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As tourism continues to increase as eager travelers make up for lost pandemic time, travel & hospitality marketing experts work hard to ensure those looking for a vacation choose wisely. imPRessions Episode 15 welcomes Vito Zuppardo, Vice President at Miles Partnership, a marketing agency specializing in tourism and hospitality. A Louisiana native, Zuppardo, works on behalf of the Louisiana Office of Tourism, promoting the Bayou state. Today’s discussion covers how experts like Vito drive destination awareness in a post-pandemic world.

ImPRessions Episode #15 Transcript

Jenn: Every industry relies on PR. Even most cities have a PR strategy in place to promote tourism. In fact, the need to nudge travelers has never been more important as the pandemic pummeled the hospitality and tourism sectors. In this episode, we’ve invited Vito Zuppardo, VP at Myles Partnership, a marketing agency that specializes in tourism and hospitality marketing, to discuss destination awareness in a post-pandemic world. A Louisiana native, Vito, currently leads the marketing for the Louisiana Office of Tourism, promoting everyone’s favorite city in the Bayou State, New Orleans. Hi, Vito. Thanks for joining us today.

Vito: Hi there. Nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jenn: Of course. So as the VP of Miles Partnership, your work focuses largely on tourism, PR, getting travelers excited to visit Louisiana and particularly New Orleans. Tell us some of the creative ways you’ve promoted the iconic city.

Vito: Well, I’ll tell you, you know, I’ve been working with the Louisiana Office of Tourism for quite a few years now. I started back in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina. So, you know, I’ve been through natural disasters and global pandemic. So it’s been an interesting ride. But, you know, outside of those sort of specialty times, I say specialty times. I don’t think they were very special. But certainly we had to look through those times through a different lens. But it’s always been, you know, so rewarding and just fun to market your home state. And, you know, Louisiana has so many unique things that, you know, really make the job so much easier and and fun, to be honest. So, you know, I’ve had the pleasure of of being part of the big Louisiana Feed Your Soul rebrand. That happened a few years back when the new administration came in. They wanted to reinvent the Louisiana brand and really have a tagline that really spoke to everyone and shared what Louisiana was about. And through that process, the Feed Your Soul brand sort of bubbled up and, you know, Feed your Soul means so many different things, literally and figuratively. You can come here and feed your soul, no doubt about it. And one of the fun things that we had the opportunity to do was launch that brand back in, I believe it was 2018 with multiple food trucks wrapped in purple, green and gold in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., where we gave out beads and king cake samples and, you know, gave a trip to Louisiana away. And it was it was a lot of fun and the engagement was tremendous. So being part of cool, fun, unique activations and initiatives like that make the job a really, really enjoyable and rewarding in the end, for sure.

Jenn: I know Covid is probably going to be like a hot topic for us during this episode, but I do want to ask, more so make an assumption. I’m assuming Katrina was a much more difficult time for Louisiana and for the work that you’re doing than Covid, I imagine.

Vito: Yeah, certainly different. Covid was, you know, literally everyone in the world, whereas with Katrina, it was certainly exclusive to South Louisiana. And, you know, the challenge there was especially internationally, where, you know, the same footage played over and over of people’s homes destroyed and wading through water and water on Canal Street, which is one of the main streets in New Orleans outside of New Orleans. There wasn’t that much destruction at all, especially in north Louisiana. So, you know, we had an interesting task to highlight where you could visit. Obviously, New Orleans was doing cleanup and rebuilding and certainly some major devastation that took some time to rebound from. But 80% of the state was certainly open for tourism. The longer process was to evolve from the tragic images that were shown internationally that they didn’t have those constant updates that we had domestically. So six months later, they were thinking that there was still three foot of water on Canal Street when in fact things have improved dramatically, you know, since. At that time. So it was different. I could rattle off the various unique situations we had. BP oil spill was another. So somehow, just through trial by fire, I was with marketed through quite a few terrible circumstances. So, you know, when Covid came along it was certainly different. But I think we had the tools and the previous experience from Katrina’s BP oil spills to be able to position Louisiana and our other clients in a way that they could rebound successfully quicker, you know, than most. So a lot of experience through that, unfortunately.

Kalli: Yeah, I mean just kind of speaking of your experience, I’d like to dive a little bit more into how you handled Covid because, you know, I know you said with Katrina, you know, 80% of the area, you know, people were still able to visit. But with Covid, you know, not only travel was stopped in Louisiana, but all across the US as well as other places. You know, how did you, you know, pivot your PR and marketing approach during that time? You know, that was a little bit more, you know, with the tools that you had, but very unprecedented.

