Designing Impactful Event Activations for Tourism Destinations

4 panelists sitting on stage in front of a full service sign
by Laura Mier
Content Manager

The premise seems simple enough: bring a small taste of a destination to potential travelers, and they’ll become interested enough to book a trip themselves. But how does a sample of barbecue and blues music translate into actual bookings and visitor spending? 

As consumers are experiencing digital fatigue and becoming numb to the inundation of advertising, brands are increasingly shifting from traditional media to event activations—from pop-up parties and free product samples to fully immersive experiences—to grab attention and turn brief consumer interactions into unforgettable moments. 

Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) can utilize these in-person events to showcase their destination in a way that results in awareness and increased visitation. The key is to curate emotionally compelling experiences that inspireconnect and educate. For a lasting impression, an experiential event should engage at least three senses and foster a sense of what a visitor will feel in the destination, whether it’s the sleek serenity of a luxury wellness resort or the neon energy of the Las Vegas Strip.

Prioritize Your Audience

First, specify who you are talking to, and meet your audience where they already are. The activation could be held at a targeted drive market for the destination, at an airport with a newly launched nonstop flight into your city, at a conference attended by well-heeled jetsetters or at a music festival with an audience whose interests align with your destination. Consider:

  • What is important to that potential traveler? Is it interest or activity-based, or can you also integrate deeply held values, such as philanthropy, sustainability, multiculturalism, wonder, simplicity or adventure into your activation?

Foster Creativity, Curiosity and Play

Offer immediate benefits to attendees. It’s straightforward enough to get them in the door with free food or giveaways, but to capitalize on their brief attention, create a sense of community and connection through engagement. This could be in the form of games, a guided tasting, a hands-on lesson, a live Q&A session with a notable person from your destination, an unbelievable stunt, immersive art installation, live music, cultural performance, competition, virtual reality experience or another emerging technology. Test your creative limits.

a man drawing with sharpie on a large canvas

The 2024 SXSW Sharpie exhibit showcases a live art session by Mr. Doodle. 

Inside the Porsche Full Service brand activation at the 2024 South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin, Texas,  the legendary car manufacturer featured a choose-your-own-adventure sensory experience with a series of five doors to open, each playing to a different sense: sight (a kaleidoscope of Porsche’s signature rearview mirrors), touch (a hands-on display of luxury interior samples), sound (the thrilling, raw purr of a Porsche engine), scent (Porsche-shaped air fresheners) and taste (a rainbow of lollipops, each in packaging depicting one of Porsche’s heritage paint colors). Along with an in-car “driving” experience with a moving projection screen, live Q&A panels such as Harmonizing Senses: The Power of Sound (presented in conjunction with Bose) and a postcard station for attendees to send postcards from their “road trip,” each station engaged attendees and related directly to the brand.

a grey porsche in front of a motel sign

2024 SXSW Porsche exhibit.

Whatever you choose, the experience should be intrinsically rewarding—delicious, fun, playful, surprising, interactive—and educational to your destination. When planning interactive components within your event activation, consider:

  • How does each activity/experience directly relate to your destination? 
  • What senses—and how many—are you engaging within your activation?
  • If each activity is geared to evoke feelings, what are those feelings—and do they align with your destination?
  • What are attendees learning about your destination that will equip them with curiosity as they plan their trip?  

Play is a universal language, and learning through play is an effective way to introduce and ingrain new ideas and knowledge. Attendees should leave transformed, carrying a different perception than when they came in.

Seamless Data Collection

An important step of a successful activation is gathering information: learning who attended your event and how to reach them in the future for follow-up feedback or additional marketing campaigns.

Requiring registration for a free ticket to your event is one way to efficiently gather information. Streamline this process by prominently displaying a scannable QR code at the event entrance for people to register with their mobile devices. Once they present their ticket, offer something tangible in return. For example, this could be a token to receive a free branded accessory inside the event, a drink ticket to redeem for one specialty cocktail or unique beverage specific to your destination, or a raffle ticket for a travel-related giveaway. If your event features an immersive art installation or interactive experience, provide a beautifully designed, printed program about the artist, how their work relates to the destination, and how to learn more about arts and culture in your destination.

Whatever tangible item you provide in exchange for your audience’s information and attendance, it should demonstrate a desirable benefit—and preview what guests will encounter inside the activation.

Amplify Exposure

Your reach doesn’t end with the people who visited your activation. In the 2024 SXSW Conference panel, Experiential Pioneers: Lessons in Creating the Impossible, Jonathan Kneebone, co-founder of art collective The Glue Society, makes a case for earning attention, rather than buying it. “If you involve the audience in an idea—and prioritize the audience—then they will feel loved, welcome and engaged, and they will reward you with sharing the story,” he says. That sharing translates to increased reach, impressions and engagement through social media channels.

Encourage social media sharing by offering interactive, photo-worthy experiences, and display the destination’s social media handles or hashtags. (Do not require social media sharing to gain access to the experience. Audiences feel like a required social media post is “spammy” and they may be turned off from engaging with the brand altogether.) Invite relevant social media influencers for an exclusive preview of the activation to share with their audiences. 

bright purple flower

The 2024 SXSW Manuka Health exhibit features an art installation exploring how honeybees perceive flowers. 

a man taking a photo of a purple flower

SXSW attendees interact with the immersive Manuka Health exhibit. 

The activation also is an opportunity to create content for the DMO’s owned channels, from social media posts to B-roll. Depending on the event, press releases and media invites could be appropriate to generate post-event coverage in traditional media outlets as well.

Measure Success

Ultimately, the goals for the activation will determine which metrics of success to use for evaluating event impact. This could be in the form of gathering feedback from real-time interactions with guests, collecting leads, gleaning insights from follow-up surveys, tracking the use of coupon codes or QR links, number of downloads, social media metrics or the estimated value of press coverage.

Regardless of the measurements used, apply learnings to future activations to continually elevate the audience experience—and ultimately, the event’s success.

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