10 learnings from 10 years of supporting regional tourism

As Tilma Group celebrates its tenth birthday (!), here are some key learnings we've had along the way about regional tourism. 

These come from a decade of working across the whole spectrum of regional tourism. We’ve supported clients such as local government, destinations, tourism operators and tourism events with strategic planning for destination development, industry development, product and experience development, strategic marketing planning and implementation, event creation, event management, event growth strategies, collaboration…

You name it, we've done it (and we’ve been there!)

The team at Tilma Group can certainly claim to be holistic tourism experts who get how all the pieces of the puzzle contribute to the whole picture of growing tourism into regional destinations!

After ten years of supporting over 200 regional and rural tourism clients, we understand the challenges and opportunities of such destinations.

Here are some of our top learnings:

1.    Be you. Everyone else is already taken.

Even though your neighbour is having great success with something, don’t duplicate what your neighbour is doing. (Mountain biking, anyone?)

Identify your point of difference - your "thing". 

How do you find your point of difference amongst all the noise? The short answer is assess what are your strengths and identify how you can leverage or develop them to meet the needs of your ideal visitors. 

Pie Time.jpeg

A great example of this is Pie Time in the Southern Highlands of NSW. A tourism product and experience audit revealed a whole bunch of bakeries making pies in the region. This little piece of knowledge was transformed into a month of events that captures the imagination of media all over. The Southern Highlands now fills up with visitors each June to take part in pie cooking, pie eating and throwing competitions, piecycle tours, pinot and pie tours, pie cooking classes, a self-drive pie trail, paddock to pie tours, “pie” tea, pie drive fundraisers, even a ‘How Your Grandma Made Pies’ exhibition at the museum!

Our challenge to you: identify 2-4 game changer projects that would transform your destination, then create action plans on how the community can (and will!) achieve them. 

2.    Passive is old school (and not in a cool way)

There’s a very good reason participatory sports events like fun runs and soft adventure like cycling and hiking are on trend:

  • They get the blood pumping, literally! ...and the endorphins and feel-good feelings :)
  • They provide the opportunity for personal challenge and achievement
  • ...and therefore enhance confidence and self-esteem
  • They encourage teamwork and communication
  • ...so they create a sense of community and bonding between travelling companions 
  • ...and also connect visitors to a destination
  • They get people out into nature with all of its benefits (Have you heard of forest bathing?)
  • They offer experiences not normally had by urban and suburban residents in daily life

What would you rather do?
Take your kids to a hyped-up expensive museum and passively look at exhibitions, or would you rather take them to do something active or engaging like searching in the dirt for gem stones or fossils?  

In other words, do you need to create a very expensive tourism asset, or can you activate your existing assets in a way that is both affordable and sustainable? 

3.    Be excellent, dude!

Sometimes it's the simplest thing that appeals to your visitors and gets them talking. We often remember simple pleasures like sitting around a campfire under the stars. 

On a trip to the Outback recently, with its millions of stories, experiences and photo opportunities, what inspired Linda to get on social media and make a recommendation was the excellent coffee with its accompanying free shower at Fanny Maes Café in Tambo

Delivering an exceptional experience is much more important than an expensive new building. Your going above and beyond your visitors' expectations will get your visitors talking about you to their networks (and this is both more effective and much less expensive than a big marketing campaign!).

4.    The time of hard sell is over

The role of “marketing” has changed to “providing excellent experiences” so your visitors will be motivated tell their friends about you. The time for telling the world "We are great!" is done. It’s time to use the art of storytelling. Share your customers’ stories to engage your audience. Tourism & Events Queensland has a great guide on how to learn this art

Here is a fun (and very old-school but cool) way to help your visitors tell their friends they had an awesome time at your destination or event: provide (and send!) postcards for free for your visitors. Kushla took advantage of such an offering at The Planting Festival which helped their sister event, Woodford Folk Festival, get promoted.

festival postcard.jpg

Kushla's friend in Germany sent this kitsch but fun "Holiday Greetings from Thomsdorf" postcard from a little town he was camping at.
(We love the little boxes down the bottom to tick off which say “Today we were in Thomsdorf swimming, diving, boating, cycling.”)

Tourist postcard.jpg

5.    Invest in the skills of your community and your uniquely homegrown events

Don't forget destination and industry development in the rush to invest in destination marketing campaigns.

