Making Madison an experiential travel destination

A new tourism endeavor from the GMCVB seeks to help Madison visitors create lasting meaning through direct experiences on their trips.

We’re all familiar with the lyric, “When you say Wisconsin, you’ve said it all!”

A new movement lead by the Great Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) is aiming to tweak the line to something a little more local — When you visit Madison, you’ve done it all!

Such is the goal of an experiential tourism endeavor launched by GMCVB in December, one that can actually trace its origins back to 2015 when staff saw an emerging trend in the tourism industry and sought to capitalize on it.

“Experiences are what travelers are seeking these days and the more immersive the better,” notes Janine Wachter, GMCVB director of convention and event services. “We recognize that to attract visitors and remain competitive in bringing events to Madison, we need to work with our local businesses to create great experiences for visitors and residents alike. Our goal is to work with our partners to build a collection of memorable experiences that will eclipse travelers’ desires and go beyond the typical tourist path.”

Tourism is already big business in Greater Madison. While GMCVB is still awaiting final 2017 data, Wachter points out that in 2016 tourism in Dane County generated over $1.2 billion in direct spending and supported over 21,000 jobs. Still, staff believe visitors can have more meaningful Madison experiences.

The GMCVB started researching this emerging trend in 2015, sending key staff to an “experience lab.” After determining that experience-based opportunities would enhance visitors’ time in Madison, the organization launched a competitive bid process to find the best match to research and implement a program for the Greater Madison community.

The winning bid went to Opportunities Unlimited, based in Boston. Its founder, Joe Veneto, a 20-year veteran of the tourism industry and expert in the areas of tour and travel product development, led that initial experience lab that convinced GMCVB staff that there is potential for an additional experience product to be developed in our region.

“His development work with cities like Philadelphia, Columbus, the Twin Cities, and others provided proof that experiences that are hands-on and immersive can drive visitation, transform the tourism landscape, and extend the brand for the destination,” says Wachter.

According to Wachter, Veneto conducted an “experience assessment” of Madison over several visits to the city, during which he “secret shopped” the area. “This provided us with the insight to take the next step and bring Joe to Madison to conduct the Experience Development Program,” she explains.

Developing experiences

Still in its infancy, the initiative doesn’t have a catchier name right now than “Experience Development Program,” but that will come, says Wachter.

“The individual business experience evaluation and training stage, which is what we are in now, is the Experience Development Program,” she notes. “After we have on-boarded a number of experience partners, we will launch the public-facing phase of the program and market that program under a different name, which has yet to be determined.”

Key partners for this project include, but are not limited to, attractions, retail, restaurants, arts and cultural institutions, sporting venues, neighborhoods, tours, and more. GMCVB is accepting applications for participants in the Experience Development Program through Jan. 24. Those accepted to the program will begin a series of workshops and one-on-one consulting sessions with Opportunities Unlimited beginning in February and concluding in August.

“We are seeking businesses that feel they can invest the time and resources into this program,” says Wachter. “Anyone is open to submit applications, but those who already have a public-engaging type of business are probably best. If you think people would travel across the country to spend half a day [engaging with your business], then apply and we’ll see if you’re selected!”

According to Wachter, these types of immersive, hands-on experiences tap into visitor emotions on a deeper level than simply driving to a site and snapping a standard, “I was here” picture does.

“This program will be a pathway for people to experience our destination in an authentic, truly Madison way,” Wachter says. “We want people to look at the social media posts of our visitors engaged in an experience and say, ‘I need to go to Madison!’ And if these partner experiences connect visitors to our community, and just as importantly, allow our community to interact with visitors on a deeper level, we feel we’ll see those enthusiastic posts.”

Madison businesses and organizations are unique, Wachter notes. The application process will help GMCVB identify businesses and organizations that want to talk about their authenticity to the region. “We want signature Madison experiences to help extend our Madison brand, so after visitors leave, they recount their experiences to others and drive more interest in our community,” she explains.

Once businesses are selected to participate — about seven to 10 to start — Veneto will conduct workshops and consult with each business to create their unique experience project. The GMCVB will then market those experiences to visitors, residents, and convention and event attendees. Pricing of the experiences will be up to the businesses participating — and what the experience is all about.

“This is an opportunity for businesses to raise their visibility by developing new ways to attract visitors,” says Wachter. “The training and program development these business will receive will substantially highlight and enhance what they already have.”

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.