Visit Seattle's Travel Advocacy campaign poster featuring Michael Woody

Strategies For Effectively Marketing a City As A Tourist Destination, with Michael Woody of Visit Seattle

Episode Overview

Episode Topic:
In this captivating episode of TravelPreneur, we engage Michael Woody, from Visit Seattle, in the heart of Travel Advocacy with a focus on strengthening community engagement and boosting economic prosperity through tourism. The discussion uncovers the transformative power of tourism on local communities and economies. This episode promises to offer invaluable insights into the strategies that drive successful destination marketing and the role of advocacy in shaping a thriving travel industry. We explore the multifaceted impact of travel advocacy on Seattle’s growth and how it can serve as a blueprint for destinations worldwide.

Lessons You’ll Learn:
This episode is a treasure trove of wisdom for anyone interested in the intricate dance between travel advocacy, community engagement, and economic growth in the travel sector. Listeners will learn the importance of building strong relationships with government entities, the strategic use of data and research in advocacy efforts, and innovative marketing strategies for post-pandemic recovery. Michael Woody shares firsthand experiences and lessons on how travel advocacy can lead to significant policy changes, enhance local employment opportunities, and ultimately foster economic prosperity in tourism-dependent regions. Prepare to be enlightened on the power of travel advocacy in transforming destinations and creating sustainable growth.

About Our Guest:
Michael Woody, our distinguished guest, serves as the Senior Vice President of Community Engagement and Public Affairs at Visit Seattle. With a storied career spanning various facets of the hospitality and tourism industry, Michael brings a wealth of knowledge and a unique perspective on travel advocacy. Michael’s passion for service, combined with his expertise in tourism marketing and advocacy, has contributed significantly to Seattle’s reputation as a premier travel destination.

Topics Covered:
The enlightening conversation covers a wide range of topics essential for understanding the current and future landscape of the travel industry. We delve into the critical role of travel advocacy in enhancing community engagement, navigating government relations, and promoting economic prosperity. The discussion highlights Visit Seattle’s innovative strategies for destination marketing, the impact of advocacy on tourism policies, and the organization’s efforts to leverage data for effective advocacy. Additionally, we explore future trends in travel marketing, upcoming projects from Visit Seattle aimed at boosting the region’s economic prosperity, and Michael’s invaluable advice for aspiring travel professionals.

Michael Woody- Strategic Travel Advocacy in Building Bridges.

Michael Woody, our esteemed guest on “TravelPreneur,” currently holds the position of Senior Vice President of Community Engagement and Public Affairs at Visit Seattle. His career trajectory is a testament to his dedication and passion for the hospitality and tourism industry. Michael’s journey began with a foundational desire to serve others, a trait deeply embedded from his early days of delivering coffee in bed to relatives. His academic pursuits led him to a degree in hotel and restaurant management, setting the stage for a diverse career that has spanned from managing the first Chili’s in Dallas to holding significant roles in luxury hotel management and beyond. Michael’s transition into the Convention and Visitor Bureau (CVB) work, particularly his time in locations such as Farmers Branch and Grapevine in the Dallas area, honed his skills in promoting destinations and fostering community engagement.

In his role at Visit Seattle, Michael Woody has been instrumental in redefining the organization’s approach to travel advocacy, community involvement, and public affairs. His innovative strategies have included the creation of a designated department for local advocacy, a move that underscores the evolving significance of community engagement in tourism marketing. Under his guidance, Visit Seattle has launched initiatives aimed at boosting the local economy through tourism, such as conducting resident sentiment surveys to better understand community needs and spearheading campaigns to diversify stakeholders within the tourism sector. Michael’s efforts to redirect visitors and residents toward underserved communities and BIPOC-owned businesses reflect a deep commitment to inclusive growth and prosperity.

