Destination Iowa, with Ben Handfelt

Episode 157

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Ben Handfelt conceives and carries out the strategic direction for the overall brand positioning, messaging and marketing platforms. He is the mastermind of Catch Des Moines’ new the “S’s are Silent” brand campaign. In this episode of Destination on the Left, I am joined by Ben Handfelt, Director of Creative and Communications at Catch Des Moines. We discuss the tactics and strategies Ben and his team are using to increase tourism in the Greater Des Moines area.

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Ben’s background in marketing and PR
  • How Ben leveraged his experience as a transplant to create a new marketing strategy for Des Moines
  • How Ben differentiates Iowa from other destinations
  • The importance of intentional video content
  • Proper use of humor in a destination marketing campaign
  • The S’s are Silent campaign and what inspired it
  • The effects of tourism on the community as a whole

Destination Iowa

Tourism is more than a collection of intermittent events that draw weekend traffic—it impacts the quality of life for every resident in the area. It’s the reason why Catch Des Moines brought Ben Handfelt onto the team. He spearheads the destination marketing efforts in Des Moines, IA, combining a background in entertainment and corporate PR with a passion for powerful creative.

Living Amongst Your Target Audience

Ben was a Chicago transplant for twelve years. He knows exactly what is going through the minds of city dwellers when they hear the name ‘Des Moines.’ But as an Iowa native, he also knows what brought him back in spite of everything Chicago has to offer. That was the feeling Ben strove to capture as he built new campaigns and reshaped their brand voice and the Greater Des Moines area has seen significant results from the efforts of Ben and his team.

S’s are Silent

In any city, quality of life directly correlates to the attraction and retention of talent. So, Ben and his team are playing the long game. They created a significant amount of humorous video content and developed Catch Des Moines’ new the “S’s are Silent” brand campaign in an effort to draw more visitors. The campaign has an oddly specific hook, but there has been an immense payoff in leisure travel, sales, and new residents. Ben and his team are the voice of destination Iowa and they have only begun to scratch the surface.

Nicole Mahoney: 00:19 Hello listeners, this is Nicole Mahoney, host of destination on the left. I am passionate about travel and tourism and love learning from the experiences of professionals in the industry and that is why I’m so excited to introduce today’s guest. Ben had felt Ben is vice president of marketing at catch Demoine and as a member of the leadership team, he can see and carries out strategic direction for the overall brand positioning, messaging, and marketing platforms. Ben is responsible for the development of the greater Demoine convention and visitors Bureau and Demoine areas, sports commission marketing plans, and its execution. He leads all aspects of media relations, PR efforts, advertising, integrated marketing, social media, convention sales, sports events, support, digital partnerships and content strategy and advocacy programs.

Ben Handfelt: 01:08 Okay.

Nicole Mahoney: 01:08 Ben is the brainchild of the catch Demoines new. The S’s are silent brand campaign. And I’m really excited to talk to you today, Ben, and to learn all about what’s happening, uh, in your community. But before we get started, you do have a impressive background, but I know what I read just only shows a little sliver of who you are and, and what you have experienced. So could you tell us a little bit more about your journey and it in your own words?

Ben Handfelt: 01:35 Yeah, sure. Um, I’m a native of Iowa, uh, not actually from Des Moines, but a from Cedar falls, which is about, uh, two hours North of Demoine. So, uh, born and raised, uh, I went to Northern Iowa, ah, there and then, uh, decided as a lot of Iowans do that. Uh, I wanna do experience city life. So, um, after I graduated, moved out to Chicago, I lived in Chicago for about 12 years and as an avid Cubs fan, that was, you know, pretty much a joy. So kind of, um, put a marketing background, but kind of fell into PR for my first gig. Ah, this is, you know, early two thousands, dating myself when people actually still applied, uh, through Craigslist jobs. And, uh, I found a job, uh, for company called allied integrated marketing. Um,

Ben Handfelt: 02:29 and started there, you know, just a PR coordinator. Um, that was a pretty interesting job. Their clients are mainly [inaudible] the entertainment industry, so mostly the movie studios. So I kind of worked my way up there. I was there for about 10 years, so I worked on accounts such as like Warner brothers, Fox Searchlight, universal pictures, um, and we did all the PR and promotions locally within Chicago. So say if Warner brothers had, um, a movie out with and Aflac, uh, they wanted to send him into town, I would a pitch a press tour for him, you know, get him to talk to WGN or the Chicago Tribune, get them to throw out a first pitch at a Cubs game, um, maybe do a Q and a with a, you know, audience screening. And if it was a political movie, you know, if I had political groups, um, there’s a lot of interesting stuff, man.

