voice. Have you found it necessary to adjust your communications style during COVID-19?

We’ve been thoughtful about creating new COVID-era content in our brand voice. On one hand, we certainly don’t want to make light of the seriousness of the pandemic or the concerns of potential travelers. On the other, consumers are inundated with alarming news every single day, and they need some relief. We decided to stay true to our positive, fun and friendly voice while delivering some very important information. Our instincts seem to be right – a Destination Analysts’ traveler sentiment survey earlier this month found that consumers want destinations to speak to them in an honest and friendly way. Using an authoritative voice was seen as a turn-off.

How have you approached sharing information with industry partners vs. consumers?

We had already established segmented marketing and communications platforms, so we’ve been able to leverage them during this crisis. With partners, our approach is more plainspoken, more data-driven. Our partner site is updated multiple times during the week with new information, and we’ve sent out more than 50 email updates to partners in a six-week period, beginning in early March.

For local businesses – many of which are small, family-owned places – that thoroughness and clarity is the biggest value that VSPC can offer right now. We keep partners informed about changing state and county regulations. We’ve aggregated a lot of data on the impact of COVID-19 because local businesses just don’t have the staff to keep up with the massive amounts of information out there. And we’ve been offering weekly webinars so that our partners have access to tourism thought leaders who can help our local businesses chart a course through this.

We’ve been a major resource for our partners. I feel good about that.

Are you seeing any trends in the topics of information consumers are engaging with most?

From the research we’re seeing, it’s clear that consumers are actively engaging with travel content and virtual tours, not just on, but on a whole host of travel websites and social platforms. Wanderlust is still part of who we are, even if it’s just dreaming and planning for future trips. On our website and social channels, we’ve seen good engagement with our live beach webcams, on our main Travel Updates page, as well as with content on current beach conditionsvisiting our beaches responsibly and outdoor activities that people can do right now. It makes sense that about a third of our site traffic is going to informational pages, beach and outdoors content. We expect that to continue for some time.

How has video complemented your communication with consumers?

Video has always been a major part of our marketing efforts, but we’ve created some new content recently, including our “Brighter Days Ahead” video and some ASMR audio/video experiences that bring the beach and other local experiences to visitors. We also just released a new video series that will encourage visitors and locals to beach safely. Like our written content, the messages are fun, not heavy-handed.

How are you involving locals in your communication efforts and what has been their response?

Locals are the original influencers, no? During a time when moving about isn’t as possible, we’ve leaned on user-generated content more than ever across our social media platforms. That means utilizing content from locals who are in corners of the destination we can’t actually travel to, or spotlighting a local business owner with a Facebook live cooking session in her own kitchen. I think oftentimes brands can be too controlled on social media. Don’t be afraid to let it rip a bit during this time. Leaning on UGC is a good way to do that.

Beyond our locals, our county organizations have come together to form stronger partnerships. For example, VSPC, our county economic development and marketing/communications teams, and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office now meet every Monday morning to exchange ideas and share what we’re working on for the week. This is a level of communication and partnership we frankly haven’t had before, but necessity has brought about more interaction and that’s a really good thing. It means we have more impactful, cohesive messages going out to locals and potential visitors. The Sheriff’s Beach Capacity Dashboard is an incredible resource for beachgoers that came out of that collaboration.

How are you measuring the success of the informational content you’re sharing with locals and potential visitors?

We’re measuring success primarily through engagements. Our email open rates are strong, both with partner and consumer communications. Our consumer web traffic took a big dip in March and April, but we’ve been very encouraged to see how strong it’s come back in May. Our bounce rate has improved. Time on site as well as Destination Magazine views on the website have held steady. Traffic to our partner site is up 98 percent year-over-year from the beginning of March to mid-May.

On a more personal side, we’ve heard directly from partners about how appreciative they are about our consistent and thorough communications. They know if they read only one thing all day, our email will catch them up on all things relevant to them and our destination. That’s success, too.

Do you have any tips for other DMOs around employing brand voice in communications about restrictions and safety as destinations move toward a post-COVID world?

So much is changing that I think every destination has to evaluate if and how their brand voice translates today. I think destinations need to keep true to their brand identity, and to keep crisis communications open, honest and respectful of travelers’ concerns, fears and current reality. Be informative and try to add some levity where you can. And don’t be afraid to try something. Lean into who you are and create/share content.

Are there any future exciting things coming up for St. Pete/Clearwater that you’d like to share?

We have two major attractions on the horizon – the new St. Pete Pier, which is part of a huge bayfront Pier District, and the new Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement in downtown St. Pete. Both were originally slated to open this month, but we’re hoping they’ll welcome visitors later this summer. Also, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, one of our iconic attractions, will open a new dolphin habitat later this year which will allow more space to rescue and rehabilitate wild dolphins.

Get the Latest

Check out VSPC’s Travel Updates, as well as cool virtual experiences, Zoom backgrounds, the creative “Beach Responsibly” video series and more here.