How Boston is using influencers to boost local businesses and diversify tourism

If you thought Boston was all Dunkin’, the Red Sox, and the Freedom Trail, the city’s tourism arm would like you to kindly reconsider.

In recent years, the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau (GBCVB) has worked to show under-marketed sides of the city on social media, hoping to increase awareness of the city’s multiculturalism, helping businesses in historically marginalized communities, and boost tourism.

Dave O’Donnell, GBCVB’s VP of strategic communications, told Marketing Brew that part of the bureau’s mission is to tell a “bigger, better, broader Boston story” than what’s out there. “Boston historically has an issue with a stereotype of not being a welcoming destination, especially to Black and brown visitors,” he said.

Last year, GBCVB worked with former Boston Mayor and US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh’s office to create a tourism marketing campaign called “All Inclusive Boston,” marking the first time that City Hall invested funds into a tourism push. It was re-launched earlier this month under Mayor Michelle Wu, the first woman and person of color to lead the city.

In collaboration with organizations like Black Girl Digital, an influencer marketing agency founded by LaToya Shambo, the campaign draws a diverse set of social media influencers from Boston and around the country to share their experience and help expand traditional ideas of the city.

Having a wicked time

Shambo said while tourism has been tricky with Covid, GBCVB has shown commitment to investing in this campaign beyond a one-and-done stint. “They’re standing behind it,” she told us.

In the first iteration of “All Inclusive Boston,” the GBCVB team identified neighborhoods that were underrepresented in Boston’s marketing campaigns, like Dorchester and Jamaica Plain, both of which are majority-minority. They then worked with Shambo’s team to find 14 local Boston influencers to film reels, stories, and vlogs in those neighborhoods.

All in all, O’Donnell said they generated almost 2 million impressions, half of which were from paid social media. This year, they’re working with Shambo and Black Girl Digital to bring influencers to Boston from cities around the country, like @atasteofkoko, @adamwontlose, and @marissa.daily.

“It’s a very inclusive campaign,” Shambo said. “So we’re working with all types of creators: Black, white, Asian, LGBTQ+–it’s across the gamut. And they’re from different cities: Boston, New York, Philly…Atlanta, maybe Chicago.”

O’Donnell said it was important to represent all walks of life in their influencer strategy: “The content, the following, engagement rates—all that technical stuff was, of course, also taken into consideration,” he said. “But it was really about the perspective, the audience, the market they were coming from, and what their background and viewpoint of the world is.”

While the GBCVB gives influencers a hotel and list of places to try, O’Donnell said how they choose to talk about their #AllInclusiveBos experience is up to them: “Even though it’s a paid campaign and partnership, we want those influencers’ experience here to really resonate with their audiences in an authentic way.”

Be the change you wish to see

Seventy-one percent of Black travelers in the US and Canada factor in safety when deciding on a destination, according to research from travel marketing agency MMGY Global. CEO Clayton Reid told us that in the US especially, many Black travelers “don’t see enough people like them in the [hospitality] experience and, more importantly, they don’t feel like they’re treated in a way…that’s fair and equitable.”

According to O’Donnell, “All Inclusive Boston” isn’t about correcting “misconceptions” of the city. “If they felt unwelcome in a certain space, we can’t say, ‘Well, maybe you should have given it a second look.’ We need to own that narrative,” he said.

That mindset also applies within the ranks of GBCVB, where O’Donnell said his executive vice president is working with Destinations International and Tourism Diversity Matters to create a pipeline for more diversity in middle and upper management.

Walking the talk, in other words, is key to making Boston the inclusive destination it brands itself as. “If we’re marketing a destination, if we’re not proud of the work that we’re doing in the destination around inclusivity, amplifying voices, diversity…then how can we go out there and say to someone else, ‘You should come visit us?”

Reid agrees, adding that travelers expect more than “lip service” or one-time posts, and need to see a tangible investment in the products and service offerings directed at them.

“I think good marketers have to understand this isn’t about tokenism,” he said. “It’s not about putting somebody of color in an ad and calling it good. It’s a much larger approach than that. It’s a much more fair and equitable approach to tourism development. And I think some cities and states and even vast communities understand that better than others.”

To date, O’Donnell said feedback on “All Inclusive Boston” has been overwhelmingly positive. The owners of Ethiopian restaurant Blue Nile in Jamaica Plain, craft beer and wine shop The Urban Grape in the South End, and barbecue restaurant M&M BBQ in Dorchester have all seen more foot traffic and revenue after being involved in the campaign.

Campaign neighborhoods as a whole have also seen more visitors, which is good news for other local businesses. O’Donnell said GBCVS has seen 4,000 arrivals stemming from the campaign, and they hope the relaunched version exceeds 10,000.

Big picture, O’Donnell wants the campaign to be so successful that it’s no longer needed: “I love the terminology ‘All Inclusive Boston,’ but I’ll love even more the day where we can retire that term” and people see Boston as an “inclusive, leading place.”

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