Visitors to Europe can’t be blamed for thinking their favorite places are naturally and automatically accessible, warm, and welcoming. But behind every popular destination is the star-maker machinery–the marketing people who are creating the stories that attract the likes of us.
Costa Brava, in Spain’s northeast Catalunya region, can boast about its culture, food, and gorgeous, rocky, wild coast. But people in the know will also talk about Jaume Marin, Marketing Director at Costa Brava Girona Tourist Board. He’s the guy responsible for bringing “Game of Thrones” to film in the area. He’s campaigning to bring the 2022 Ryder (golf) Cup to Costa Brava. And twice he’s hosted the Travel Blogger Exchange (TBEX) Europe conference (the first in Girona in 2012, and the second in Lloret del Mar in 2015).
In short, Marin has done his work. He’s capitalizing on the region’s cultural and gastronomic laurels by building eco-tourism and creative visitor experiences. Meanwhile he continues his energetic participation in tourism and social media circles. All this from a small region that competes on the world tourism stage with entire countries and continents. We grabbed a few minutes to talk with Jaume recently to learn what sparks his enthusiasm.
TOURISM IN GIRONA AND COSTA BRAVA
FWT: What is it about Costa Brava that makes it so appealing, and what’s the fastest growing area of tourism?
JAUME: Nature is the fastest growing–including all the activities related to nature. Thirty-three percent of our area is protected land. We have seven natural parks. The natural environment is a large segment of tourism, so its benefit goes way beyond the protection itself. Promoting tourism based on these natural areas is a fine balance.
Not too long ago, everyone who came here wanted to be lying on the beach. Now they want active [holidays]. For us, that means not just nature, but culture and gastronomy. People combine activities. Here we have the highest concentration of Michelin star restaurants in the Mediterranean, and a lot of celebrity chefs.
FWT: Where are your visitors coming from, primarily?
JAUME: Most are European, and more than 70 percent come by road. After visitors from Spain, next are French, German, then from the UK, Benelux, Holland, Italy. But a growing percentage of visitors are American. Many Americans come for cycling and hiking. We are also seeing longer stays.
FWT: How do you account for your success in spite of the difficult economy of Spain?
JAUME: Of course the crisis has been everywhere, but we are not feeling it so much. We have four percent growth. The good thing is that we attract European and foreign markets. More than 90 percent of our promotional budget has been directed outside Spain, so this helps us. Now the Russians are suffering. So that is one down market, but at the same time the American market is growing, so we keep a balance.
FWT: How are you balancing your efforts within the region and still working with the greater Spanish tourism board?
JAUME: Catalunya is the leading destination of tourism in Spain, attracting 25 percent of all visitors to Spain. And that is largely visitors to Barcelona. And then there’s Costa Brava. The new train [the high speed Paris-Barcelona route launched a couple years ago] has changed things, and especially opened the area up with the French. On the new train, it’s 37 minutes from Barcelona to Girona. Now it’s like a neighborhood, so easy to visit. We are the premium brand within Spain. Companies are doing well, restaurants are helping, [the artist Salvador] Dali is of interest. Everyone is aligned. We are happy.
In tourism offices, the thinking used to be like shop attendants: we open the doors and people come in. Now we need to go and look for tourists. We need to compete. We need to invest.
[In this region] we invest big in social health, health and safety. We are the only cardio protected region in Europe. Every 800 meters [along the coast in Lloret] you’ll see defibrillators. This year we saved six persons, three were tourists. We don’t publicize this service, but we have it.
And then…we are connected to a well-established, great brand like Barcelona, an outstanding destination in the world.
FWT: Tell us more about your initiatives in health and wellness and eco-tourism.
JAUME: We’ve created two new products. The first is our coastal pathway. And the other is the protected swimming areas in the sea, marked by yellow buoys fifty meters off shore, just for swimming. This coastal path of 200 kilometers is a key product of ours. It’s really spectacular.
Another project we’re working on this year, in the background, is our forests. We have 24 mature forests in the region, forests of more than 100 years old. These have medical properties, scientifically proven, for healing. Research has already been presented in medical conferences about the positive effects related to fibromyalgia, with 50 percent reduction of pain. In certain kinds of forests there are positive impacts on asthma, or benefits for palliative care.
Our role is partly to protect the forests, so they are not destroyed under private hands, also to see [visitors enjoy] health benefits without so many pills, and to promote tourism, too. We’re always trying to rethink. How can someone relax and enjoy what we have? This is not just a forest. I want things to happen there.
MARKETING WITH NEW MEDIA
FWT: Your tourism office manages Costa Brava and the city of Girona. You also introduce all of Catalunya to visitors. How do you manage coordinating all of this?
JAUME: We are very challenged. We are so small. We are a region and we are competing with countries. But now it’s not a question of size, it’s a matter of how quick we respond to the challenges. I say to my staff, ‘Look, whatever you do, try new things. If you fail, fail quick and fail cheap.’
FWT: You’re an early adopter, of sorts, in steering your marketing efforts toward bloggers. What did you see in this motley crew that started you down this path?
JAUME: About four years ago we started to realize that external content has more relevance and reliability than our own content. So we decided most of our content would be through the main influencers [among travel bloggers]. We started with 16 bloggers; now we’ve brought to our area over a thousand travel bloggers. Some were very good, some were not so good. We have created good content and a lot of coverage of Costa Brava based on using the bloggers.
FWT: Do you worry about losing control of your content and brand?
JAUME: We think we are doing things right…and sometimes (using bloggers) is a way of quality control. We bring people here that we do not know, and we see how it goes.
FWT: I guess that means you also have to take some criticism. I bet some of your constituents don’t like that.
JAUME: It takes a lot of education for the [travel] sector. Once they see the results they are very happy. So now it is easier. For this TBEX conference, we have 720 companies involved, and we secured 3,200 room nights for the participants.
FWT: What about traditional media? Has using bloggers changed your PR and advertising budget?
JAUME: We do very, very little advertising. We have reduced our traditional advertising budget by more than 75 percent. But that is a shift in the budget, not a reduction in the budget. Now our efforts and budget have shifted to new media. This is not for immediate ROI, this is a long term thing.
FWT: Congratulations, and thanks again, Jaume. It seems this ability to keep adapting and learning is key to your success. You’d make a good traveler!