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Embracing AI in Destination Marketing: Transforming Customer Experience and Operational Efficiency

In this conversation, Will Seccombe, Head of Travel at Intentful, sits down with Kara Franker, President and CEO of Visit Estes Park, to talk about the application and importance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the tourism industry, particularly for Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs). Will and Kara discuss the impact of AI in creating a more interactive, personalized, and efficient customer experience. 


Interview Highlights

On Embracing of AI and Early Adoption

Will: So, one of the people that I have been following who's probably gone more all-in on AI than any other DMO is Kara Franker… Thank you for agreeing to join us today. We had a conversation maybe six weeks ago, and you said, ‘We're all in on AI.’ And this isn't just all-in on AI for contract creation, all-in.

Kara: This is a whole new way of doing life and business. I need to learn now… now is the time to upskill and speed into what they're doing. If we can [figure AI out now], we can leverage this; it changes the way that we market.

Will: And so you're going AI first. It's not only you; you've really empowered your team to use AI and practice with AI.. because I think one of the kinds of misconceptions, at least early on, is, ‘Okay, AI is going to be great. We can do blog posts, and we can write articles, which is amazing.’ I mean, Intentful and HappyPlaces were built for that. But it's so much more than just writing content. And I would love to hear how you've embraced it.

Kara: We dove into Intentful's HappyPlaces... You can tell [the platform] to not just write a blog post but 'I need keywords for whatever theme.' And it shows the keywords. And then also, who's ranking for those. I love the fact that we're ranking for our top keywords right now.

I was talking to somebody last week who said they're using AI to create icebreakers for their upcoming board meeting. And suggest ideas on 'how I can engage my board members at our meetings? It's really about finding something that can be automated and then teaching whichever AI you’re picking what you need. And that's the part I think that people get confused about because you're not used to having that in-depth conversation with a machine. But it's really the catalyst for how it starts. It is absolutely trial and error. It's not knowing exactly how to ask the questions and knowing that you can go back and say, ‘Hey, that’s great. But this part needs corrections, so let's take it out of this article.’ And then it does it.

You can also say, ‘Okay, I want a social media plan for the next month for Instagram. The theme of the month is nature and outdoors and how to treat wildlife. We can then tell our internal version (AI taught on the company’s data), which is through Happy Places, 'We need something about wildlife safety.' And it'll do it. Amazingly efficient and creative.

One of the tools on HappyPlaces is the business promoter, where you type in a business, its location, and a few keywords, and it finds the information. It's been 99%, 100% for me at least.

On Adjustment Process And AI In Daily Operations

Will: How do you empower your team to embrace AI and experiment?

Kara: I showed them, ‘This is how you pull up ChatGPT.’ And then you just start asking it stuff. And in the beginning, your questions aren't that great because they're kind of what you’d ask Google. But then you start to figure it out. So if my prompt gets to the heart of [the question]... just play with it. I tell the staff, ‘You have to, I don't care if it's an hour a week, you have to just dive into whichever one.’ Tell me what it is, what you liked about it, what you didn't like about it… the most helpful ecosystem is going to win.

[ChatGPT] is a famous one. But there are so many different kinds that you can try. I found Grammarly. [We] all use Grammarly on our team because as you're writing an email or writing a Word process document, it automatically starts to fix your grammar. I thought this was a gift from God.

I think we can completely renovate our KPIs for our marketing strategy [with the help of AI]. So it's like these light bulbs start going off because once you go down that hill, you find a world of new things you can do. 

I found this really great AI that'll take my videos and make the edits quicker for me. I'm saving [around] an hour… Even my CFO found a different AI that he played with that helped his Excel spreadsheets.

AI and communication

Will:  I love what you just said about your CFO using AI to make themselves more efficient. And that just gives you more time to continue to push the envelopes. I know you are dealing with multiple different levels. You're dealing with members, and your tone of voice is probably very different with your membership communications versus your political issues; dealing with politicians and talking in their language versus talking to consumers who may be considering Colorado and the Rocky Mountains.

Kara: That's absolutely right. The multiple languages. It's crazy scary how good AI is at translating. It's because it's a large language model, and it's generative.

On The Importance Of Providing Helpful Content And KPIs

Will: So as we're spending our marketing dollars, everybody is doing digital programmatic these days. You have to do that. And you can be very smart about who you target. But if we're on that end, if we're pushing out the AI and the interaction, you don't have to just be an awareness-level funnel.

