The Next Generation of DMOs, with Cassandra Harrington

Episode 114

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Cassandra Harrington has served as the director of Destination Marketing Corporation for Otsego County for over a year. Prior to that, she was the director of the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail and she started her marketing career as the membership development manager at the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce. In her own words she is “learning the inner workings of the group travel industry as well as the intricacies of New York state matching funds, and who’s who in the igloo of the county, regional, and state tourism efforts.” On this episode of Destination on the Left, I talk with Cassandra Harrington of the Otsego County Tourism board about sharing the tourism love beyond America’s pastime at Cooperstown. How is the role of DMOs changing? How best can you help visitors and locals alike embrace those changes and reap the benefits of visiting or living in a given region? That’s the conversation we’re having, join in!

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • How local, regional and state DMOs can coordinate efforts and all win
  • How to encourage group tours to your region that are more than “party busses”
  • Using shoulder seasons to encourage savings on people’s travel budget
  • Ways to highlight both a “big draw” attraction as well as the “hidden treasures” in your region
  • How to encourage locals to embrace the economic engine of travel and tourism
  • Helping communities see the benefits of non-traditional lodging like AirBnB


Cassandra is part of a growing trend of people who are coming into Destination Marketing Organizations from the attraction side of the travel industry. These newcomers have noticed the trend themselves and jokingly refer to the hashtag #NextGenDMO as they collaborate and experience their new roles together. It’s safe to say the passion and sense of innovation they bring to their roles is welcome. As technology and the ways visitors experience a region change – for instance, not necessarily from a hotel room removed from town, but right in town, in your neighbor’s short term rental property – DMOs are challenged with drawing in these visitors and finding ways to extend their stay and make it as memorable as possible.

Attracting the Visitors and Engaging the Locals

Another trend we’re seeing is how DMOs are more and more filling the role, not just of attracting visitors, but getting locals excited about the economic opportunity and vitality that tourism brings to their home region. This is happening in Otsego County, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and many more hidden gems that visitors have come to love and locals have treasured for years. The rise in popularity of short term rentals means that visitors are living side-by-side with locals during their stay. Highlighting the long-term benefits in infrastructure improvements and other ways occupancy taxes of those visitors help the local economy has become part of the DMOs job description.


Nicole Mahoney: 00:27 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 am so excited to introduce today’s guest, Cassandra Herrington. Cassandra has served as the director of Destination Marketing Corporation for at Sego county for almost a year now. Prior to that, she was the director of the Cayuga Lake wine trail and she started her marketing career as the membership development manager at the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce. She started working in Cooperstown on December 27th last year and is very happy to be approaching her work aversary next week. In her new role, she is learning the inner workings of the group travel industry as well as the intricacies of New York state matching funds and who’s who in the Igloo of county regional and state tourism efforts. When not in the office, she likes to paint ride motorcycle and exercise once she successfully makes it to the gym. Um, and Cassandra, I want listeners to know that this is your second time on, on the show and I’m so happy to have you back. You were last with us on episode 32 when you were the executive director of the Cayuga Lake wine trail. Thank you for joining us again,

Cassandra Harrington: 01:39 tourism realm here in New York and can, can kind of provide somewhat of an updated perspective on, on tourism as it as it here.

Nicole Mahoney: 01:51 Yeah. And I’m, I’m really looking forward to kind of digging in to just that with you. Um, I really liked how you wrote your bio and, and kind of talked about the inner workings of the Group Travel, uh, industry and the WHO’s who in the Igloo of county, regional and state tourism. And you know, all of those things that happen when you become a, a, a dmo or as we refer to you in New York state, a tourism promotion agency. One of the things that I think you can really help our listeners are what they can really learn from you is what it’s like to kind of move from, you know, the kind of attraction side, if you will, where you were heading up a wine trail within the finger lakes vacation region and over to the destination marketing a side, because I’m, I’m seeing a lot of this in the industry right now where a lot of folks who have been in the industry for a long time, those mentors that have mentoring us up are starting to retire and there’s this whole new level of young leaders that are coming on board, especially in New York state and I’m sure it’s happening elsewhere in the country.

Nicole Mahoney: 02:56 And so I’m wondering can you just talk a bit about what it’s been like? Okay. Your first year is, as we said in your bio, you’re just approaching your first year in this job and kind of share a little bit of what does a day in the life of a first year DMO or tpa.