Beyond his achievements in community engagement and advocacy, Michael Woody’s work as a government liaison exemplifies the critical role of collaboration between the tourism industry and governmental bodies. His ability to navigate the complexities of government relations has led to significant policy changes that benefit the tourism sector and, by extension, the wider community. Michael’s leadership was pivotal in revisiting and expanding the funding restrictions for Seattle’s Tourism Improvement Area, enabling a more comprehensive promotion of the city’s leisure and meetings markets. His forward-thinking approach to advocacy, particularly in leveraging data and research, has positioned Visit Seattle as a leader in driving economic significance and policy reform in tourism. Michael Woody’s contributions to the travel industry are a beacon for future leaders, showcasing the power of dedicated advocacy and innovative marketing in shaping the future of travel.

Episode Transcript

Michael Woody: Tourism is a solution to a lot of the challenges that a destination might have, either that is misperceptions that are out there. And how do we correct those? Either it’s because if you increase the success of a tourism program, it can offset some of those other things that are a challenge. It can provide more jobs to bring more people off of the streets, for example, for homelessness. So I think that it’s finding those opportunities is also a challenge.

Megha McSwain: Welcome to TravelPreneur, the weekly business show for the travel industry. I’m your host, Houston-based travel journalist Megha McSwain. Each episode will 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. Welcome back to another episode of TravelPreneur, your gateway to the evolving realm of the travel industry. I’m your host, Megha McSwain. Today we are thrilled to have a distinguished guest with us, Michael Woody, Senior Vice President of Community Engagement and Public Affairs at Visit Seattle. Welcome to the show, Michael.

Michael Woody: Thank you. Thank you for having me today.

Megha McSwain: So, Michael, with your extensive experience in community engagement, government liaison work, and public affairs, you bring a unique perspective to our podcast. Can you begin by sharing some pivotal moments from your journey and just a little bit about your background?

Michael Woody: Of course, I think for many of us in the hospitality industry, we are born with the desire to serve others. It’s kind of what we do. it’s in our DNA and we love it, right? I can think back to when I was a young boy, I would be the one who delivered coffee in bed to any relative who might be staying at our house. So from that time really had this desire to be in the service industry. I started off wanting to be for some of your listeners. They may remember the show hotel, but I wanted to be Peter McDermott, the hotel GM, and I forged down that path when I went to college, so I got a degree in hotel restaurant management. I ended up going into restaurants first. I managed Chili’s store number one in Dallas was my first gig out of college, went from there into the hotel realm managing food and beverage for Rosewood Hotels, which is a lovely hotel company based out of Dallas, then went into CVB work or Convention and Visitor Bureau work where I spent most of my career. So I started off in a small suburb in the Dallas area called Farmers Branch, went on to another place in the Dallas area called Grapevine, and really had some great experiences in that realm. Having that opportunity to really better serve the industry in the Convention and Visitors Bureau world. So what we always look for in our realm are people who have been there, and done that, we look at our partners, and those are usually the ones that fall into that category. In that hospitality area.

Michael Woody: I worked for American Airlines for about nine years, and there I got to publish magazines. So it feels like a departure from the Convention and Visitors Bureau work, but very much the same thing of telling a story and really having people feel encouraged to have a new experience. I also had an opportunity to work for an international meetings market association called Meeting Professionals International and had a chance to really dive into the global elements of our industry. And that role, you know, really had the opportunity to do a number of different things, certainly during the pandemic, finding new ways to pivot and finding ways to turn attention inwards and really talk to locals. So that was kind of one of those big pivotal moments that as an industry, we really determined that one important thing that we were missing along the way was that it was so important to create or help to establish a great place to live because, in turn, that is going to be a great place to visit. So I think that was one of those big pivots in a career that had always been about how to encourage people to travel and to experience a destination, not so much about how to improve the destination itself. I think that is a big part of what my role is and has been for a number of different positions that I’ve had, leading to the one that I’m in today was really that leaning in and finding those opportunities to make a difference locally, which in turn really creates a magical place to visit.

