The following article is section of DMAI’s e-book The Evolving Role of DMOs in a Shifting Marketplace. To read the entire e-book, click here.
Visit Oakland was not operating very effectively when Alison Best took over as a first-time CEO in September 2012. The DMO had very limited engagement with the local business community who didn't understand or respect the role of destination marketers. Additionally, the DMO staff were tasked primarily with sales calls versus developing innovative marketing partnerships and brand messaging.
Best's first mission was to reconnect Visit Oakland with Oakland. She started meeting with every decision-maker she could find in the city, whether they were aligned with tourism or not.
“Tourism had never been valued in Oakland, and we’re a good size destination," says Best. "The city didn’t understand it. The chamber didn't understand it. The teams didn’t understand it. The airport probably understood it but they weren’t working with the DMO.”
Visit Oakland also needed to develop an image for the city as a tourism destination. At the time, even though Oakland is only 15 minutes from San Francisco, it wasn't perceived as a leisure travel or meetings destination on a national stage. So Best looked toward DMOs in what she calls other blue collar destinations for inspiration, such as Destination Cleveland, Visit Detroit and Visit Pittsburgh.
Building on that, the Visit Oakland team developed a brand story around "Discover all the stories you don't know," based on the robust development of public spaces along the waterfront, the growing tech and food scenes, and the burgeoning creative class setting up businesses in the city. Basically, Oakland resembled the same situation that Brooklyn found itself two decades ago, which capitalized so well on its post-industrial urban zeitgeist.
Visit Oakland’s staff started reaching out to the creative and business communities to meet the city’s cultural influencers and business owners. That was instrumental to begin defining the city as a destination with interesting stories, creative neighborhoods and authentic local culture. The DMO needed to discover all of those stories it didn’t know before it could tell visitors to do the same.
"We use the hashtag #oaklandloveit, and we have found that has really resonated at a community level as far as building community pride," says Best. "Around specific events, people hashtag #oaklandloveit, and our GoPro videos use #oaklandloveit, so we're definitely using a hashtag rather than a tagline, and that has probably been the thing that has stuck the most."
During the past three years, Visit Oakland's commitment to engage both the local business community and residents has paid off. Tourism is now being taken more seriously as an economic driver due to the DMO's focus on research and data. Before she took over as CEO, Best says, "The city wasn't getting research and data on what the hotels and visitor economy looked like, so we've been doing that."
To help meet the demand for more data, Visit Oakland subscribed to DMAI's Economic Event Calculator & Sports Module. Best says, "We're running all of our conventions through that tool now, and we're able to report out for each convention not only the economic impact in dollars, but how many jobs it's supporting, what the tax revenue is, what the visitor spending is, and other important metrics."
On the Visit Oakland website, anyone can access the annual Business of Tourism report that shows the overall economic impact of tourism in Oakland, including stats related to total visitors, overall spend, taxes earned and jobs created, among others. It also details important community partnerships, advertising spend, branding initiatives and source market breakdowns.
"The traffic to that particular part of the website ranges from city hall to developers to people invested in the industry," says Best. "That's been received really well so that's the proof that we’re becoming much more relevant to economic growth in Oakland. I think it's important to have information like that visible and have it clearly defined."
Visit Oakland can now get a meeting with any stakeholder in the region because the DMO has shown its commitment to the community across all sectors of the city. That's a marked contrast to 2012 when Best had trouble getting people to return her calls. Most importantly, the city has allocated additional funds to bolster Visit Oakland's operating budget, although Best acknowledges there's still a long way to go.
"I think we've proven that we can be a non-biased entity that brings everyone together, and that's a critical role but it's also a huge responsibility too," she explains. "All of a sudden we're bringing in heavy hitters who have huge resources, while we're really the one at the table with the least resources, as far as money goes. But we have the ability to build consensus, so that's become a really big piece for us in Oakland. We're just doing what DMAI and the industry is leading us to do, but for our community it was very new."