by Barbara Peterson | October 01, 2017
Not long ago, Toronto had an image problem. It wasn't because of anything negative -- on the contrary, Canada's biggest city was seen as just too "nice," and in the eyes of its top marketing brass, that's the kiss of death when it comes to competing for visitors and major events in a crowded marketplace.

"Our slogan used to be 'Toronto the Good,' and we spent a lot of time promoting our city as 'friendly and familiar,'" says Andrew Weir, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Tourism Toronto. "That's all lovely and nice, but 'lovely and nice' are the absolute enemies of a desire to visit. We have to be something more than that."

Weir spoke during a recent meeting in New York City of destination marketing organizations and economic-development officials hosted by City Nation Place, which organizes events around the theme of "place branding," a term that has taken on greater importance amid the cacophony of the digital age. The importance of this concept to meeting planners is an evolving story.

Once it was assumed that a meeting venue was chosen based on prosaic factors such as hotel availability, venue space, airlift and overall cost. But with increasingly limited time and seemingly limitless events, today's participants might be more selective in deciding which meetings to attend. The perceived allure of a destination could play a significant role in boosting registrations; a blah image, on the other hand, could be a turn-off.

Social media has accelerated that trend, and it can complicate matters, as destination marketers have less control over their brands. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can amplify negative news and tank a destination's image in a nanosecond. At the same time, social channels are perhaps the most effective outlets for DMOs to promote and spread their message to a wider and more targeted audience.

Does a destination's brand really matter to a meeting planner? Research says yes.

"When it comes to making a final decision, oftentimes the brand of a city -- essentially the perception that visitors have of the destination -- plays an important role," reads a report from consulting firm Marketing Challenges International, Social Media Marketing for Global Destinations in the Meetings and Conventions Industry.

In the case of Toronto, the city did, in fact, recast its message to convey more of an edgier, urban vibe with the tag line, "Canada's Downtown." An accompanying marketing and social media campaign highlighted the city's cultural offerings and diverse population with noteworthy nuggets like the fact that the city produces all official communications in 30 different languages, out of the more than 130 foreign tongues that are spoken by residents.

That message was picked up in numerous stories in print and digital media; today, Weir claims, it's unlikely anyone would dismiss Toronto as simply a blander version of New York.

The Art And Science Of Branding

Among the questions planners consider in selecting a site, according to the Marketing Challenges report, are: Does the destination offer rich culture and history? Is it known for any business industries or universities? Is it known for its cuisine, music, art or nature? Will visitors feel welcomed by the locals?

That last point is no minor matter for some destinations. Consider Amsterdam, where tourism is booming but locals have been increasingly outspoken about the effect of visitors on their quality of life. At press time, the city was planning to increase taxes on tourists by as much as 10 euros per night "to limit stag weekends...and reclaim the city for residents," according to an article in The Guardian. The response of the city's visitors bureau was notable in its simplicity: It banished the word tourists from its vocabulary. "We don't allow it," says Frans Van der Avert, CEO of Amsterdam Marketing. "We call them visitors instead."

Meeting-goers, of course, aren't technically tourists -- they'd be more in the camp of what Van der Avert describes as "quality visitors," which he defines as "a visitor who is not a nuisance for another visitor. They don't use the city as a backdrop for parties." Indeed, Amsterdam ranked seventh among the top 15 cities for international association meetings in 2016, per the annual tally by the International Congress and Convention Association, drawing 144 such events. It also is the third highest-ranked business city in Europe and renowned as a startup incubator.

"For business meetings, we want to have a very strong pro-business image,"

Van der Avert says, a point that is underscored in various media blitzes. Among other things, Amsterdam is revving up what he describes as a "huge Brexit campaign" -- in effect, capitalizing on the uncertainty over the impact of the British vote to leave the European Union. Many international corporations already are choosing to decamp from London, and Holland wants to get some of that action, he says. "We're telling them, don't go to Paris or Frankfurt, go to Amsterdam."