Vito: Yeah. You know, I tell you, we were either super smart or super lucky, maybe a combination of both where, you know, in 2019, our Louisiana client wanted to focus on some in-state travel more than we had in the past. And, you know, one of the partner agencies developed a campaign called “Louisiana is a Trip”, which was mainly, you know, to get people from New Orleans to experience, say, north Louisiana and vice versa, you know, to be sort of a visitor to your own state through festivals, state parks, that sort of those sort of interest pillars. So in 2019, we’re actually doing some of that very close-to-home marketing and outdoor pieces to that, which, you know, would obviously be like kayaking or canoeing in the swamp, a swamp tour, hikes in a state park. So when Covid happened in early 2020, we had a campaign ready to go. It was already in the market. We just certainly shifted more of those regional and national media dollars to be more locally focused. But we were extremely lucky to do that or to have that in place so soon. That was sort of the formula that most destinations used at that time to, you know, attempt to keep that tourism engine sort of running where, you know, it was more of that outdoor focused state parks driving, you know, vacations, that sort of thing. We work with quite a few beach destinations. And I tell you, Covid, they didn’t seem to miss much during that time. You know, those were perceived and I think were probably safer vacations, obviously more of a drive market type situation. But beach destinations fared very well through that. And, you know, so did Louisiana. You know, there was certainly a downtick in 2020 because we lost so many meetings and conventions and, you know, that business travel piece. But having that in-state initiative already moving along and then Covid happened, I feel like Louisiana was really well positioned for that, as were our the beach destinations that we represent. So I think it could have been much, much worse. You know, the unique thing with Louisiana during Covid, we had multiple hurricanes that also hit the state all at the same time. So there was certainly some challenges with that where, you know, hotels weren’t to capacity during sort of the rebuilding post-hurricane a lot of workers regionally come to the area to assist in that effort. And guess what? You know, there were hotels filled with obviously not vacationers, but workers to help rebuild. So, you know, that is or that was the silver lining. But, you know, it’s one of those, “Gee, what else can happen here during a pandemic?” You know, we certainly had the terrible luck of, uh, of being in the eye of the storm multiple times.

Jenn: Outside of the hurricane. Did you still see an influx of travelers? No. It’s very different here in New York City. Of course, we really shut down. So and I know some other places weren’t as strict with their restrictions, more or less. Did do did you still see travelers come through?

Vito: We did. But, you know, it was more day trips, that kind of thing. It certainly was not the norm. It was quite a downturn. But I feel like based on what we had in the works, it certainly eased the blow a little bit. We did a shoot in Jackson Square during the peak of Covid, and you know, it was Kermit Ruffins playing “You Are My Sunshine” on trumpet in the middle of an empty Jackson Square, which is so rare. You know, it’s sort of like, no one in Times Square. That is such a once in a lifetime visual to see that. I remember doing that. And it was, I think probably like April or May of 2020. And yeah, it was quite a surreal moment. You know, obviously 2020 was certainly a negative year for most, if not all, tourism destinations. But you know, how you sort of come out of it in, you know, 21, 22 and 23 have been have been interesting, you know, to see how how the various destinations are rebounding.

Jenn: For sure, It felt like a like an HBO special or something. Seeing the news would show segments of Times Square just being completely ghost town. That was so scary. Yeah, Yeah. And I know like some people, it’s so it’s. It really felt like a fever dream. There are some people that I know here which is a little mean. The CDC did say that Covid is no longer a medical worldwide threat, which is fantastic. Let’s hope it stays that way. But there still might be some people who are hesitant to travel. So through your marketing, how do you sort of put nervous travelers at ease?

Vito: Well, you know, obviously safety, cleanliness, you know, that sort of thing. Big crowds are still, I think, on people’s minds, don’t know if it’s ever not going to be you know, I travel quite a bit and, you know, there’s still, you know, a lot of folks that feel more comfortable, you know, wearing a mask, especially on a plane, that kind of thing. But I think what people have done, you know, based on the research, the latest research that I’ve seen, demand is actually higher now than it was pre-COVID in 2019. I think there’s a dynamic there that people are prioritizing travel and experiences now, more so because of Covid and knowing, you know, let’s take advantage of today because we’re not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow. I think that mentality has has really been strong based on what we’re seeing. There was predictions or forecasts for tourism to, you know, it would take to 24, 25 before you saw a rebound of getting back to those 2019 numbers. I think a lot of destinations are seeing that now. So I think I think everyone is a bit ahead of schedule. Obviously, the federal recovery dollars have made a big impact on that. Various destinations have more money than they ever had before to market. And I think they’re seeing the benefits of that of getting their message out there and coupled with, you know, just the demand to see and do after being cooped up for so long. People are ready to make that vacation more of a priority than you know, the new furniture that they might need or want. So it’s really just a prioritization that we’re seeing is certainly much higher than what we expected much sooner. So all good news on that front.

