End to End Storytelling, with Marilee Kostadimas

Episode 267

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Marilee Sonneman Kostadimas delivers 20+ years’ experience and acumen in corporate events, incentive travel, and destination management.

An alumna of San Francisco State University, Marilee pursued graduate and undergraduate studies in Classics and Classical Archaeology. She holds credentials as a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) and Destination Management Certified Professional (DMCP).

Speaker, author, byline contributor to the hospitality industry bible, the Convention Industry Council Manual 9th Edition: A Working Guide for Effective Meetings and Conventions, industry leader: As President 2016-2017 of Meeting Professionals International Northern California Chapter (MPINCC), the world’s largest chapter of the world’s largest hospitality-industry association, Marilee led MPINCC to a historic year of records and first, including global achievement as a two-time MPI RISE 2017 Award winner.

She also served two terms as President of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence Northern California Chapter (SITENCC) and four years on the Certification and Accreditation Board of Directors of the Association of Destination Management Executives International (ADMEI).

On this episode of Destination on the Left, Marilee discusses her expertise in storytelling as a crucial aspect of successfully sharing your destination with others. She chats about her framework for creating an end-to-end storyline, which includes the unique, the exclusive, the wow, the hidden gems, and the quiet in between, and how you can shift your perspective to better understand what your guests are looking for.

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Marilee’s journey to launching a career in destination management, corporate events, and incentive travel
  • The moment in Lisbon that transformed Marilee and her husband Paul’s life
  • The importance of storytelling in sharing your brand successfully
  • How Spotlight Sojourns was born of Marilee and Paul’s desire to connect pictures, words, and travels and the challenges, they faced launching during a global pandemic
  • Marilee breaks down how the incentive travel niche works and why it’s the perfect way to reward, motivate, and inspire
  • An example of a client storyline that Spotlight Sojourns put together to engage the leisure traveler
  • Marilee’s five-piece framework for meaningful travel
  • How to think about your destination or attraction as a place that inspires stories and allows visitors to build meaningful relationships with you

Travel Through a Different Lens

Perspective changes everything — wise words from my guest on the podcast this week led to a fascinating conversation on how she set up a travel business to showcase real travels and authentic experiences creatively. Marilee Kostadimas of Spotlight Sojourns joined me to share how the COVID-19 pandemic cutting short her world travel plans in 2020 actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The enforced pause gave her and her husband and business partner Paul the opportunity to figure out their fledgling business on the front end instead of the back end.

Marilee describes how she built her career on the power of professional storytelling through shared experiences. She also highlights the importance of understanding what travel really means to people and how to take guests on a journey that inspires them holistically.

We discuss how Spotlight Sojourns creates an experience that wows travelers and inspires them to explore and engage with a destination fully. Travel is something that many people are eager to make part of their lives again, and you can make your destination stand out with a story that shines. Marilee steps us through her five-pillar framework of the unique, the exclusive, the wow, the hidden gems, and the quiet in between and how they create an inspiring experience that travelers couldn’t do alone.

Storytelling to Delight and Engage

As travel and tourism professionals, we should be creating a cohesive end-to-end storyline. DMOs can use stories to give another perspective on their destination that isn’t falling back on the tried, true, proven, and popular. We need to figure out how to stop talking about meeting space capacity, hotel rooms, and facilities and really tell a compelling story that encompasses the five touchstones of a great travel experience.

We need to bring it back to engagement, connections, and relationships — Marilee explains how she does that for destinations like the New York State Canal Corporation. As a DMO, we’ve always got to keep in mind what the client is really looking for when hosting travel experiences so you can put a storyline together that fulfills the need to motivate and inspire.

Finding Your Why

Marilee gives her actionable tips on how DMOs and others in the travel and tourism industry can apply her framework to their own destination. We discuss how to get people thinking differently so that they begin to see their area through a different lens. Ask yourself why your destination is special, why you’d recommend visiting your beach, your lake, your hotel, as opposed to the beach, the lake, the hotel down the road — because it’s that differentiation that is going to help you tell your authentic story.

DMOs need to formulate a plan for the future and design ways that they can draw people in to visit their area and attractions. We represent our communities, so it’s important to reach new visitors and build relationships so that those visitors return again and again. Think about how you can leverage a connected storyline that ignites emotion in potential visitors — because when people are invested in your story, it becomes part of their legacy.


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