Ben Handfelt: 03:23 A lot of [inaudible] interesting. Uh, people, uh, you know, within that job and it was a really, um, really great experience. You know, it was unlike kind of any other [inaudible] corporate type PR, you know, we weren’t really writing press releases and things like that. It was more kind of that experiential, a tight PR and um, you know, doing a lot of different fun stuff, you know, very fast based environment. So I’m kind of hone my craft there for about 10 years and then moved on. Uh, did corporate PR, I’m with a company called Mintel. Uh, he’s a large, um, large market research groups, so I headed up out the North American public relations efforts there. Um, so they were kind of like a Forester or a gal up. They would do these pretty comprehensive research reports, uh, on anything from craft beer to marketing to millennials to cleaning products.

Ben Handfelt: 04:18 That would include everything from market info too. Um, consumer perceptions and stuff. Then it’s a lot of fortune 500 companies would use our services, whether it was the actual reports or the consulting to kind of inform kind of where those different markets. Oh. And so do kind of get PR and kind of position are our report writers and our team kind of thought leaders, you know, figure out what those interesting stories within at 200 page report on. Correct. There was. So then, you know, I’d been in Chicago for about 12 years and it’s most Iowans do we eventually move back here. So, uh, my wife and I had our first child who was four at the time and, um, decided to come to Des Moines for a weekend and stayed at a Airbnb and, uh, kind of just hit the town and we were like, wow, this is totally different, uh, than what Demoine had been 12, 13 years ago when we moved, when we’d moved from Cedar falls to Moyne wasn’t even a consideration set yet.

Ben Handfelt: 05:19 It just, you know, it just wasn’t what it is now. Um, you know, when I was a kid, go into the Moines, I go into adventure land, which is the newsman park in the suburbs. That was Demoine to me. And you know, Demoines big things insurance. And for awhile it was kind of a sleepy insurance town where downtown might, you know, okay, close down at 5:00 PM basically. But, um, you know, starting about 10, 15, about 10, 12 years ago, it really started to transform itself and we kind of saw that transformation, um, when we came and visited and um, you know, wanting to move somewhere to be closer to family but also didn’t want to give up urban, um, which, you know, Demoine is kind of transformed into with this arts and culture and it’s food and drink. Um, [inaudible] it doesn’t have everything Chicago has, it does have, you know, a lot of those things that, you know, people look for and um, it just goes to show him in Des Moines Metro right now is the number one fastest growing Metro in the entire Midwest.

Ben Handfelt: 06:19 And you know, it’s for good reason. There is quality of life stuff here maybe didn’t exist a decade ago. So I moved back here about four years ago. I’d worked in an agency, uh, for about three years and one of my clients happened to be catched them on, which is the convention. And visitors Bureau here. So I helped work on the rebrand, a brand refresh, new website, new messaging and all that stuff. Um, so when there was an opening here, it just made sense. I kind of under the team, I had a comfort level, um, with the people that worked here and I had a comfort level with, Oh, you know, what I wanted or what I thought that a brand voice can be. And also bringing in that unique perspective of, um, you know, we’re always trying to bring in visitors. Um, and I was, you know, I was a visitor.

Ben Handfelt: 07:09 I was kind of the jaded Chicago guy who is like, God Demoine, you know? Yeah. And when I got here, it totally opened my eyes. So I think I have, you know, I think they appreciated that. I actually had that firsthand experience. I was the audience that we’re trying to bring here. So, uh, yeah, no, I’ve been here, Oh, about a year and a half now. And, um, some exciting things here. Aww, that’s awesome. I, I love, uh, I love that journey. And, um, I think it’s really cool that you started your career in at that company, allied, uh, integrated marketing in the entertainment industry because as you were describing the work you were doing, they’re the type of PR work you are doing. It sounded very similar to me about the type of PR work that we do and the tourism industry. Right. And, um, and how you’re, you know, really that experiential, I think you call the experential PR.