Megha McSwain: As Senior Vice president at Visit Seattle, you oversee community engagement initiatives with numerous partners and sponsors. Can you elaborate on the organization’s strategies to enhance community involvement?

Michael Woody: Of course. Yeah. So when we look at the community involvement side of it, a number of different things that we’re really leaning into. For one, we have actually created a designated department within our organization that is all about local advocacy, and that is really new in our space in the type of work that our type of organization does. So first and foremost, I’ve created a team that’s going to help us to do that and help us to really tell the story of the value of tourism locally. So why is a resident, does this industry mean anything to me? Another thing that we’re doing is, we are conducting a resident sentiment survey to where we can better understand what that thought is, what our pain points or what our celebrations that, the residents here feel about the tourism industry, and all of the products that are wrapped into that. For us, that insight really is going to help us with determining where do we need to lean in more heavily and again, where do we need to celebrate. Right. We don’t want it all to be a negative spin. We want to make sure that we’re really recognizing where people see the benefit as well. We’re also really working hard to diversify our stakeholders. So when we look at the mix of members that we have, is that truly representative? Of the destination.

Michael Woody: And when we do see areas that maybe aren’t as highly represented, we’re able to then lean in and go purposefully find those elements that we’re missing to really help to develop that. So those are some of the areas that we’re really leaning more into that community involvement. We have some different strategies on how we are leaning into the economic prosperity side of it. We really look at how do we redirect residents and visitors to a lot of those underserved communities and shops and shop owners. We’ve developed programs that do that. Specifically, we partnered with a local bank, Seattle Bank, and a lady called the Intentionalist, who is intentional about making sure that we lift those Bipoc-type businesses and really draw attention to them. So we’ve developed an annual program where we bring on in different neighborhoods, these great businesses that people need to go and experience, and we help to lift those up again, not only to people who are visiting but also to locals to really take advantage of that. When we are in a place for so long, we end up getting our favorite little spots, and a lot of what we do is to encourage people to revisit. If you live 15-20 minutes outside of downtown and you haven’t been downtown since pre-pandemic, we want you to come back because some of the things that maybe you remember or that you thought or that you heard aren’t really the same.

Michael Woody: Another strategy that we really leaned into was we had a fairly restrictive funding model or funding source that was called the Seattle Tourism Improvement Area, where it was an assessment on all hotels in the downtown area. But when it was developed in 2011, it had a lot of parameters around how those dollars could be used. So one of the things that I was part of when I got here was to take a new look at that and expand the use and the way it was being used and the parameters around it was only for leisure tourism. There are two different types of primarily of tourism. One obviously is leisure and that’s you and I traveling. Right. Just the individual traveler or people traveling for pleasure. There’s also the other side of that coin, and that’s the meetings and conventions market. We were not permitted to use any of those resources, those dollars, to help promote that side of our business. For Seattle, we just opened our second downtown convention center and had a huge opportunity to help drive business during what we call either the cozy season or the shoulder season.

Michael Woody: That is anything outside of that peak market time, which for us is a memorial to Labor. So in changing that funding restriction, we’re now able to use that resource to in addition to promoting leisure visitation, we’re now also able to use that to help fill this beautiful new convention center with business to help lift not only the hotels during the shoulder season but also all of those merchants that we just talked about, the restaurateurs, the Bipoc owned businesses to really help create more of a level, year-round program. So that’s another strategy that we really leaned into to make a big difference. And we’ve seen great success just from looking back at the numbers from where we’ve come from. Pandemic. In 2022, we had visitors and spent $7.3 billion here in Seattle. And what we love more than anything, we love to spend. We love how much they spend. But what we love more than anything is how many of our neighbors the industry sends to a job every day. So 61,000 people are employed in the industry here, and that provides that level of living for so many. The industry has a lot of impacts that are easily seen, and some are not as easily seen.

Megha McSwain: Your role as government liaison. What are the key challenges and opportunities in navigating relationships with the various government entities to support the goals of Visit Seattle?