Kalli: Yeah, I mean, I definitely understand that. I’ve definitely changed my mindset. And now, like, if I’m going to do something, you know, I would rather take a trip than make a big purchase. You know, and even just to try to go different places that I used to be like, Oh, you know, I don’t need to go there. I’ve driven through it or it’s, you know, it’s so close, just, you know, anywhere I’m ready to go, anywhere and everywhere. And it’s really interesting. I didn’t think that, you know, the cities would have more funding now to promote tourism. So, you know, with those extra benefits. And, you know, also appealing to a different mindset of people that now are hungry to go away in a way that they hadn’t been before. You know, how do you approach promoting tourism to get them to come to your city specifically? If you know people like me, then I’m like, I’ll go anywhere. I just am excited to get out of my house, you know? How do you approach that, you know, compared to pre-pandemic times, New Orleans especially is a top destination. You know, how is it a little bit different now?

Vito: Yeah, yeah, for sure. You know, Miles, we sponsor it’s called State of the American Traveler Research. The research is actually done by our research partner destination analysts out of San Francisco. And they do, you know, waves of this research. And, you know, during through Covid, you know, they were doing research waves, I think like every two weeks. It was it was quite comprehensive and ever-changing. I was one of those people that, you know, when when the Covid shutdowns happened in March, I’m thinking, oh, we’ll be back in April. Well, little did I know. Right. But, you know, through that research, there’s certainly a focus not as much on the specific destination, but on unique experiences. Probably, you know, sort of the Instagram culture has probably pushed that forward. TikTok as well, a little sooner than maybe we expected. But, you know, just seeing those unique experiences that you can participate in at said destination is it seems to be the trend and highlighting that through your advertising and PR initiatives and social media obviously go a really long way. So, you know, I think it was, you know, in Aruba, for example, you know, you can experience flamingos on the beach and, you know all of this. So you see this on Instagram and say, Oh, wow, that’s a really cool thing to do. That’s different. Where is that? You know? So it’s sort of that experience focus first and then the destination. So I think right now, highlighting some of those unique experiences, you know, that a destination has, that’s a real differentiator, probably a smart thing to do. And I don’t think it takes a lot of budget. You can certainly do that on social media exclusively. But it’s an interesting way to kind of showcase your destination in a little different way. There’s obviously experience pillars that, you know, each destination has that we certainly focus on. But within those interest pillars are most likely, you know, some very unique experiences that should be highlighted to kind of get that spark of interest moving along and inspiration to to visit the destination. So we’ve seen that that’s been an interesting trend lately.

Jenn: Kalli, this whole thing is making me want to just take our show on the road. We could do our podcast from multiple cities. Oh, well, I mean, you have a family, but.

Kalli: They could come with us. My daughter sleeps in the car, so we are ready to go. Yeah, I actually just booked a trip last night because I was reading the script for this episode and was like, I should go somewhere.

Jenn: Wait, where is it? New Orleans?

Kalli: No, because I can’t fly right now. But we’re actually going, which is one of the places that I was like, I’ve never been, but like, heard about it a million times was like, “It’s close I can go whenever.” I’ve never been to Mystic, Connecticut. So that’s where I’m going. And to your point, Vito, it’s the experiences like they have the aquarium there that’s supposed to be like really cool. And I’m like, where can I go that there’s something that, like, I can do that I’ll enjoy that my, you know, my daughter will enjoy. You know, it’s about the experience. And like you said, you know, there’s different levels. You know, obviously something that’s much more involved is not up my alley right now because a two year old is not going to want to do certain things. And there are certain places that are just not for her. We’re going to a lot of fun family things, but I wouldn’t go hiking with her, for example.

Vito: Right. Sure.

Kalli: You know, like family-friendly things for me or, you know, or what’s really appealing, but also like having great restaurants because I’m always hungry.  You want to have those two different things. Where we’re going, the hotel we’re staying at is a spa, but like we’re also going to the aquarium for the family thing. But like, I’m definitely going for that massage by myself. But yeah, it’s. It’s really interesting to think that they definitely got me through the experiential marketing.

