As Blend’s Account Director, I talk with tourism clients and prospects every day about the challenges they face and how they’re solving them. At some point, everyone faces whether they should bring in someone to manage their marketing investment to foster growth. They can choose a freelancer, staff member, or marketing agency.
An agency can be the right choice for many companies, but there are some common misconceptions about working with an agency, that sometimes can get in the way of making that choice. I wanted to respond and provide some suggestions on how to better understand agencies to help any tour, activity, or attraction business facing this choice.
Here are the most common misconceptions I often encounter about working with agencies:
#1 “Hiring a marketing agency is too expensive.”
Justifying the cost can be challenging for tourism businesses that have never hired an agency. Often, marketing is seen as an expense; instead, it should be viewed as an investment in future business growth.
Hiring an agency would be too expensive if the cost isn’t weighed against a revenue or profit goal to help deliver business growth. Any investment should show value.
For example, if a $100k annual investment could create an additional $500k in revenue, it might be viewed as an excellent investment opportunity rather than an option that’s out of reach.
Marketing should be compared with other growth options
Suppose you are considering hiring a marketing agency for your business. In that case, the cost of hiring an agency (and other marketing costs) should be weighed against other costs such as OTA commissions.
A company with $1M in annual OTA bookings pays around $250,000 for those bookings, which is too expensive for many companies. The question becomes, can you acquire customers at a lower acquisition cost, including marketing labor expenses and advertising expenses? Understanding what an acceptable acquisition cost is can help an agency or internal team marketer determine which channels to scale to achieve your revenue growth goals.
Create long-term growth goals
Developing long-term goals is fundamental for your business, even if you never hire an agency. Building your 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year goals will help you determine what you should spend on an annual marketing budget, which in turn helps you decide whether investing in a marketing agency is realistic.
In addition, a good agency would be able to take these goals or help you develop them, and then create a marketing plan that will grow your business at a cost that makes that growth profitable. This type of partnership can really pay off.
Example: Legacy Mountain Ziplines is a tourism business that was very much in the mindset that marketing agencies were too expensive.
They knew they wanted to grow, but they didn’t know how much growth was possible. Blend started working with them to develop strategies, and executed them to a level that took the business to a place they didn’t think possible. Had they continued on their own without marketing help, they wouldn’t be where they are today.
#2 “I’m better off marketing my tourism business myself.”
Many tour operators have built up their marketing skills to an impressive level, considering everything else they’re managing. But modern marketing requires such depth and diversity that it’s difficult for any one person to handle it all.
They have to learn how to evaluate the market, understand the target audience, build their brand, advertise, develop content, utilize email and social media marketing, manage website development and conversion rate optimization, complete data analysis and measurement, produce strong graphic design and video creation, and the list goes on.
As your business grows, your marketing needs usually grow with it—to the point where your needs outgrow your expertise. This is a great problem to have!
Hiring a team of marketing specialists
Marketing agencies exist because no single marketer can be an expert at every facet of marketing. Partnering with an agency is like hiring that elusive, multi-faceted specialist because you get time from different employees when you need them—advertisers, designers, brand experts, copywriters, analysts, web developers, and more. This deep expertise significantly increases your chance of meeting or exceeding your goals.
At Blend, we openly admit than any given employee isn’t an expert at everything, which is why we have a team. We rely on the appropriate person to work with clients where they can best help them.
Hiring a team that makes the time to test and iterate to improve results
If you’ve executed marketing initiatives on your own, you know it always requires evaluating the results and often requires improvements, or additional testing to improve the results. This obviously takes time.
A good marketing agency will make the time to test and refine their marketing to strive for better results, which can be difficult to do on your own while managing hundreds of other tasks. Additionally, an agency has knowledge that comes from managing marketing for other clients like you.
While you spend time on marketing, what other parts of your business aren’t you working on?
Getting assistance on some or all aspects of your marketing will allow you to focus on giving your customers a 5-star experience. It will also allow you to concentrate on managing teams, training, building partnerships, fine-tuning operations, and building long-term relationships with clients. Without any marketing help at all (regardless of the model you choose), your growth will be hindered because of other demands taking away from focused marketing efforts.
#3 “It would be better to hire a person in-house to run my marketing.”
As a tourism business grows, hiring in-house marketing professionals becomes a good consideration. The decision comes down to what the business needs and what skill sets are required to fulfill those needs.