Ben Handfelt: 08:01 And so I could really hear, you know, those similarities and how that really kind of [inaudible] brought you to where you are and then the experience that you have with market research, which is such an important part of what we do as tourism market marketers to understand that. And for you to have that background and that experience, um, understanding market research of all kinds. Uh, I’m sure absolutely. But as you just pointed out and as you’re talking, I was thinking the same thing. You have that outsiders, you know, perspective or even, you know, that boomerang perspective cause a lot of communities that are trying to do exactly what, what happened with you, which is to bring people back who had, uh, who had left. So, um, I can see, you know, how, ah, your perspective and has really helped and prime sure has really helped, uh, your organization.

Ben Handfelt: 08:50 So I think that’s really awesome. Okay. Um, and thanks. Uh, thanks for sharing. And so, um, I’d love to dive right in here to the first topic because with all that background, I’m sure you’ve got a lot to say about creativity. And so I’m wondering, um, you know, you know, how competitive it is and in your personal story, you talked a little bit about that, right? You know, perceptions that people have or are just choices that people have of places to go. And so I’m wondering what you’re doing to really help Demoine, um, stand out from the crowd. Right. Um, you know, and I think kind of how you said, I think, um, the biggest problem that we have is either, um, if you’re talking on a national scope, then it’s probably perceptions, kind of those outdated perceptions of, uh, Iowa. Do you know which de Moines, it’s obviously a part of.

Ben Handfelt: 09:41 So we get locked into that even though we’re [inaudible] the big city. But you know, people think, you know, we’re the three CS, how’s caucuses and corn, which, you know, we do love our caucuses and our cows and our corn, but the morning is much more than that. So I think from a national perspective, the big challenge is that perception. Um, and then, you know, when you get, well sir to us, you know, within that, you know, our kind of leisure target market within three hours, people don’t necessarily have that perception in like Nebraska or Kansas city. Um, but it’s really just more of a lack of awareness. Like, you know, we’ve done research that shows, you know, people in our leisure market, which is kind of that three hour radius that I mentioned. They don’t necessarily think negative lived annoying. They just don’t think anything.

Ben Handfelt: 10:26 Um, so really I think that’s kind of been the challenges, you know, how do we address, uh, whether it’s the negative perceptions nationally, which obviously comes into play when we’re trying to recruit sales and conventions and then how do we dress really that lack of awareness even within our own state. I think there’s a lot of people, um, did again, you, you know, were kind of like me, you know, come to adventure land for the amusement park or they might come here for the big mall, but you might know about are cool neighborhoods like the East village and the cool new restaurants that we have or the sculpture garden that we have. Um, just because so much has changed in the past 10 years. So, uh, really just, it’s, it’s, I think a matter of just really trying to educate people, um, on what we are and doing it, um, in a creative way.

Ben Handfelt: 11:15 Yeah. I love how you broke that down and how you’re thinking about your audiences in two different ways and really understanding, um, because I think that’s important, uh, in terms of the campaigns that you’re creating and understanding what it is you’re trying to accomplish and to be able to have that, you know, awareness that in one case it’s perception and another case, it’s just a general lack of awareness and you might go after both of those, um, differently or at least take that into consideration. And so, um, can you share with us, you know, what you’re doing to try to address both of those areas? Yeah, for sure. Uh, we just launched a new brand campaign, which you alluded to earlier. It’s called the SS or silent, um, which of course kind of refers to how everyone [inaudible] outside of Des Moines calls de Moines. We hear Desmos wanes, does minus, uh, so it’s kind of a fun, cheeky way.

Ben Handfelt: 12:14 It also kind of serves as a, uh, uh, an educational, a, an educational point on how to actually pronounce the name. Uh, but it’s kind of that fun, cheeky way that it’s kind of, um, the hook. And then there’s a payoff of course, being that Morgan does anything, right. Vibrant kind of growing community. So yeah, the STS are silent. Well, let me just kind of the hook, but then that pairs off with whatever the imagery may be. Like, great. You know, our city is buzzing, our sports fans get loud, or artists bold, our food is worth shouting about. And then you can imagine the imagery that would kind of pair with each image because of course, every city it says they have great food and great art and unexpected, right? But we really wanted to be creative with it and innovative to really kind of create that sense.

