Episode Topic: In this episode of TravelPreneur, we explore how Explore Brookhaven, a relatively new destination marketing organization, successfully promotes tourism and economic development in the city of Brookhaven. The organization’s president and CEO, Renée Areng, shares insights into their strategies and challenges, especially during the pandemic.
Lessons You’ll Learn: In this episode of Travel Preneur, you’ll gain insights into the challenges and opportunities that come with destination marketing in a dynamic travel landscape. Explore Brookhaven’s President and CEO, Renée Areng, shares her experiences and strategies, offering valuable lessons for those looking to promote tourism and economic development in their communities.
About Our Guest: Renée Areng serves as the President and CEO of Explore Brookhaven, a destination marketing organization dedicated to enhancing the city’s image and tourism activities. With her extensive background in destination marketing and tourism, Renée brings a wealth of knowledge and practical expertise to the show.
Topics Covered: The conversation covers various topics. Renée offers insights into Explore Brookhaven’s integrated marketing strategies, highlighting the importance of layering messaging across advertising, social media, public relations, and collaborations with local businesses and hotels to attract and engage visitors. We discussed the organization’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing travel landscape, especially during the pandemic, by focusing on creating experiences and measuring success through sentiment rather than static numbers.
Our Guest: Renée Areng – A Visionary Leader in Tourism and Marketing
Meet Renée Areng, a pioneer in the fields of tourism and marketing. As the inaugural Executive Director of Explore Brookhaven since 2018, Renée has a rich history of success and innovation. She is a trailblazer who has achieved remarkable milestones, such as creating a startup regional tourism marketing organization for South Mississippi.
During her time at Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, Renée excelled in increasing visitation and revenue for non-gaming hotels while unifying messaging in marketing and sales. Her client list includes notable destination organizations, where she provided strategic guidance on various aspects, showcasing her expertise.
Renée’s educational background, including a cum laude degree in Public Administration and French from the University of Louisiana, and her certifications, like CDME and Certified Diversity Travel Professional, demonstrate her commitment to growth and development.
As an accomplished brand marketing executive, Renée has a strong track record of managing budgets, preparing financial statements, and fostering effective relationships with sales and marketing staff. Her leadership skills encompass team management, conflict resolution, government operations, fiscal growth, and strategic planning.
Renée Areng: Everything is very authentic here. We don’t have any big boxes except for Costco, which is a draw for travel in itself. So we find that the citizens of Brookhaven are very engaging with the travellers, and we also use our opportunity to promote the different neighbourhoods to all of the neighborhoods in Brookhaven, so that people will get outside of their live work, play space, and go to another place.
Megha McSwain: Welcome to Travel Preneur, the weekly business show for the travel industry. I’m your host, Houston-based travel journalist Megha McSwain. Each episode, we’ll be exploring what it takes to thrive as a business owner in the travel industry. From conversations with leading travel business executives and industry-focused venture capitalists to exploring the innovations that are shaping the next generation of travel businesses. If it impacts the travel industry, we cover it here on TravelPreneur. Greetings travel enthusiasts, and welcome to another episode of travel Preneur. I’m your host, Megha McSwain. Today we are joined with Renee Areng, the president and CEO of Explore Brookhaven. Hello, Renee. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Renée Areng: Thanks, Megha. I’m happy to be here. Great.
Megha McSwain: Renée. Explore Brookhaven plays a crucial role in enhancing the city’s image and tourism activities. How does the organization cultivate a genuine sense of belonging and community, bringing people together locally and otherwise, and creating a lasting impression that resonates with visitors and locals alike?
Renée Areng: Well, we are relatively new organization and a relatively new city, so we spent 2019 doing brand strategy for just that reason. And what we learned from the more than 700 interviews, surveys and participants in symposium was that Brookhaven was considered a very welcoming community, and we created a sense of belonging. We’re a very diverse community, so a lot of cultural assets. We have a lot of wonderful outdoor spaces for walking and enjoying with your friends and family and furry friends, as well as chef-owned and run restaurants. So everything is very authentic here. We don’t have any big boxes except for Costco, which is a draw for travel in itself. So we find that the citizens of Brookhaven are very engaging with the travellers, and we also use our opportunity to promote the different neighbourhoods to all of the neighborhoods in Brookhaven, so that people will get outside of their live work, play space, and go to another.