Vito: Yeah, that unique thing, you know, and there’s so many that, you know, you see on social media, there’s so many great, great channels to follow that that certainly highlight those things and the specific destinations to really showcase that so many different things. The US Virgin Islands has a portion of the beach that has beer-drinking pigs that you can experience on a beach. That’s a unique Instagram photo.

Kalli: I heard about that. That’s it’s so cool. And if I was able to fly, there would be so many places I’d be going right now.

Vito: I’ve seen so many, you know, just like small towns that people visit and share on social media that, you know, I believe that they may not have considered pre-COVID. You know, not everyone feels comfortable in New York City in Times Square or, you know, on Bourbon Street, for example, you know, with large crowds. So they, you know, they go to more rural destinations and experience that, whether it’s a, you know, byway program that certainly has more of that, you know, rural focus.

Yeah, you know, it’s an interesting mindset sort of shift that has happened through Covid and kind of, you know, obviously on the other side of it, knock on wood at this point. But yeah, a lot of lot of people, you know, doing things that they never have done before. And again, sort of plays back to that prioritization of travel and unique experiences that, you know, stay with you forever versus that thing you buy that gets old and might show up at a garage sale one day, You know?

Kalli: Exactly. And you know, one of the interesting things that I mean, maybe this is for me, but I’ve noticed a lot more. And I’m just curious to see if you’ve noticed it as well. Obviously, during the pandemic when we were all under lockdown, really the only thing people could do was like watch Netflix or, you know, stream their shows or whatever. And that has inspired me to go or to want to go to certain places more. And it’s funny; actually, one of the shows that I watched is based in New Orleans, and I’m like, you know.

Jenn: Is it a Vampire Diaries?

Kalli: It is not, it’s a spinoff. I wasn’t gonna say what show it was Jenn!

Jenn: Every time she brings up Vampire Diaries.

Kalli: So I hope our listeners like the spinoff of The Vampire Diaries. The Originals is filmed in New Orleans and was like, It looks really awesome there. I would love to go. Also, I’ve been watching White Lotus and I actually went to before Covid. I’ve been to the hotel where they filmed the first season, but seeing the second season in Italy, I’m like, “Oh, that looks so beautiful. Of course, that was a trip that I had booked during Covid that we ended up not going”. I’ve noticed a lot of people are starting to go to the and like seeing on social media, they’re going to the locations where these shows and movies are being filmed. And especially in New Orleans- And I know that there are so many different shows- aside from just The Originals that are filmed in always. Do you get to see a lot of that play into why people choose different destinations?

Jenn: Oh, yeah, good question.

Vito: Yeah, we do. We certainly do. And you know, Louisiana recognized that just as an example several years back and developed the film trail that highlights, you know, locations where some iconic movies were filmed and things like that. They are very aware of that piece. The White Lotus Effect is kind of what we call it is a real thing. Yeah. You know, if you have seen the show, and it sounds like you have, you know, the destination is really a character in the show. First season Hawaii was an interesting story how that was filmed during lockdown, and if you notice, in that season, there wasn’t really much of the island shown other than the resort itself because that’s where they sort of were in a bubble.

Whereas season two in Sicily certainly showcased more of the city and the resort itself, but obviously outside of the resort. And, you know, although it’s White Lotus Resort, everyone sort of knows that it’s the Four Seasons. So I’m sure they have benefited from that as have the destinations of Hawaii and Sicily. So it’s certainly a real thing. I look at that show and say, I need to go to Sicily, not just because my name is Vito, I’m sure there are many Vito’s over there, but it’s quite nice. It looks beautiful. Looks beautiful on TV, that’s for sure.

Kalli: Yeah, well, that’s what I’m saying. My husband and I had planned a trip. We were supposed to go to Italy in June of 2020. Obviously, that didn’t happen and you will eventually get there. But like, after seeing the last episode of the last season of White Lotus, we’re like, okay, now, we really need to go. We have to plan it. And it was something that was already on our minds that we already, you know, had planned to do. But now it’s like even more, so it really hit the point home that this is almost like a love story to the city that it just shows how beautiful it is.