Ben Handfelt: 13:01 Okay. So as we kind of [inaudible] went through how we kind of execute this campaign, we, we really knew we wanted to show and you know, not just tell. Um, and we wanted something that was unique to Demoine. Cause again, people don’t really have, you know, de Moines, it could be confused with Omaha or Iowa city. Like, you know, what makes us different. So we really wanted something that no one else can claim. So now we have this hook, you know, really no one else can claim except there is a noise in Washington. Uh, but, uh, my brother who lives in Seattle actually said that yes, it’s actually aren’t silent in is Morgan’s Washington, I guess. Okay. So you know, for, for, for this, you know, we went through a lot of different iterations with them brand, with our agency and the S’s are silent actually was a line of copy, uh, within another, a execution that we didn’t really love, but we really liked.

Ben Handfelt: 13:51 Okay. You know, that copy. So then it came a matter of executing and kind of when I came on board, um, another one of the challenges that we faced is, I mean, we all know in this industry how important video is, especially when you’re a travel destination and, um, you know, 60% of people that travel I use video is one of their, you know, maintenance influences. Okay. So when I came aboard and we really didn’t have many video assets and all, we had kind of our 32nd commercial, we had a sales video, um, but we didn’t really have a lot of, um, shareable videos. So I really wanted to kind of create some fun, shareable videos. I didn’t want kind of your typical a DMO CVB video that everybody does where it’s, you know, quick shots of B roll of wine being poured and beer being poured and, you know, people laughing and having a good time.

Ben Handfelt: 14:43 But then at the end of the video you can slap on, you know, Omaha slap on Kansas city. It’s hop on point and no one would, none the wiser. So I really wanted to do something, um, that people would share, that locals would like, that locals would share and be proud of. De Moines was a few years ago, uh, named the most crowd city in the country. So, you know, the people of Demoine definitely have a sense of pride. So I wanted to, you know, let’s amplify our message internally first get Demoine eons we call ourselves [inaudible] and with something with the SS or silent, that’s like a cheeky thing that like, you know, people in the city know about it as well. You know, we know that people mispronounce that too. So do some fun type video. Um, video is plural, it should say, uh, it was kind of always high on my radar.

Ben Handfelt: 15:32 So we worked with a local actor named Scott sip Kerr. Ah, who was famous or at least, all right, well famous I should say. [inaudible]. Yes, he did about seven years ago, uh, where he was the Iowa nice guy and in the videos he was anything but nice. It was him kind of addressing, he’s Iowa stereotypes, I think it was to address some of those misperceptions. But since then, he’s kind of gone on to do a lot of stuff around here. He kind of has some cache around here and he has kind of that rye sense of humor that I was looking for. Um, so we did a series of videos with him. We did three videos. We actually haven’t forthcoming up. Um, so one’s focused on arts and culture, one’s focused on food and drink. Uh, and then the other is focused on, um, things to do or Scott kind of addresses, ah, stereotype [inaudible] playfully.

Ben Handfelt: 16:23 Uh, like for the art one, we’re of course famous for our world famous butter cow, the Iowa state fair. I don’t know if you’ve seen six, 600 pound behemoth butter cow. So he kind of starts out and he’s wearing a butter cow t-shirt and he’s at an art gallery and saying, you know, when you think of, be more than you might think that place where that world famous butter cow is. Well, yes it is, but we have lots of nondairy art as well. Him hitting up like six or seven different art places, whether it’s our sculpture garden, whether it’s performing arts, um, different, you know, sort of art things. And you know, it’s the same thing with food. He starts off with a corn dog and you know, says, when do you think of good point in food? You might think everything it’s on a Cobb or stick, but we have, you know, a lot of other food as well too.

Ben Handfelt: 17:10 And it has him going to all the different stuff that we’re kind of known for like crab Rangoon pizza at something that sounds right. Extremely weird, but it’s extremely delicious and you can’t get anywhere but Des Moines or steak to Burgo, which I didn’t know what that was before I moved here and sit steak with like a garlic creamy sauce, but it’s like the official state food of Des Moines. So really trying to highlight in a funny, unique way, those kind of only [inaudible] things. And within those three videos we ended up highlighting like 40 different places. So, you know, they’re humorous. Um, but they’re also kind of educational and every place he’s had, there’s like a little location marker. It shows where he’s at. So it’s not like, Oh yeah, pizza looks amazing. Where’s it from? You can see right where it’s from and click on it and it takes you right to [inaudible] on the page.