Kara: You can be helpful in the process and not just be a top-of-funnel marketer. This is really going to differentiate the game. [When] it becomes part of your whole content strategy… It's going to change the KPIs. Because you are actually engaging and interacting at a much deeper level in your communication. If you have a conversational chatbot or a social media interaction, AI is providing valuable insights to help travelers move through the process a lot faster.

On "Stickiness", Customer Retention and Real-Time Customer Support

Will: Nobody does [travel planning] in one sitting. [Later] they want to know, ‘Where am I going to eat?’ They're going to know who's got live music going on. ‘What hikes can I go on?’ They trust the interaction, and they come back. That's what we're already seeing; there's that ‘stickiness.’

Kara: What if people are interacting with our AI, not just for planning the trip and booking but at the destination? What could we do with push notifications? Like, ‘Trail Ridge Road is closed because of a snowstorm or for the season’ or ‘There's a fire danger.’ To me, that would be huge.

On Use Of AI Beyond Marketing And Advertising And Other Industries

Kara: There’s a pizzeria in New York, it has a robot that delivers pizzas to tables. And it has a name, and people love it because it's an experience.

I've heard of hotels doing this, too. They're having robots deliver the room service items that people call for.

We have a staffing shortage in the tourism industry. We definitely have one in Estes Park. It's a very expensive place to live. And it's hard to get folks to stay. So what if robots could help with that shortage?

There's a McDonald's in Texas that doesn't have any employees. 100% automated from cooking, storage, delivery, payment, the whole thing, not one person in the building… It does show you how fast the world is changing… it applies to medicine, to lawyers, and a whole bunch of different industries.

On AI For Niche Markets

Will: I wanted to switch gears a little bit to.. You mentioned niches. And I'm doing a presentation on travelability in a week, talking about accessible travel. And it's really interesting when you can go down into the niches.

Kara: Something that I did with just in testing is, ‘All right, I'm traveling with a family, but we've got one blind person. Tell me a good itinerary that'll be accessible to all of us.’ It is remarkable how when you give it specific information like that, it comes back with very good information on those niche kinds of needs.

[We can now] take one piece of content and repurpose it for people in need of wheelchair access and customize it for those kinds of things. It gives you the ability as a DMO to take one piece of content and target it to multiple people in five minutes rather than rewriting it 18 different times.

On the importance of training AI models and how biases and stereotypes can impact AI and business outcomes down the line:

Will: When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, it's a top-down issue for organizations and then also training staff. So, I feel like the same thing applies to the machines. So it's your internal push; you have to have all of that worked out first.

Kara: Content was king in the early 2000s. It's emperor now. Worldwide ruler. Your website gets scraped. If you have biases and stereotypes already woven into your content, [AI] picks it up. So you almost have to do that internal cleansing [first].

What I love about your staff is that when they asked us for all of our documents, it's not only the website. It's, ‘What are your brand guidelines? Are there other organizations that you want to make sure we look at?’ And then it's like, ‘Oh, let's get our press releases.’ So they have that piece of the voice. And so that training is so key.

But I also think you have to look internally to make sure you get rid of any potential bias. Otherwise, the machine will regurgitate it, right?

Will: Absolutely. Because it's taking what's out there. And that's where it's getting all the information. It's fascinating.

Kara: What we can't do as DMOs is only promote one hotel. So there's the one hotel or the most prominent hotel that wants in. That's great. But we can't leave out everybody else. So there's going to be that political kind of mind field to navigate with that is how do we make sure that as we're training the AI, we're giving multiple options.

Last thoughts

Will: There are a couple of great quotes to wrap up that came out of a marketing AI institute event last week in Miami. One of them was, ‘You're not going to be replaced by AI, but you will very highly likely be replaced by somebody using AI.’ And the second quote that I thought was fascinating, ‘The apps we're using today is the worst AI we will ever use in our lifetimes.’ That's crazy.

We're six months in, and it's changing the game. And it's going to happen fast. So I think your advice is great. Just jump in, test it, try it, play with it.

Kara:  And there are hundreds of different platforms out there, but just start playing the game. And then you'll move faster, and you won't be ‘leapfrogged.’

Will: Well said. Well, thank you so much. I can't tell you how much I appreciate [this conversation]. You're definitely a leader in this space, and it's going to be fun to follow your journey… and how you're taking AI to the next level for DMOs.

Kara: Thank you so much. We really appreciate our partnership. You, guys, are
blazing a trail. So it's amazing stuff.