Megha McSwain: Get out of the bubble. That’s always a problem. Exactly.
Renée Areng: Yeah. And that proved very successful during the pandemic, as you can imagine, because we didn’t have a whole lot of out-of-town travelers.
Megha McSwain: Right. Well, I was going to say you started you just mentioned you started in 2019 and then you’re hit with this crazy situation. And in this case, it seems that it worked out. People are wanting to explore and wanting to get out.
Renée Areng: Right. So, we joke in Georgia that North Georgia and the coast of Georgia had no pandemic, but I think that’s why Brookhaven did as well as we did is because we have such great outdoor spaces. And so, people felt comfortable.
Megha McSwain: So integrated marketing campaigns are a key aspect of Explore Brookhaven strategy. Can you elaborate on how these campaigns, along with advertising, social media, public relations initiatives, how they drive visitors to Brookhaven specifically, and how they showcase its unique offerings?
Renée Areng: Well, being a relatively new organization, again, we are still really dipping our toes in lots of pools of water. My experience over the years that I’ve been doing this is that layering your messaging helps reach multiple audiences. So, we’ve done some print, advertorial and advertising with a company called Hoffman Media out of Birmingham. It’s a locally owned and managed media company that has a very loyal following. The subscribers keep their magazines and refer back to whoever was referenced in that magazine to encourage their travel, as well as social media. Paid Google as well for events. We have engaged with a billboard company here in the Atlanta market to put messaging up in our surrounding feeding markets.
Megha McSwain: And part of Explore Brookhaven’s mission is to boost economic opportunities within the city as well. So how does the organization collaborate with local businesses, local hotels and other stakeholders to create a thriving ecosystem that benefits both tourism and the local community?
Renée Areng: What we know in the industry is that the way that you get a person to move, or to bring his or her business to a community, to have them visit there first. So we partner with economic development in the chamber. For all the messaging on why Brookhaven is a is an outstanding place to live, work and play, and we encourage our residents as well to share that messaging. We just had someone interestingly come in the door that was at our international festival last weekend and was asking for some brochures and information on Brookhaven so she could put it in her new neighbor’s mailbox. So, we do have some printed materials. Brookhaven magazine the issue that we have right now is the discover issue. So, it’s about all of our outdoor space opportunities. And then we’ve also had a culinary issue, and we’ll have another culinary issue next year. And we put those in all of the hotels to encourage people to choose Brookhaven restaurants. We have offered in the past some discount Uber codes to the restaurants to share with their guests. Interestingly, we didn’t get a whole lot of use for that, but it was a great attempt to encourage people to come into Brookhaven. And then we have a special website that lists all of the restaurants by neighbourhood. So, if you are staying in the Murphey, Candler or Blackburne area, it’ll show you the restaurants closest to you kind of thing.
Megha McSwain: It sounds like it’s a foodie city or foodie centric.
Renée Areng: We are. Yeah, which is great. I’m a foodie too, so yeah,
Megha McSwain: Me as well. And I feel like that’s always a draw. Yeah, of people have to be somewhere for work or you. Always look for fun and food.
Renée Areng: We have a classically French restaurant called Petite Violette, and I was lucky enough to live in Europe when I was in high school, so I’m quite the critical taster and they do a really good job. And they’re doing an Octoberfest this month, so they’re doing all German-influenced cuisine. So, my husband and I are going Saturday night, so yeah. Oh,
Megha McSwain: That sounds fun. So, in today’s dynamic travel landscape, mean things have changed so much just since 2020. How does Explore Brookhaven stay adaptable and innovative? I mean, I feel like even I guess starting in 2019, you guys have experienced changes that you probably didn’t even expect.