Ben Handfelt: 17:56 So I really wanted to really kind of curate that sense of place of like, why would I come to Des Moines overX , Y, Z. um, it really kind of elevate those things that, you know, you can get into Moines that you can’t get anywhere else. So that was kind of the Genesis of pain. And we really love the, I think it plays to everything. You know, I think we talked about earlier, okay, there’s obviously the leisure, but then there’s also sales, so, or there’s relevancy. So it can be, you know, the SS or silence, you know, tourism is booming. That kind of leads into us talking about like the impact tourism. Um, or you know, the S’s are silent or events are a blast in that and talks about, you know, the different events that we owe. So, well, it’s kind of an oddly specific hook. We really like that the payoff and then play not only to or leisure travel, but our sales are relevancy and really speak to anything. I think we’ve just kind of scratched the surface of, um, what this campaign can be. So

Nicole Mahoney: 18:56 that’s awesome. Those video sound really incredible. Um, I hope that we can link to them in the show notes, uh, page or is there a link that we can include, uh, on this episode?

Ben Handfelt: 19:08 Yeah, it’s a catch backslash videos or you could go to the catch them on YouTube page to catch them on all one word.

Nicole Mahoney: 19:17 Terrific. Um, so for our listeners, we, if, uh, if you weren’t able to get that, we’ll definitely have that on our show notes page where you can find that link, um, as well. So, uh, Ben, I, I love that, that campaign and I, and I love humor and videos as are always so much fun and it’s hard to actually execute on that. So it sounds like you’ve executed, you know, using humor very well. Um, I want to switch gears just a little bit and talk about collaboration and [inaudible] from the way you described those videos, that actually sounds like collaboration is something you do quite well. And so I’m wondering if there is a collaboration or partnership,

Ben Handfelt: 20:00 um,

Nicole Mahoney: 20:01 that you’ve executed on that’s really worked well for catch to mine.

Ben Handfelt: 20:05 Yeah. Uh, actually we are in the midst of one now. Um, we are working with a, a global company called JLL, uh, and they are working on, they’ve been working on this sense I guess January, so going on a year now, but it’s a destination master plan. Um, and it’s been a pretty labor intensive, um, project. But what’s been great about it is they’ve basically come in, uh, to our city cause we represent Moines, but we also represent 15 other municipalities, so greater Des Moines. Hmm. But they [inaudible] Oh man. And we’ve talked to, they’ve talked to along with us, his talk, everybody. Um, and you know, including our cities, our municipalities, the hospitality industry, developers, corporations, about kind of where they see tourism in the morning. What are the challenges, what are the opportunities, um, what are the things that we can kind of elevate to take us to that next level?

Ben Handfelt: 21:03 Ah, really helping us kind of identify, um, what are the attractors versus the attractions, you know, what are those things that we might think are, um, attractions, but are really just kind of attracting those within our community versus those actual attractions which are going to bring people, um, for overnight stays from outside of the area. And are there anything that are attractors that maybe with a little bit of TLC, uh, that we could leverage into attractions? You know, whether it’s with some marketing or whether it’s with structure. So it’s really been a huge project, but it’s been great for us because, um, we do work with, you know, all these different municipalities and so many people and organizations within the municipalities that, um, when this thing comes out here in the next month or two, um, it’s really gonna feel like a community effort and not just the CVB saying, you know, this is what we think and this is what we know.

Ben Handfelt: 22:02 Um, because it’s been formed. Bye. Um, not just the hospitality industry, but the C suite and, um, everything else. Oh. So that we can, you know, really go to show that, you know, tourism is more than just a quick thing where people are in and out for an event. It really does affect the quality of life for the people that live here. And of course the quality of life for people that live here, um, ties back to the attraction and retention of talent, which we know is a big issue for most cities. Um, you know, particularly here in Des Moines where, you know, the unemployment rate is so low. So, um, really kind of helps us tell that holistic story and um, you know, makes all our different communities. I feel like they have buy in that it’s not just, you know, downtown Des Moines. Um, but you know, there’s a place for everybody, uh, you know, within the tourism ah, industry.