Rather than investing in a marketing campaign, consider investing in operators' ability to engage with their ideal customers on their social media, building their skills for the long term. (Everyone could use social media training!)

There are tons of free resources online for anyone who wants to learn how to improve their use of social media (We are also happy to come and deliver training workshops ;-) ). We see some many missed opportunities and odd budget wastages in this realm.  

In the same vein, invest in the development of your destination’s unique homegrown events and in building up the skills and capacity of their committees rather than purchasing events like touring concerts and sports events. Your homegrown events offer authenticity to your destination and visitors so support their development towards self-sustainability. 

Events need volunteer support.
Businesses who benefit from the tourist dollars events provide need to help!
If you want the benefits of your local festival, you have to be willing to help with your labour – your time during the planning phases if you’ll be too busy when the crowds are in town, or your donation of dollars so labour can be hired.

Would you be happy if your local tourist-drawing event fell over?
Trust us – this is quite possible, even for events with a long history. We see event committees burning out left, right and centre!

6.    Leverage what is going on around you

Collaboration is underutilised.
Tourism operators shouldn't rely solely on Council and the regional tourism organisation (RTO) to draw visitors to the region, but collaborate to offer exceptional experiences that people will talk about. It is really, really time to stop competing with similar businesses in your destination but to cooperate so you all can compete with other destinations. Recommend your neighbours' businesses to keep visitors in your town as long as possible.

What if your destination's goal for everyone was to encourage every single visitor to stay another night? (Think about the impact of that for a moment!).

Creating brand awareness is expensive in order to get sufficient cut through the 'noise', but you can reduce that expense by leveraging what your council and RTO are doing. Get involved in their campaigns rather than going alone.

You are welcome to join our free collaborative industry Facebook groups where you can ask as many questions as you like! (and share your learnings): Regional Festivals and Events for event organisers and Regional and Rural Destination Marketing.


7.    Think in clusters

Think journeys, itineraries, bundling and packaging. 

Your tourism business may not be a destination on its own, but by working with your neighbours, you can create a reason for visitors to come with a cluster of diverse experiences in one region. The aim of packaging or working collaboratively as a cluster is to encourage visitors to increase their stay and spend within a region.

Screenshot of a journey from  southernqueenslandcountry.com.au

Screenshot of a journey from southernqueenslandcountry.com.au

Journeys and itineraries help potential visitors see how much and what there is to do if they chose to visit your region. Check out these enticing itineraries (and how they use visuals) from New Zealand. Would these help you understand what you could do in an unfamiliar destination?

Screenshot of an itinerary from  newzealand.com

Screenshot of an itinerary from newzealand.com

Would visitors to your destination website or your regional tourism website get a clear idea how they could fill 3-5 days with activities and experiences in your destination?

Bundling is presenting a cluster of complementary tourism products which share a theme, such as a bundle of luxury experiences including daytrips on a yacht, five-star restaurants, wineries, spas and accommodations.

Here is an example of seven operators working together to bundle experiences on the Mornington Peninsula:

Packages are a combination of two or more products offered as a single unit of sale to a visitor, such as a two-night stay in X hotel, entry to Y attraction, and a bush foods tour with Z company all sold as one package. Learn more about packaging

8.    Grant funding

There are loads of grants out there for non-profits and commercial businesses – for arts, sports, community, infrastructure, events…

We’d suggest

  • creating a wish list of what you would like help with
  • checking in with your council’s grant officer if there is one
  • signing up for federal, state and local government grant emails that will notify you when grant rounds open
  • ensuring you only apply for grants where you meet the criteria
  • and for events: use grants to double your sponsorship dollars (where matched funding is a condition of the grant). 

However, don’t waste time grant chasing. You will soon burn out and get discouraged with all the knock backs! Having a project plan and business case will ensure greater success.

9.    Review, review, review, whatever you do

Measure your event visitors (here's how), your marketing activities, ROI on investments, testing a new product and experience, and so on… 

1.    Know your customer
2.    Measure your activities
3.    Review using the data
4.    Improve
5.    Keep doing this ongoing - markets change and trends change. 

10.    It’s more fun when it’s fun!

We work in the best industry, in the best place on earth! Have fun and it will shine through in your business and brand. 

Having fun in Alice Springs.jpg

Cheers to another inspiring and exciting ten years in regional tourism :-D

(By the way, there are a ton of great resources out there to help you. Your state tourism organisation's website is often a great place to start.)