Cassandra Harrington: 03:15 Kind of a short joke amongst the DMO association is that we are the Hashtag Nexgen DMO and it’s happening quickly. People, a lot of my peers have been in their role for and we’re seeing a rapid turnover in all of those people who are retiring. And so I’ve had great mentors that were able to take me on and show me the ropes for the first year already in this conversation. Say that again. It has probably been like, um, a, just a crazy whirlwind of a have a year and a lot of it is learning acronyms and I’m part of the DMO Association and um, you know, the group. Yeah. Self has a ton of acronyms. Yeah. And one of the hardest. Learning the lingo. Okay. And here we focus a lot on group travel or our winter months we go to uh, Aba which is the American bus association market place and we have meetings with um, last year was 54 to her group operators and bus operators and trying to get them to bring their group to us.

Cassandra Harrington: 04:38 And that was a, that was a bit of a learning curve for me because wine trail, we associated groups with rowdy, Bachelorette, so groups were not focus of ours and we were actually okay, hesitant to ever take a group reservation. Um, but now we want the groups here and we want people to come in and droves you too. Bye. Tickets to our attractions and museums stay overnight. More importantly, cooperstown. It is. We’re a tiny village with 1800 people and we love it. You know, we’ve got the baseball hall of fame where we have a national attraction, but it’s difficult to get people to stay overnight. We’ve been trying to get people to realize that there’s a lot more than just the baseball hall of fame here, you know, instead of coming here in the morning, having lunch and heading on to Corning Museum of glass or Niagara Falls, stay here for a day or two and visit many, many, many more high class attraction.

Cassandra Harrington: 05:51 The biggest challenge that I’ve seen. Then two, I moved from the finger lakes vacation region to the central New York vacation region. So where I had a bunch of connections that I’ve been fostering since I graduated in and got into the tourism environment. Yeah, they’re still there, but I had to develop all new one by moving vacation regions and that was, that was a challenge as well. And then learning how our county program fits into the regional program, which then marketing program all to work together to put heads in beds. And that’s kind of one of the coolest things about this industry is how well everybody does work together and it’s one huge partnership. I love that about it.

Nicole Mahoney: 06:49 That’s awesome. You just gave us so many different things to unpack really. And I, I back up and kind of talk about a few of these things and. Okay. To start, I actually found it interesting when you talked about that transition in terms of how you view a group travel and how wineries view groups versus, you know, the types of groups that you’re attracting in cooperstown now. And, um, that caught my attention because I’ve actually run into that in the work that we do and I’m bringing those more a serious groups group business into say, the finger lakes wine region, um, and getting the wineries to understand that this type of a customer is the customer you want versus, you know, those rowdy Bachelorette parties that, that might not be as, as appealing. And so I thought that that was really interesting. But I’m wondering as you’re thinking about group travel for Cooperstown, you know, how are you kind of approaching that market? I know you’ve got that national icon, you know, that national attraction in the national baseball hall of fame. Um, but what else are you kind of seeing that, that is interesting or interesting, those groups about your area?

Cassandra Harrington: 08:07 Well, when I go to these shows, and I mentioned the hall of fame and try to convert their day trip into an overnight, one of the challenges that I faced

Cassandra Harrington: 08:21 summertime around here is the rates are relatively high. We have a, we welcome 105 into our cooperstown dreams park every week. And so, um, the prodigy baseball players that are 12 years old, okay, their entire family follows and that they take up a lot of our accommodations. So, um, it’s first off, first and foremost, it’s communicating the group planners that shoulder seasons are the best time to come it. It’s very affordable during the spring, prior to June first and also again, very affordable after the baseball season is over with after August. So anytime prior to June first and after Labor Day. And Otsego County is a very affordable place to come and stay. And you know, Oneonta has a ton of chain hotels that are very willing to work with the group, uh, offer competitive rates are only half an hour. The major attractions in Cooperstown, including the farmers museum and the art museum and Glimmerglass Festival.

Cassandra Harrington: 09:46 And so that’s kind of, that’s one of the challenges that I’ve faced in that who, who’s, who’s audience wants to go to the hall of fame, typically during the summer months, having them shift their group planning to for the shoulder season is is something that we’ll probably take time, but it’s, it’s one that will definitely be worth the effort once it fruition and we’re, when we’re meeting with these group travel planners too, I might meet with them now, but they’re going to be working on putting together there travel itineraries because they have to have time to develop the package, the package, sell it, booked the reservations. These trips that we’re trying to convince them to plan might happen in the fall of 2020.

