It's always good to see deserving colleagues recognized for the quality of the work they do. That happened at GRCVB recently when two, relatively long-time department heads were promoted to vice presidents in their respective areas of responsibility.

Jonathan Freeze, CDME, who has been director since 2008 is now vice president of marketing and communications. Vimal Vyas, who has been director of data, security and digital innovation since 2007, has also been elevated to vice president of his responsibility area (formerly called information technology).

If you know them, you know they both are dedicated and extremely competent professionals who care deeply about the work they are doing for Raleigh and Wake County's destination marketing organization (DMO). 

We ask them some questions about their work at the Bureau and about their vision for the future of GRCVB and of the destination, from their unique perspectives.

You both have been at GRCVB for 14-15 years. What has been the biggest change in your work in your respective areas? What has been the biggest change in the destination?

The biggest change in my work year-over-year has been a continuous evolution of data access in the DMO industry. Data provides measurement insights in sales prospecting, origin (ZIP code) market analysis, booking pace reporting, event impact calculations, brand impressions/sentiment, attribution of paid advertising and content reach, all of which helps to drive decisions about sales and marketing for increased visitor travel to Wake County.

With the rise of open data and widely available but anonymous device movement data, at GRCVB we are now able to understand visitors’ journey from where they came, their time of arrival, how long they stay and the specific locations within the destination which they visit.

The change in the destination that I have observed is our partners’ awareness of the need for measurable data... how it helps them share their story as a partner contributing to the hospitality community and to Wake County tourism. Stakes are certainly higher for hospitality business partners in the county, and data has helped them become more strategic and forward-thinking to attract new resident customers and visitors alike.

To me the biggest change in DMO marketing/communications has been the rise of branded content and content marketing (online content that can project a destination image and inspire travel for a destination’s experiences) direct to customers or potential customers. This was made possible by the simultaneous rise of social media platforms in forms we know them today and by Internet-based businesses that disrupted the tourism industries in other ways from 2008 on (e.g., Airbnb, Uber). No longer do we have to orient all our DMO work around traditional inquiries, e.g., requests for guides, email signups, 800 numbers; in many cases, we can reach and motivate the potential visitor directly (with data tracking).

The biggest change in the destination is related. Our 4,200+ partner and stakeholder organizations throughout Wake County (I believe that number was maybe 2,500 some 14 years ago) likewise have learned new approaches to attracting and serving visitors within their own properties/areas, their expectations are understandably higher and thus professional development, innovation and continuous improvement/growth are more important than ever here.

What are the guiding principles you use in your decision-making?

Jonathan: Management books and a lot of introspection in my 20s, when I first became a CVB department head, helped me identify some of the strengths and the blind spots I have:

  • I think about long-term implications more than others, probably due to my lifelong study of history.
  • Also I’ve never regretted having a degree in psychology, as there are always applications from that field into marketing decisions.
  • Empathize with the consumer point of view.
  • I’m a big believer in the value of internal devil’s advocates, questioning everything that has simply been assumed to be true, and in the scientific method as applied to business.
  • Obviously there’s an ethics to CVB work and we must always do what’s right by Wake County; there is a higher calling (beyond the personal) in public-sector work like ours.

Fast-forward 10 years; what are you working on today that you believe will reap great benefits in 2032?

My pursuit to find industry-specific technologies to converge the data from many different sources, to normalize event sources and resident/visitor data perspectives has certainly been a challenge.

This one-click summary would provide a report card to area partners on various destination-specific measurables, including data related to visitor sentiment, their demographics, non-local vs. local visitation or attendance at partner properties, origin markets, cross visitation, microeconomic impact etc. This data convergence would become a CVB tool for partner engagement and would help proactively open up visibility of the monetary flow from destination to partner level or event level within our community. Provided with a sort of master dashboard summary like this, GRCVB can continue then to estimate tourism impacts from a credible source of metrics while communicating that measurement/value as the prime advocate or regional leader for tourism in the community.

In essence, as I see it technologically and aligning with our Destination Strategic Plan (DSP), DestinationNEXT recommendations and recent guidance from Destinations International on community shared value/tourism lexicons, GRCVB can become more resilient and the lead facilitator for all kinds of destination tourism data. If successful, hopefully sooner than 2032 with year-over-year data, “putting data first” in tourism will continue to prove beneficial in destination development but really in the quality of life for our community overall.

It wasn’t really until 2017 or 2018 that I realized fully that (a) our last destination brand research project, (b) our existing connections with N.C. State University’s tourism department and (c) the Wake County DSP—as well as guidance coming down from Destinations International—all were directing us toward a scope of work with tourism entrepreneurship and microentrepreneurs. It’s going beyond just listing or describing all the small businesses in our area on and is becoming more about true fieldwork, what I would call soft product development in tourism or even occasionally “economic development” in the traditional sense. I’ve outlined the rationale for this and some of the implications in the book Tourism Microentrepreneurship. But in a nutshell, I’m working on the Individual Leisure Priority of the DSP, which itself runs through 2028, and accomplishing the recommendations in that will mean a lot for Wake County. If successful and by 2032, “putting people first” in tourism will prove beneficial not for the visitation numbers alone but really for the well-being of our community on the whole.

If you were dreaming, what technologies or innovations will be in place in 10 years?

Vimal: Technology advocacy/awareness is critical for Wake County tourism. We are already bringing innovation to our destination, from hosting new esports events to the esports mural in downtown Raleigh.

  • Next-generation and high-speed train transportation, increased direct international travel via supersonic airlines (cutting travel time by half) and driverless cars will open new trip-origin markets for Wake County. Even though Wake County is two hours from the mountains and from the beach, we will hopefully be a "hop, skip and a jump" via space tourism to the Earth’s orbit at a more economical cost.
  • With the internet of things (IOT) there will be a convergence of smart-city initiatives and smart tourism to help enhance the quality of place via visitation and tourism connectivity. IOT will play a major role in tourism visitation and conferences via Web 3.0 and wearable, connected clothing and eyewear, turning extended Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality into daily gamification in a tourism IOT-connected smart city.
  • With all the IOT device connectivity (hopefully via 6G with terabytes of data transfer) and our electric connected cars (acting like a device connected to 6G), it would be great to have wireless power charging for all electric devices (remove the cord). Imagine that!? 
  • There is possible technology out there to produce electricity though nature, where plants can be a light switch or even power our lights via biotech. The flip side would be a demand in travel related to completely disconnecting from all devices, which is an increasing trend even now.

How does the work the two of you do complement each other's responsibilities?

Joining the GRCVB in 2008 was a great fit for me in part because there was a division of labor already in place where Vimal oversaw the foundational, functional and technical aspects of the official tourism website. (I had been fully responsible for the website at my prior DMO.) This allowed me the chance to concentrate here on brand strategy, populating the destination database, publication management and the other, more creative duties of a marketing department head, including prepping of our content for the website.

Vimal’s corporate tech and data background instantly reassured me we would see eye-to-eye in decision-making, and we complement each other immensely in our approach to new opportunities; he brings forth a very studied, left-brain perspective on a project, then my team tends to poke various, right-brain holes in that perspective (in a good-natured way) until we arrive at a jointly constructed vision of what could be best for the Bureau or destination. (Or vice versa, my team may be focusing only on the creative or customer implications of a tactic, and Vimal brings to us the erudite, technical problems with such a solution.) The two of us bring an excellent balance of “art” and “science” to the projects where there is overlap between departments (e.g., destination marketing research and technology).