Ben Handfelt: 22:54 Yeah, absolutely. I’m actually, I’ve experienced some work with JLL, um, that they’d say that they’ve done, uh, here where I’m located in the finger lakes in New York state. Um, I don’t think it was quite as broad, but it certainly was a project where they were in all of the different municipalities and, um, you know, and trying to hear all those voices. And so I think you make a great point by, you know, having first of all, bringing in outside consultants. It certainly does, you know, help you have these again. Well we started with that you have this outsider’s view of what’s happening in your community, but then to be able to reach beyond just your traditional tourism partners and like you mentioned the C-suites and some develop developers and, and really trying to take a holistic approach think is, is

Nicole Mahoney: 23:46 just awesome. I’m excited for you to be able to unveil that. And I, and it sounds like you’ll have, you know, some good buy-in cause it’s everyone’s [inaudible] in on it already, right? It’s a joint creation or a cocreation between all of these different entities.

Ben Handfelt: 23:59 Right, right. Yeah, exactly. Which is something we’ve never done before. And, you know, I know a lot of demos kind of struggle with, um, you know, articulating their mission and, you know, articulate it on why it matters too, you know, maybe the C suite because you know, the easy thing to say as well, if I’m, you know, a big corporation, visitors aren’t coming to visit my corporation. Right? But, uh, you know, it is larger than that and it’s getting them to see that holistic thing about the events that we bring in and the money that is reinvested, um, goes into the quality of life, which makes people want to work here, which makes people want to move here. So, you know, nobody ever, uh, typically moves to a place before they visit. So it’s really that first step and it’s getting them to see how [inaudible], you know, part of the big picture of how, you know, that they’re all a part of this as well.

Nicole Mahoney: 24:49 Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And, uh, I think that, uh, that’s a great point and a, a great place for us to kind of tie out our conversation and I really appreciate you sharing with us. There’s a lot going on there. I look forward to sharing those, to looking at those videos you described and making sure they’re on our show notes page. Um, so Ben, thank you so much for joining me in it and I just, before we say goodbye, are there any final words or is there anything that you’d like to share maybe that I didn’t ask you?

Ben Handfelt: 25:17 Um, about, I mean, I guess I would just say, you know, kind of in conclusion that, um, that I think it’s really imperative for destinations, uh, two be creative and really find you know, your own story. I think it’s easy to save yourself. Oh man, everybody’s doing video. I need to do it video. Um, and then, you know, you kind of knee jerk reaction kind of put out something. It kind of looks like, you know, everybody else does just to kind of keep up with the Joneses. But um, when everybody starts to do videos and everybody starts to do videos that all look the same, then it kind of defeats the purpose of doing a video because it’s just going to get, yeah, lost in the noise. And this doesn’t apply just to videos. I think it applies to any sort of marketing. So it’s really kind of, you know, find your true story, you know, B, be creative, make people feel something, right.

Ben Handfelt: 26:10 Whether it’s through humor, whether it’s through, um, emotion, whether it’s tugging it heartstrings, make people feel something and, you know, find what’s unique about your destination and, you know, execute it in a creative way. Because, you know, like I said, everybody, every city, I can go to your city, I could go to anybody sitting, probably find great restaurants and find great art, but what is it [inaudible] you know, makes it unique, uh, to your area, not just as a place, but you know, as a feeling too, you know, which is easier said than done to try to kind of encapsulate and the entire community, ah, within marketing efforts, but really try to hone in and kind of find your voice and really try to find a personality a for your city. That’s gonna [inaudible] um, make people feel something.

Nicole Mahoney: 26:55 Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And I think those are a great closing thoughts. And, um, you know, be creative, find your own story, find that personality, I think, ah, I think is a great way, uh, to sum up this conversation. So, Ben, thank you so much for being a part of our, um, of our show and, uh, we will look forward to following catch Demoine and seeing all the great things that you have going on there. And, and thank you so much for your time today. Alright, thank you Nicole.

Speaker 1: 27:27 It’s time to hit the road again. Visit destination on the during your travels for more podcasts, show notes and fresh ideas.

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