Nicole Mahoney: 10:38 Right? Yeah. I think that’s a really good point. It is a very long sales cycle. Right? And so you’re laying the groundwork now for something that’s going to happen in a few years to come. A really. I’m astute way, you know, to kind of think about it and to understand what the needs are of that group market, what the challenges are, you know, that you have in your market in terms of your peak season, and then looking for ways to find that kind of win win where they can have a better experience. It’s more affordable and um, to able to work with them to move in that direction. I think that’s really awesome.

Cassandra Harrington: 11:18 The rates are better and this place is absolutely gorgeous in the fall as well.

Nicole Mahoney: 11:24 Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s gorgeous there. I’m sure you’re around actually. It’s so beautiful. So I’m wondering too, so just still kind of unpacking some of what you shared with us earlier. You talked about having so many mentors. I love the Hashtag Nexgen Dmo. That’s awesome. I’m wondering if you can share with our listeners, um, biggest surprise so far and you’re biggest challenge in terms of, you know, becoming a dmo or you know, in your first year. So if there’s one of our listeners is thinking about maybe pursuing a career. Ah, yeah. Pursuing this path. What are some of the things that they can expect them? And what has been your biggest surprise? Your biggest challenge?

Cassandra Harrington: 12:12 I would say funding and resources are certainly a challenge. It’s very easy to come out the gate wishing that you could change and accomplish everything. You know, I came in with a long, long list of goals and aspirations for my first year here and I have a, the two person staff, myself and my teammate jacket and we do everything we possibly can to keep on track with, you know, the goals that we set for ourselves. But at the end of the day it’s often rein ourselves in a little bit and um, you know, be realistic with what we can accomplish with the resources that we have. And 200, 2019 be it’s going to be the year of us saying we’re super excited. We’ve redesigned our lower piece and we’re launching a brand new website which will have a lot of plugins. The user experience a lot better and they can find the information easier.

Cassandra Harrington: 13:19 And I think it will spread the wealth amongst all of what the county has to offer as opposed to just, you know, anything that didn’t. The cooperstown zip code, we’re here to represent all of Eagle County and that’s a challenge. You know, we’ve got a lot of world class attraction cooperstown and then there’s so much, you know, just five miles away on creek, have a cooperstown address, but the fly cider mill and kingfisher lavender farm, um, we’ve got, we’ve got so much to offer and trying to. Yeah, keep our goals realistic is certainly for our own mental. If we shoot for the stars and you know, fall, just short, difficult to keep, to keep positive. I’m just realizing this is what we have in this more capable of doing. And we no, the things that we hope that to do in 2018, if the, the outcome of that rolls out in May, that’s okay too. So that has, that has been one of, one of my challenges too. I came in, you know, it was previously representing 17 wineries on the wine trail and now represent almost $900. Yeah. All of the, the AIRBNB accommodation, so it’s different, it’s a different arena. And especially here in Oswego county. Hm. What we’ve got going on work. We’re really working in a global marketplace. You know, Forbes just mentioned. Okay. Okay. Thirty eight, um, cheapest places to visit in 2019. I didn’t title it.

Cassandra Harrington: 15:30 I cringe at the word cheap. So, um, you know, we were mentioned other, other attractions across the world. That’s, that’s just crazy. Wow. We’re at right now.

Nicole Mahoney: 15:53 That’s awesome. That’s really awesome. That actually leads me to another question, another thing that you had mentioned earlier in our conversation, which it’s difficult to get people to stay overnight. Um, and I, I think that might speak a little bit to what you were just describing as, you know, the, the fly creek cider mill, which I’ve been to in his fantastic, uh, attraction in and of itself. Um, but how all of these other attractions outside of cooperstown also are part of your experience. So what kinds of creative things are you working on, you know, to help entice those overnight stays and, and to get people to extend their stay longer.

