People You Ought to Know: Michael Altman on Destination Branding
Friday, January 20, 2023, 8am by visitRaleigh
We believe there are some people in our area whom every hospitality partner ought to know (or at least know about). Previously we have introduced you to Whitney Knollenberg, Ph.D., Ed Tomasi and Duarte Morais, Ph.D., to name a few.
Today, we want to make sure you know Michael Altman. Michael is an instructor and director of the Hospitality and Tourism Management program at Meredith College in Raleigh and a member of GRCVB’s Board of Directors. Our online interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us briefly about your professional background.
I bring 20+ years of experience in hospitality, tourism and marketing to my new role as Meredith College’s first full-time hospitality and tourism management faculty member and program director.
I am a co-founder of Trialogue Studio, which provides destination branding, design and communications services to neighborhoods, cities, towns, states, regions and countries across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia, including Visit Raleigh, Marbles Kids Museum, Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Previously, I served as chief marketing officer at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and head of communications and marketing at IMAX Corporation.
While in D.C., I served two terms on the board of [its DMO] Destination DC, and this summer I was recently appointed to a two-year term as a member of the board of GRCVB. I also serve on the Wake County Career Advisory Team (CAT), a group of Career and Technical Education administrators and teachers working together to make sure the high-school hospitality and tourism and marketing curriculum is effectively preparing our students to enter the workforce.
I often serve as an expert analyst about hospitality and tourism for a variety of news outlets. I was recently quoted in articles in The Washington Post entitled “What happened to travel in 2020? What will happen in 2021?” and in Forbes “This Is Travel’s New Normal: Say Hello To The American Staycation.” I also wrote a small piece for WalletHub entitled “Ask the Experts: Exploring the Best Travel Credit Cards.”
You have done some branding work for GRCVB in the past. Can you summarize that project for us?
What do you do when you are the hottest region for businesses and jobs in the U.S.? For two years in a row (2006/2007), Raleigh, N.C., topped Forbes magazine’s list of “Best Places for Business and Careers.” With people flocking to the area to live and a new convention center getting ready to open in 2008, GRCVB decided it was time to invest in the destination brand.
My partner Ruth Wieder and I collaborated with market research consultancy Longwoods International and worked with GRCVB and a broad representation of every one of Wake County’s 12 municipalities to conduct primary research and develop a new brand promise, positioning and identity for a marketing program—Visit Raleigh—that promotes the region and everything it has to offer to visitors and residents alike.*
How would you define destination branding, and why is it important?
For me, destination branding is a process and can only be successful if stakeholders are willing to come together to agree on answers to some challenging questions about their destination such as:
- What is your story?
- Where is the destination going, and why does it matter?
- What are its aspirations and dreams?
- What role does it play in the larger context (your county, metropolitan statistical area or MSA, state etc.)?
- What role could it play five to 10 years from now?
- How will other key planning initiatives that may be planned or underway connect to the brand so as to enhance the vibrancy of the entire destination and help to grow a sustainable, adaptable and diversified economic, social and cultural base?
While most destinations do not immediately have all the answers, I believe that these are powerful questions from which to build a brand, to inform and engage residents, attract investment and woo new residents, businesses and visitors.
I also stress that the destination’s brand will only be sustainable if it’s embraced by a multitude of players—not just the sponsors of the project but citizens as well. In the end, the brand needs to provide a positioning and visual identity that is versatile enough so that the community and each partner organization can see itself reflected in how the destination tells its tale.
What would you like for our partners to know about your current assignment at Meredith College?
After teaching part-time at The George Washington University and Georgetown University for nine years, I started teaching full-time at Meredith in fall 2019 and recently added MBA Global Leadership and Business in Society courses to my teaching load. We have started to graduate students from the Hospitality and Tourism program, and I am thrilled that several of them have chosen to stay in the Raleigh area after their internships to work at some of our most dynamic industry partners including The Umstead Hotel and Spa, Heights House Hotel, Merrimon-Wynne House, Rocky Top Catering, Paramount Event Venue and more.
We believe that together with our colleagues at N.C. State, Appalachian State, East Carolina, UNC Greensboro and others, we will be able to bring to our industry the next generation of highly qualified, motivated and competent professionals with the soft and hard skills required to succeed.
Some destinations (Las Vegas, Nashville, Niagara Falls, even smaller ones like Springfield, Ill.) don’t have to “invent” their brand; they are either well-established (Vegas, Nashville); natural (Niagara Falls) or historic (Springfield). How does a destination like Raleigh, which doesn't have a natural "hook," effectively create image/identity in the minds of its audience?
Funny you should cite Niagara as an example above as I actually led a project that developed “Niagara Original," their regional brand promise, positioning and design platform that would take them beyond Niagara Falls and upon which all 12 municipalities could author their unique story to tell to the world. What we learned during the process was that destination brands are shaped by people’s gut feelings. In other words, our place is not defined by what we say it is, but rather it is defined by what they say it is. And that is dependent on the promises we make and how we deliver upon them.
Remember, people’s beliefs about a place brand are formed through every single interaction with it, from pop culture to the evening news to the Internet, influencers and blogs, from word-of-mouth to the products and services they consume, from the books they’ve read to the people they meet and the places they choose to stay while traveling or places they choose to live or invest in. All of these must be aligned, or our target audience will be confused, lose interest or just be disappointed. So, for me it's not really about the hook but rather the sum total of feelings that residents, customers or visitors have while experiencing your place. This is where the heart of a place brand is. This is what informs the creative process.
*Note: This destination brand strategy has experienced only a tune-up since 2008. You can see more about the tuned-up strategy and a current Brand Kit for our area at raleighncbrand.com.
The Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau (GRCVB) is the official and accredited destination marketing organization (DMO) for all of Wake County.