Vito: Yeah. And you know, New Orleans and Louisiana both are very fortunate to have such authenticity of the backdrop that is that character, whether it’s New Orleans or, you know, Natchitoches, where, you know, Steel Magnolias were filmed, there’s a ton of, you know, locations like that that I’m sure had that sort of white lotus effect before White Lotus was even thought of. I just think personally that, you know, my oldest son is a huge Dumb and Dumber fan. We were in Colorado and looking for things to do,  and I realized that, you know, a lot of the scene that was supposed to be Aspen was actually in Estes Park at the Stanley Hotel. So we went there. We had a great time. It was certainly a fun experience that, you know, a movie with destination sort of made that connection. So I think I think there’s a lot of, you know, destinations that are being featured in TV or movies that are really capitalizing on that. There’s a film commission here in Louisiana, and I know they work closely with the office of Tourism through that film trail development. So all good stuff. And, you know, it’s such a more organic way to market the destination versus, you know, just a TV spot per se. So very much like social media, it’s sort of that organic consumption of inspiration, you know, to visit a destination. So good stuff.

Kalli: Yes. And I can tell you, when I go to New Orleans, I already know where I’m going because they would go there in the different shows that I watch. So I already have the trip planned. And just like you said, organic, like what I’ve seen and like even in books, what I’ve read of different hotels, different restaurants. I will definitely let you know when I come on down, and we’ll come back for another podcast episode to talk about how I met my expectations.

Jenn: Oh, I’m there any time.

Vito: Absolutely. And you know, festivals, festivals are back and better than ever here. You know, we just wrapped up the Jazz Fest in New Orleans. They had great numbers with that, certainly at pre-COVID levels again. And the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival is a is a great one and a fantastic example of just coming back stronger than ever through the efforts of the Office of Tourism and highlighting the various festivals and things like that through the Rose Parade.

Actually, this last year, they’re really seeing some dividends from some of those unique marketing opportunities. You know, the Strawberry Fest was so busy they had to shut down the highway. It was it was crazy. So all positive. And, you know, that that festival, I believe, didn’t happen for two years. So the demand was there. So, so glad it’s back and very successful.

Jenn: So, speaking of Rose Parade, you led the efforts with the Louisiana Office of Tourism and myself at our agency for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade a few years ago. And since then, you have had an iconic float in Los Angeles annual Rose Parade. So what are some of your favorite experiences that you’ve led to promote tourism to Louisiana or New Orleans?

Vito: Well, honestly, you know, that one’s easy. You know, the Macy’s Parade and Rose Parade were certainly some of the best experiences I’ve ever had working with the office of tourism. You know, how that came about. The idea was that, you know, there’s going to be several, if not all, destinations have some extra money to spend on media. So how do we, you know, rise above that and do something a little more out of the box? And as we’re thinking of sort of great qualities that Louisiana has, you know, we felt like Louisiana knows how to throw a parade, Why don’t we be in some of these iconic nationally televised parades to share that Louisiana story with, you know, the world? So that was what the discussion was with the Office of Tourism. They said, “Let’s go for it”. It was certainly a big learning curve because we hadn’t applied and executed, you know, an activation of this scale before. And, you know, the first year with Macy’s, we certainly, you know, partnered with you guys and to assist us with some of that media outreach in New York, which was fabulous through that whole build process with Macy’s, the celebration Gator came to life. I tell you, through that parade and also rose, you know, seeing some of the comments on social media, not only was there interest from visitors to come and see, you know, Mardi Gras up close and personal and experience all that that has to offer, but such a sense of pride in your home state being on that stage was really so much fun. I can say this because I’m from here, but I think us Louisianans, we have a, you know, sort of an underdog mentality and a resilience. When we see ourselves in that spot, it’s really special. So it was a great experience. East Coast and West Coast, you know, Pasadena with Rose Parade, certainly the most unique, beautiful, just creatively built floats that I’ve ever seen. And you know that that parade specifically also reaches an international audience. So just from a sheer media perspective, it worked out extremely well. And the return on investment was phenomenal. We’re so happy to have been associated with Macy’s and Tournament of Roses that, you know, we’re looking forward to it again. So look for us coming up. Those are certainly highlights of my career. It was a lot of fun.

Jenn: Absolutely. Well, tourism is back on the rise. Experts like you are working hard to attract travelers worldwide. And between the jazz cuisine and stunning architecture, it’s no wonder why New Orleans continues to be one of the most popular destinations here in the US. Thanks, Vito, for joining us today. Hopefully you inspired our listeners to take a trip to next year’s Mardi Gras. I think Kalli and might go! I don’t know. We’ll see.

Kalli: We’ll be there.

Vito: Yeah. Come on down. The more the merrier.

Jenn: Thanks to everyone who has tuned in. If you have any questions about the show, want to pitch a guest, or want to say hello, reach out any time at Till next time.