Michael Woody: Of course, I think with any destination, some of those big challenges are getting time with elected officials because, at the end of the day, we want to build relationships with those who are making the big decisions, and we don’t want it to be that we only show up for a desk-side appointment when we want something, really having the opportunity to intentionally build relationships with those who are making the big decisions. So those elected leaderships. And for us, that’s not just on the city level, but that’s also at the county, state, and national. So we’re trying to really create those opportunities to build relationships. And that’s often hard to get the time on calendars. So certainly getting time is a challenge. Another one is really increasing the awareness of what the industry brings to the destination. It’s not just that the hotels are full and they generate X amount of dollars in occupancy tax, but what does that mean for the elected leaders? What does that mean for the districts that they represent sometimes? Just very hard to isolate that enough to where it matters from a policy perspective. So that’s an opportunity to really utilize the data that we bring in to have a better understanding of what is important to them and how we can speak to that. And then the last thing was really kind of explaining how tourism is a solution to a lot of the challenges that a destination might have, either that is misperceptions that are out there. And how do we correct those? Either it’s because if you increase the success of a tourism program, it can offset some of those other things that are a challenge. It can provide more jobs to bring more people off of the streets, for example, for homelessness. So I think that it’s finding those opportunities is also a challenge. And we’re always looking for those.

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Michael Woody: I think one of our biggest goals is to simply spread awareness of what we do and how it benefits locals, right? So for us, from an advocacy lens, we have a pretty unique situation right now in Seattle in that we just came through our round of elections. We will have six out of seven of our council members are new and have never served before. So we have this opportunity through advocacy to really help at bring them up to speed on all the things that the industry is about and why it matters to their constituents, and help them to understand really, from a budgetary perspective, when they’re looking at creating their budgets annually, how much of that is impacted by the tourism industry, as you can imagine, right, not just through your traditional channels, but also just even in sales tax, how much sales tax is generated when you’re looking at the tens of billions of dollars that are being generated by the industry to help support those local services? That’s one of the things that we really work out from an advocacy side to help them understand. And we do the same thing state and federal. We do regular visits to Olympia, our Capitol here in Washington, as well as to Washington, DC to talk about big issues that are impacting the industry and how those elected officials can be making really smart decisions that help to lift the tourism industry within our region, both from a national perspective, from DC as well as from the state side. We really lean into those conversations, and we do that in cooperation with other destinations. We go to the state, we are tying together everything within King County and all of our touch counties, and we all go together.

Megha McSwain: What strategies and initiatives do you see as crucial for the future of travel marketing, especially in the post-pandemic landscape?

Michael Woody: Certainly, from an advocacy lens and from a communication lens, it’s leaning heavily into social media, certainly been something that we’ve all I don’t think dabbled in is the right answer to that, but it hasn’t been like the forefront. This is what must happen where today it is. We really base a lot of opportunities around that. And how can we tell our story on the different platforms? How do we reach the most people to really elevate that marketing message and that wider travel message, and why us to message and to really meet people where they are, if it’s a certain type of experience that people are looking for, there are groups out there that talk just about that. If it’s a culinary experience, we go that route. If it’s something with the arts, with music, etc., etc. we find those opportunities within social to really help to tell that story to a more targeted audience. It’s no longer the buy a billboard up on the freeway and you’re done. Or place an ad in a magazine. And the other part for us is really sharing out through those strategies, the affordability of the destination and how you can have all sorts of experiences, especially here in Seattle. That could be a lovely hike. 20 minutes out of downtown in the Snoqualmie Valley, you can have a high experience, you can have a bargain value experience, and there’s everything for everyone at any level that they’d like to have that experience at.