Your marketing requirements may include marketing strategy, promotion development, running ad campaigns, creating content, managing the website, managing social media channels, etc. An internal marketer can get you at least part-way to your goals, but again, it’s not realistic to expect one person to have both the expertise and the time to handle every marketing activity with excellence.
A hybrid model is an option
Another model to consider, depending on your company size, is a hybrid model—leveraging the skills of the in-house marketer and complementing it with experts who can help across other aspects of marketing.
There is immense value in having an in-house marketer who lives the brand every day, has up-to-the-minute knowledge of current demands and opportunities, handles things like creating daily or weekly photo and video content, and works collaboratively with an agency. It’s a structure that can operate efficiently and accelerate growth.
Just because your marketing is done partially or fully by an agency, doesn’t mean that you are not in control of the process. It’s entirely reasonable to expect your agency to develop a plan that you review and approve, within the budget that you’ve allocated. The budget to hire an agency can be as predictable as in-house labor costs.
#4 “In the past, I didn’t know what I’m getting for my money.”
Unfortunately, many tour and attraction brands don’t know what their marketing investment is actually doing for them. With advances in measurement and tracking, no operator should feel completely in the dark. It’s an agency’s responsibility to track and report performance against your goals and report on the activities they are doing, at least at a high level. If you are not getting this detail, you need to ask for it. (Caution: be outcomes-focused rather than task-focused; it’s a better use of your time and the best way to keep your agency accountable.)
Data and measurement is a must
We recommend an approach like this: after goal setting, work with your agency to establish the how, what, and when they will be reporting on the marketing activities and tracking the performance of those initiatives. Without establishing rigor in reporting, the agency can’t make the best decisions on your behalf.
In some cases, tracking and measurement can be challenging, particularly as privacy changes limit the information available to marketers. We’re not claiming you can always have 100% trackability; however, your agency needs to make a serious effort to understand the ROI, and you should expect them to be both competent and transparent about ROI tracking.
Transparency is key
You and your agency should strive for a relationship similar to an employer/employee relationship. Each side should feel free to raise concerns—like when something isn’t working—knowing that the other side will be eager to help solve the problem. This goes back to the development of business goals— when everyone’s clearly working for the same goals, transparency becomes much easier. This is the only way that the relationship can truly work so that you get the best work out of your agency, and they can help you achieve great results.
The honest talk about budgets
There will always be a gap in understanding between an agency and a client relationship if there isn’t enough budget to achieve all the goals. Most importantly, your agency needs to have an open discussion with you about what they can and cannot do with your marketing dollars.
If your agency can’t meet your performance expectations because the budgets are too small to deliver your desired growth expectations, they should tell you, and you should listen to what they have to say. After all, a) they’ve seen this play out with other clients, and b) they want you to succeed because their success is tied to yours.
#5 “They don’t know my business and I will end up driving the strategy anyway.”
Sadly, we hear this comment a lot, and it’s a pitfall that can be avoided with a couple of key things.
Collaboration and visibility
Getting to know a new business does take time, even for people that know the industry. The time you invest with your agency in the beginning, to help them understand your team, brand, customer, market, and data and analytics, is a key part of your investment to reach your growth targets. Do not skip this.
I highly recommend that you think of your agency not as an outsider, but as an extension of your team. The more you keep them in the loop with your business, the better the marketing strategy, and the faster they can respond to your business needs. They will get to know your business like they are a part of your brand. This approach will also open the lines of communication and allow you to develop great plans together and have a rewarding working relationship.
Good marketing strategy and execution does take time. Your agency needs to be honest about it. I always tell clients that we’ll perform well in year one, but way better in year two after we’ve learned, tested, and found winning strategies and scaled them up. If you find an agency that you can tell is investing themselves in your business, you may find that your return on marketing spend continues to grow over the medium and long term.
I hope this perspective gives you confidence to consider an agency, armed with the knowledge about how to create a productive, growth-generating relationship.
The agency-client relationship is no different than any other partnership you have within your business; it takes effort on both sides. When a relationship like this is built on transparency and collaboration, you will find yourself in a strong and trusting partnership that will achieve better results.
We invite you to meet agencies, keep these points in mind, and push on some of the issues raised here—such as how they’ll work with your internal team, how measurement and reporting are managed, etc.
If you are looking to speak to someone directly about agency models in the tours, activities, and attractions niche, I’m always happy to take a call and answer questions.