Renée Areng: Well, interestingly, Megha, I was on a panel for Destinations International last year in Toronto, and there were three of us whose destination organizations had been created in or around the pandemic, and we all were talking about what that looked like and how we could be a little more fluid and flexible than an organization that’s been in the workplace or in place for 40 to 50 years because they had KPIs in place that their boards and their communities expected to stay the same right number of rooms sold, number of visitors every year, that kind of stuff. And so what we talked about was that we were creating experiences for the travellers and for the residents so that we’re not measuring by numbers, we’re measuring by sentiment. And so we have not done a visitor intercept survey since 2019, but we have that on the books for 2024, hoping that 2024 is what the new travel looks like. We’re still experiencing some group businesses not being back and some corporate businesses not being back, but leisure travel is certainly strong. And so on. This panel at the end of the panel had a young woman. First of all, it was standing room only. So obviously this was a hot topic for people. Had a young woman ask how we thought the new expectations of the workforce were going to affect the workplace. I chose to answer her from the panel, and basically what I said was, ultimately, it will never be the same. We will be much more flexible than we’ve ever been. But in the end, our mission is to bring people together. Therefore, we have to come together. It may not look the same as it used to, but definitely we will come together. I think collaboration is the key to creativity too, so I do better in an environment with others. And so we’ve been in the office five days a week since May of 2020.
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It is nice to have that, to be able to have that, especially since the pandemic, because it really does create the have the juices flowing of creativity. And especially with such a new organization, it’s really great that you guys are able to do that.
Renée Areng: We spent the last three years really establishing relationships with our industry partners, sitting down one one-on-ones with our hotel partners and our restaurant partners, building out our website, building out our social platforms. We even created a Brookhaven store with Brookhaven-branded merchandise because there was none in the market. And that’s done really well. Interestingly, we have a new line of candles that just came out that will be scented based on the neighbourhood. So, we have Murphy candles out like that.
Megha McSwain: That’s cool.
Renée Areng: That’s fun. I know that was a really cute idea. I love it too. So we have one out for Murphy Candler so the other four will follow. We’re trying to be as conscious as possible about positioning Brookhaven’s brand, making ourselves available. For example, the city is building a permanent city hall that should be complete in the summer of 2025, and they’ve asked us to manage the meeting space in that facility. So they will have publicly available meeting space for rent, where you can bring in caterers and all of that. They’ll have rooftop space and outdoor space. So we have talked about moving to Brookhaven from one of our hotels to that space in 2025. So just to continue putting the Brookhaven brand out there.
Megha McSwain: Right. I’m curious, you mentioned social media. I’m in Houston and we do this a lot. I know the tourism board does it here, but do you all incorporate influencers or bloggers to highlight these specific maybe it’s a photo-worthy place, or maybe it’s like a restaurant or something.
Renée Areng: I think we had ten influencers at Taste Brookhaven this year, and we’ve hosted, oh goodness, probably 20 throughout the year from…
Megha McSwain: Out of town and everything.
Renée Areng: Yeah. And as you can imagine, there are a lot of Atlanta-based. And then we also work with a public relations firm, Laurie Rowe and Associates, that have just done a bang-up job for us, just really good. They most of her team are Georgia based, so they can be right here when we have an event or something, which is great. They’ve done some really good publicity for us. We hosted a Die in Travel space conference last year through an organization called Travel Unity, and it’s the organization that you can become a certified diversity travel professional with, which I did in 2020. And they were able to get the press for that picked up by the AP. And we got something crazy, like 8 billion impressions worth $100 million and was like, whoa, that zeros off of that. And it’s great. So they’ve done a they’re considered a smaller communications company, but they deal with those of us that are off the beaten path a little bit. So they do a good job.
Megha McSwain: And isn’t it amazing what kind of viewership you can get with something that seems so small, but you get a lot of eyes on it? That’s amazing. What is? I know you mentioned the new survey for 2024 and just getting an insight on what people want or what you have planned for the future, but what’s your vision in the coming years? How do you plan to further solidify this company’s position as a prominent player promoting Brookhaven tourism and economic development?