Michael Woody: So really talking about affordability is an important thing for us too, everyone wants their money to go as far as they can to have those wonderful experiences, and we’ve had a lot of opportunity and a lot of success in creating experiences within key target markets. So like, we know where the majority of our visitors come from and what opportunities to grow different areas. So we’ll do activations and those key feeder markets like we took over the pickleball courts in Central Park in New York and branded them with Visit Seattle. And we had the paddles and we had everything, and all of those were to tell the story. So things like that. We took over coffee shops to where on a Monday morning in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, you’ll go into your favorite coffee shop, you’ll order your coffee and they’ll hand it to you and they’ll say, this is compliments of Seattle. Kind of have that very targeted and meaningful engagement with fewer people, but the experience that they have is so much greater. So finding opportunities like that has been really important in that.

Megha McSwain: Are there any developments or projects in the works that we can anticipate from Visit Seattle that are coming up that you can share?

Michael Woody: We’ve really seen a lot of great success in having big concerts here in Seattle and really leaning into the sports. We have the FIFA World Cup here. So I think for us really finding those opportunities to welcome people from around the globe here to Seattle, to experience all that we have to offer, is going to be. And the other thing that you’ll see a lot more from us is really tied around that meetings and events market. We have a platinum Leed-certified convention center. It just got us platinum status. That’s the new one that was just built and opened a year ago. There’ll be a lot more on the meetings side trade that will be showing up in publications and on people’s minds for a great place to come and bring their next thought. Evoking meeting here for the Pacific Northwest cruise will always be a big thing too. I think you’ll continue to see a lot more with the cruise. We are also really working with the port and leaning into important initiatives there that are about reducing carbon footprint and emissions and plug-in shore power whenever they’re here in Seattle, not running the engines, things like that. I think you’ll see a lot of as well, exciting all the way around. We continue to lean into the culture here. There’s a festivals and events that we’re part of, like Cloudbreak. It’s a month-long music festival here, if you stay in a downtown hotel, you get free tickets to the concert of your choice at over 40 venues, 200 concerts during the course of the month. I think through those things, we continue to find opportunities to better share the culture of Seattle and encourage people to come and be part of that because it is unique.

Megha McSwain: So for aspiring professionals in the travel and tourism sector, what advice can you offer? Whether they’re involved in working for a city or CVB, what advice can you give them?

Michael Woody: Well, I think the best piece of advice is lean in and love it because there are so many opportunities for us to make a difference in this industry. We have the potential of introducing people to an experience that they will remember for a lifetime, and it can be the little things that you come up with for your destination, or for your property or for your restaurant that will have people walk away thinking that was just a little bit extra. And I know they did that. So I would have an amazing experience. If we’re always looking for ways to enhance the experience, if we’re always looking for an opportunity to make someone’s day, then we will continue to evolve this product that we call hospitality and tourism to a new level because we are committed individually to making someone’s day. That’s a big thing. The other one is, always be open to new ideas. Be open to revisiting an old idea that maybe didn’t work the first time because we’ve come a long way. There’s a lot of things that are old school ideas but are so important to the experience, so don’t forget those. There’s still something to be said about touching a piece of paper and not doing everything on your mobile device or on your computer. There’s certainly a path that we all use and that we all appreciate having that device. There was a time when we had to go to the library to look up microfiche for information. Now, if we can’t get to the answer within, I don’t know, five seconds. Really perplexed. Like, how do we do it before? But it’s important to give yourself the break and step away from some of those conveniences, to reconnect with each other and to reconnect with the environment. So those are some little pieces of advice, but just be passionate about what you do, because we do this more than we do home. So love it. And if you don’t totally love it today, find a way to tweak it just a little bit to where you do.

Megha McSwain: Thank you so much, Michael, for sharing your journey and just all of the stuff that you guys have going on with Visit Seattle. Please let our listeners know where they can learn more if they want to and where they can get in touch with you.

Michael Woody: Absolutely. Just go online, We have great information there, great resources, and great ways you can join into different groups and connect.

Megha McSwain: Well, thank you so much, Michael. To our listeners, please like and subscribe for future episodes and we will see you next time, thank you. You’ve been listening to TravelPreneur by 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.