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The Big Story that Destinations Aren’t Telling

Walk into any hotel or restaurant (or even a major corporate headquarters) and it’s easy to see that they’re all trying to make a great first impression–an impression that reinforces their brand. From the landscaping out front to the waiting area to the front desk to the bathrooms … the professional establishments tie all this together.

What about a destination’s first impression?

Typically, it’s a modern airport that could be anywhere, complete with the same shops selling the same products.  Or a ferry/cruise terminal that could be anywhere. Then visitors leave the airport/port and pass by some industrial area or parking lots and maybe a few car dealerships or high-traffic intersections.

Very few destinations are putting their best (branded) foot forward from the moment visitors arrive. One place that has been doing it for over a decade is Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. They went for the rustic paradise vibe, and turned their airport into a powerful first and last impression.  It’s a giant, high-tech palapa, at times staffed by steel drummers welcoming visitors with music.

Punta Cana isn’t the only destination to pay attention to the welcome. Hawaii famously gave visitors a lei upon arrival, though this service now has to be ordered and paid for in advance.  Disney had considerable influence in Orlando’s airport, as they wanted the visitors to experience a bit of Disney magic upon arrival.

Destinations would do well to think of the arrival more like storytelling. The airport (chapter 1) sets the scene, the trip into the city (chapter 2) develops the character, the arrival at the hotel (chapter 3) provides another layer of plot development, and their experience at the beach or city center (chapter 4) cements the core themes of the story.

So, if we’re talking about a tropical resort that is branding itself as a paradise getaway, the airport should feel like the airport version of a tropical resort image they want to convey, the main route into town should be nicely landscaped in this paradise style, and the town should be a picturesque city version of this style that will ensure visitors want to return to experience it, not just hide out in their all-inclusives.

What typically happens at sun and sand destinations is that visitors don’t get that first feeling of paradise until they’ve reached the hotel, checked-in and walked out back toward the pool and ocean. Forget for a moment that this jaw-dropping vision of paradise was created by landscapers, probably sitting in offices in New York. Visitors are desperate at this point to see the paradise they ordered online. And if they haven’t seen something equally alluring on their way in, they’re understandably not so motivated to leave the premises and spread their money around.

The way home can be just as important. Don’t underestimate those last views and impressions.  The entire destination wins if visitors’ last experience isn’t waiting for three hours in a hot and stuffy security area.  Imagine sending them off with a free departure cocktail and some live music instead.


Photo credits:

1) Chris Yiu (CC BY-SA 2.0)

2) Ezez CC BY-SA 3.0)

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