Cassandra Harrington: 16:33 Sure. We signed a new contract with an ad agency, BBG and G and I’m one of the first elements that came out of that relationship was a new tagline with an ad campaign we’re working with. Catch me, catch me as a play on words for baseball, but it’s subtle and you can catch me at the brewery, you can catch me on the lake theater, catch me on the ball field and so forth. So we’ve been able to not ignore it, are ties to baseball, also highlight a lot of the other things that we have to offer in the county. Okay. And so that has been a really successful ad campaign, subtle, but it gives us the opportunity to really to really hone in on, on all the other offerings that we have. You know, we’ve got brewery on the game here. They literally started the craft beer renaissance and um, we’re happy to have them in and there’s quite a good symbiotic relationship.

Cassandra Harrington: 17:45 Okay. With them and the beverage trail. So, um, that has been, that was one of the first things we did. We also developed three day itineraries that we’ve been using for promotion through our email newsletters and on facebook book and on our website. No, we put together and itinerary with a theme. So we put together in arts and culture, one of I’m a baseball fan and enthusiastic itinerary that shows that are way more things to do than just a half. They are a day visit, stay here for a couple of nights and here’s a list of all the attractions that would be of interest to you as a arts enthusiastic or you know, a history buff for a baseball fan. And so that has been useful. Um, low cost and effective and I think that that has helped to the viewer’s attention that, yeah, a lot going on here.

Nicole Mahoney: 18:59 Yeah. Um, I love both of those examples and that new ad campaign sounds really very creative and um, very fitting for, for your area. So I think that’s really awesome. And then the whole idea of making it easier for visitors to plan and having those itineraries available with those different themes just sounds, just sounds awesome. So cassandra, one of the things that we like to talk about on this podcast as you know, because you were on previously is the whole idea of collaboration and um, what I like to call coopertition where, you know, perceived competitors come together to collaborate on a program or a project because they can do so much more together then than they can individually. And you even mentioned it, um, you know, earlier on, in our conversation about how well everyone works together. And so I’m wondering if you have a example, have you know, a collaboration that has worked or is working for you in this role that you have now?

Cassandra Harrington: 20:05 My entire day is basically involved collaboration. If it weren’t for collaboration, we wouldn’t have visitors here because if everybody were out for themselves, no, we’d all be cannibalizing our own marketing efforts in it. It wouldn’t work in anybody’s favor. So the tourism industry is probably best example of coopertition and collaboration and the camaraderie that comes out of it. As you know, we’ve got the village of Cooperstown, but we’ve also got the city of Oneonta Oneonta destination to come up with the best ways to promote any and all events that we’ve got going on in the area. Every month I meet with them, the, um, central New York vacation region and the other demos in the area and we all sit down and talk about regional collaboration and we’ve even got marketing campaigns that have come out of that through central and yeah, fresh and those are regional initiatives that are put together to bring people to central New York with the idea of sharing those visits, those visitors. No, I’m. The visitor is not, it’s not necessarily traveling by county lines when we understand that. So if they want to go to howe caverns in our neighboring county and then come to a gang, we’re happy to have them. Um, so that’s one of the things that we work on the central New York region. Okay. All of the regions to work together with. We’re also part of the New York State Dmo Association and I’m the DMO association.

Cassandra Harrington: 22:06 Larger TPA. Okay. Throughout New York state and like George and Syracuse, Rochester either on a quarterly basis and we also talk about opportunities and uh, struggles that we’re facing and work together on coming up with solutions. For me that has been extremely helpful because a lot of what I think is a new struggle for me, it’s an old struggle for her, the people who’ve been doing it for decades. And so that has been a huge help as well, you know, and like I said, if, if you think about it, you know, I’m just as eager for the visitor, but we’re happy to have them come. A positive experience in any one of our destinations could turn a first time visitor into a repeat visitor. So that wouldn’t happen without a solid working together.

Nicole Mahoney: 23:11 That’s such a great point. That first time visitor is so valuable and the experience that they have definitely will help all of us as they decide to come back and tell their friends about it, et cetera. So I think those are great examples. I was interested when you talked about the New York State Dmo Association and you know, how helpful that’s been in terms of, okay, learning from each other. Um, I actually personally belong to several peer to peer networks and I think that that’s a, that’s a really interesting kind of side, um, effect if you will, of coming together and collaborating. So you’re collaborating on marketing programs or, or um, you know, what, whatever that might be the bruce central cmy fresh, but there’s this whole kind of side thing that happens where you have this kind of peer to peer mentorship, right? Is. And that’s what you were describing.