Renée Areng: We have had some deeper conversations with city leadership about becoming a little more involved in the economic development. First steps, like when they bring potential investors into the community to let us be part of the hosting process so that we can share some of the Brookhaven lifestyle with them, if you will. That is definitely in the works moving forward. As a matter of fact, we had a city department head meeting on Tuesday that they include me in, and the economic development director said that he had a shopping center that had been purchased by another investor and that they wanted to rename it The Shoppes at Buckhead, not Shoppes at Brookhaven. And I said, oh, let me have that conversation with them, please. You know what I mean?
So yeah. And he was like, happy to introduce you. It’s getting it ingrained because we’re a new city. Not everyone knows where the city limits are. Like, we hosted Brookhaven at the Hyatt Regency Villa Christina, which is at the northernmost part of Brookhaven at 285. And one of the restaurateurs that is in Brookhaven, said, why wouldn’t you host this in Brookhaven? I’m like, we are in Brookhaven. And they were like, no, we’re in, we’re in. Dunwoody said. No, we’re in Brookhaven. So it’s figuring out those little lines, and we partner with our surrounding cities a lot, Sandy Springs and Dunwoody. That helps. Yeah. And we’re doing an international event in December in Memphis with Travel South that we’re partnering with Roswell and Sandy Springs with, because the international traveler doesn’t just sit still, right. They go all over. So part of the dynamic of Brookhaven is that more than 25% of our population are Spanish-speaking. So we try to do as much as we can in Spanish, and the city does as well. So I have fluent Spanish speakers on staff. We have a Spanish Instagram, just making sure that we are catering to the locals as much as possible to right.
Megha McSwain: And as an industry expert. What advice would you offer to other destination marketing organizations and professionals looking to emulate Explore Brookhaven’s success?
Renée Areng: Don’t do it during a pandemic. Not that any of us had control over that, right? My husband and I, our careers are both funded by hotel revenue, and we looked at each other like months, month 3 or 4 and said, what were we thinking? Mean. Like, right.
Megha McSwain: Yeah. But you know, nobody I mean, did you ever think. No. I mean, did you ever think restaurants would like all the restaurants would be closed? That’s just something that you don’t even fathom.
Renée Areng: Well, because, no, just the opposite. Typically because we were in destinations that were affected by hurricanes and oil spills. And just the opposite happened. We had first responders come in, spend 3 to 6 months in our hotels paying us occupancy tax the entire time, and then they leave destination better than ever. So this was certainly hopefully a one-off. I would say that know that you aren’t necessarily a reflection of your visitor or your guest, and to listen to what they have to say. One of the things that’s big picture for me is signage. We have a lot of trails that aren’t obvious, and so I want to work with the city to get signage out so that visitors can find the trails. You can find the parks, but not necessarily all the trails. And so those are all being developed for both biking and walking. That is quality-of-life stuff. And people like to travel where people like living.
Megha McSwain: This has been really insightful, really appreciate it. I really think that we could talk again in the future, and I would love to hear how things have changed and progressed with Explore Brookhaven. I think that there’s probably a lot to come in the next couple of years, and that’s very exciting. So I appreciate you sharing your story and a little bit about Explore Brookhaven. Let our listeners know where they can learn more and where they can reach you.
Renée Areng: Okay. So I can be reached at email@example.com. All of our channels are. Explore Brookhaven at Explore Brookhaven for Facebook, for Instagram, for LinkedIn, and for Website.com. Hopefully our SEO is strong enough. If you just type in Explore Brookhaven will come up. There are a couple of other brookhaven’s in the country unfortunately, but hopefully we come up first in SEO. Yeah, I mean, we have the Peachtree Creek Greenway that’s being developed and it will eventually connect with the Beltline. And just a lot of great, a lot of great plans and vision. So we have a chat with you again.
Megha McSwain: Yeah for sure. It sounds like it. It sounds like we’ll have a lot more to talk about next time as well. Thank you so much to our listeners. Please follow and subscribe for future episodes and leave reviews. It really helps us. Thanks so much, Renée. We’ll talk again soon.
Renée Areng: Sounds great. Thanks, Megha.
Megha McSwain: You’ve been listening to TravelPreneur by travelpayments.com. Make sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast listening platform so you never miss a new episode, and we’ll see you again soon on TravelPreneur.