Cassandra Harrington: 24:14 Turn over to, um, they’re amazing director, just retired and so they’re welcoming and the new director and I called her up on her birthday and I said, hey, together. And so it’s those kind of things really restore your faith when everything gets crazy around here and you just know that you’ve, you’ve got a really tight knit network can. Okay. I love that about it.

Nicole Mahoney: 24:48 That’s really awesome. So Cassandra, I knew there would be no shortage of things for us to talk about. I have another question to ask you before we wrap, um, and this one is actually new to the interview process, so it was not asked of you the last time we talked. It’s a new area that I’m

Nicole Mahoney: 25:08 interested in exploring and I think you’ll have some good perspective on it. Um, we’ve already touched on this a little bit through our conversation, but it’s this whole idea of the evolution of destination marketers and how they’re becoming more like community managers. And what I mean by that is I’m just seeing in a lot of different circles this discussion about how there’s this more holistic approach to managing the destination’s brand and it’s not just about attracting those visitors, but it’s also about engaging the locals. And um, I’m wondering if you are seeing examples of that kind of thing in your work as you’ve been working now in this environment for about a year, but how, how that kind of crosses over from not just destination marketing to the visitors, but also being more like that community manager that, okay. Local engagement

Cassandra Harrington: 26:10 coincides with the transition of, in the popularity of non traditional lodging. So, you know, it used to only a select few people, we were living next to the hotels and motels and now we’ve got with the evolution and popularity of Airbnb and Brbo and glamping, we have have people’s homes, your neighbor’s home that very easily be rented out to the visitor and that visitor changes on a weekly basis. So we’ve had, um, we’ve had a really bring to light to some of the community members, the benefit of having these visitors into the county, uh, staying overnight, contributing to the occupancy tax. That occupancy tax then goes to the county and the county uses that as a general rule for a lot of different things that we do need money for. It doesn’t just all go back to tourism only as uh, you know, a fraction of it goes back to tourism promotion.

Cassandra Harrington: 27:22 That money is also used, do fill the potholes. Um, and so increased tourism, certainly something that has brought some challenges to local mines. And yeah, like I said, their neighbors’ houses are being vacated and for the 13 weeks during the summer when we’ve got baseball families coming in, they have new neighbors every week. It’s a large crowd perhaps the baseball, okay. Fans and families and and whatnot. There’s typically kids because the baseball players themselves are 12 and under. So here especially, it’s been an interesting dynamic and it’s kind of fallen on our office to communicate with them the benefits of those visitors and the money spending here and how we can really embrace that and welcome them into our community in order to propel our communities. Okay. Really it’s been difficult. Some manage and to communicate with the masses. Okay. I think we’re getting there and I think that they, the more we talk about it and the more we we generate a awareness easier that will become. It’s an ever evolving there. We need to stay on top of something that I probably didn’t necessarily factor understand before coming into this.

Nicole Mahoney: 29:12 As you’re talking, I’m just thinking know the dmo or your role is very dynamic. It’s multifaceted. There are so many different areas that you need to, you know, be involved in and pay attention to and okay, I really loved your perspective on talking about, you know, there is this growing popularity of that non traditional lodging and the how that does impact the greater community and, and then that leads to the need for more communication so that the community understands the benefits of having all of these visitors, you know, invade their town and stay at their neighbor’s houses. So I think that that was just very a really good job picture and I’m sure our listeners learned, learned a lot from that and from your perspective. Um, so again, thank you very much for being so sharing and so open with us today and then wondering if you have any final words that you would like to share. Anything I didn’t ask you about that you were hoping I would or, uh, anything you’d like our listeners to know before we say goodbye?

Cassandra Harrington: 30:13 Um, well, we’re approaching the holidays here in Santa is actually on Main Street in Cooperstown, uh, now through Christmas in his cottage because cooperstown is Santa. If you haven’t heard of that book is available here on Main Street, but. Okay. Yeah. No, happy holidays to everybody and I, uh, I’m happy that, that life brought me here. Thank you for having me. Yeah.

Nicole Mahoney: 30:53 Well thank you very much. I’m so glad to have you on again and to learn from you a second time. A lot has happened since episode 32 when you and I first talked and, um, wishing you a fabulous and thank you for being with us.

Cassandra Harrington: 31:11 Thank you.

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