The art and science of modern destination marketing

Tourism and economic growth go hand in hand—so much so that expanding tourism is one of the strategies of Forward Together, a statewide vision to make Genesee County one of the top five communities in Michigan for jobs, talent, quality of life and equity by 2040.

“We want to continue to grow our region and get visitors to consider Genesee County as a place to live,” said Amari Steward, executive director of Explore Flint & Genesee, a division of the Flint & Genesee Group and the region’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We like to say that today’s visitors could be tomorrow’s talent.”

And as the tourism industry evolves, Explore Flint & Genesee uses a variety of marketing strategies and data-driven tools to attract visitors and enhance their experience during their stay in Flint & Genesee.

Harnessing the power of technology

In an increasingly digital world, destination marketing is an art in itself.

By leveraging new digital tools and resources, Explore Flint & Genesee can make informed decisions about where and to whom to market. With clearer insights into traveler behavior patterns, they can target their marketing efforts—and budgets—accordingly.

In 2023, Explore Flint & Genesee partnered with the state to acquire a tourism information platform called Arrivalist, allowing them to share travel information, travel movements and overnight stay trends in one dashboard.

“It’s very privacy-focused. But it gives us very detailed data to see where visitors from outside of Genesee County are coming from, whether they visited certain points of interest like our attractions, our hotels and our parks, and how long they stayed,” said Amanda Blackburn, director of marketing for the Flint & Genesee Group.

It also provides ready audiences for new marketing efforts. For example, if Blackburn sees an increase in travelers from Grand Rapids, she can track where they’ve been, giving her an advantage when she wants to advertise West Michigan to similar demographics in the future.

Digital tools like Arrivalist provide insights into visitor data that were previously not possible.

“It really helps us support our community, our attractions and our hotels by making sure we reach the right audience that might visit us and stay overnight,” Blackburn said.

An increase in traffic due to targeted advertising, social media content, email marketing or other strategies means it’s working.

And it is.

Graphic showing the top 10 states and cities that have the most overnight guests, as well as a graphic showing where visitors go after visiting two attractions

In 2023, overnight visits from the Detroit area increased 6% year over year, according to data from Arrivalist. Blackburn attributes that success in part to a marketing partnership with a family-focused Detroit magazine called Metro Parent.

Explore Flint & Genesee also shifted its overall vacation travel campaign message last year from the generic brand awareness phrase “Explore” to the more direct call to action “Book Your Stay.” Arrivalist showed that room nights increased 15% starting in 2022.

“It’s nice to see an increase in overnight stays after we changed the messaging,” Blackburn said.

Explore Flint & Genesee also works with local event partners such as HAP CareSource Crim Festival of Races and The Ally Challenge presented by McLaren and uses digital marketing to encourage event attendees to stay and explore other amenities and attractions Genesee County has to offer.

Using geofencing, Explore Flint & Genesee can focus its marketing efforts on specific geographic locations and deliver personalized content to those audiences. They currently monitor 80 points of interest across the country, one of which is the Dort Financial Center.

“We monitor data from some of the events they host and may find that people there also like to go to the Flint Farmers’ Market, shop or stay at certain hotels,” Steward said. “We combine some of our knowledge of the region and target our messages at them.”

“By helping visitors navigate and help them make the most of their trip, we can definitely be proactive rather than reactive,” she said.

A small “cooperation”

Explore Flint & Genesee focuses primarily on attracting visitors within a two-hour drive, but also works to attract the attention of meeting planners and sports organizers across the country.

In 2023, hotels in Genesee County sold 450,490 room nights – an increase over previous years.

Travel to Flint and Genesee is trending in the right direction, said Kim Corcoran, executive director of Meetings Michigan.

“Flint is definitely making a name for itself,” Corcoran said. “They’re really focused on their niche, which is sporting events and mid-sized conferences.”

Meetings Michigan is part of the “Pure Michigan” initiative, through which the state of Michigan promotes its tourism and destinations.

Corcoran and Meetings Michigan bring together regional convention and tourism boards, resorts, hotels and service providers under one roof to attract major trade shows, conferences and events across the country. This strategy is sometimes referred to as “cooperation” or cooperative competition.

“The focus is to work together to bring these meetings or events to Michigan; that’s the top priority,” Corcoran said. “Once we get a commitment, our respective regions work together to help them find the perfect destination.”

Steward frequently promotes Michigan with leading tourism companies in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Traverse City and the Great Lakes Bay.

There is often enough surplus for everyone.

For example, when Detroit was selected to host the 2024 NFL Draft, it was a success for destinations across the state. More than 775,000 fans flocked to downtown Detroit for the three-day event in April.

“This was a big proposal from the Detroit Sports Commission and Visit Detroit,” Steward said. “But they contacted me because we all work together to promote the state as a destination. So even though I’m competing with Detroit to bring visitors to Genesee County, they’re also my partner in promoting the state.”

The NFL Draft bounty was huge, so restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, shopping and golf courses throughout the southern Lower Peninsula also benefited from the love, Corcoran said.

Crowded accommodations in Metro Detroit meant higher-than-average bookings at hotels in surrounding areas like Ann Arbor and Genesee County. A good dose of targeted advertising and cross-promotion didn’t hurt, either.

“When one community in Michigan does well, it’s a bright spot for all of us,” Steward said.

Improving the travel experience

There are other, more personal ways to guide visitors to a great experience.

The Flint & Genesee Tourism Ambassador Program helps train and inspire field staff, volunteers, businesses and residents to make every visitor encounter a positive experience.

What sets the Flint & Genesee Tourism Ambassador Program apart from other training programs is that it is a certification, not just training. Participants who complete the program receive a certificate and associated initials to use after their name to signify their commitment to their profession as a Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA).

Today there are over 300 CTAs in Genesee County.

“When I took the training, I was amazed at all the cool things happening in our county,” said Ed Koledo, executive director of the Fenton Community & Cultural Center and Southern Lakes Parks and Recreation. “It’s about getting people involved, learning about their interests and then sharing some of these hidden gems with them.”

Eight of Koledo’s employees are now CTAs. With more than half of its staff certified, the organization has earned Blue Star designation, which is marked with a simple blue star in the region’s visitor guide and on the Explore Flint & Genesee website. It is one of 19 Blue Star organizations in the county.

“Our certified tourism ambassadors are truly some of our most valuable assets to the community,” Steward said. “They see it as their job to make sure the people who visit Flint & Genesee have a great time and want to come back.”

Blue Star certified

To help our region showcase its best side to new and returning visitors alike, the Flint & Genesee Tourism Ambassador program teaches field staff and volunteers how to make every visitor encounter a positive one.

In 2023, the program introduced a Blue Star designation, which will be given to any organization in Genesee County that has at least 50% certified staff. The designation — marked with a simple blue star in the region’s visitor guide and on the Explore Flint & Genesee website — will be displayed. These organizations include:

Best Western Plus Flint Airport Inn & Suites
Rodeway Inn
Crossroads Village and Huckleberry Railroad
FIM Capitol Theater
FIM Flint Institute of Music
FIM Whiting Auditorium
Flint Children’s Museum
Flint Cultural Center Corporation
The Flint & Genesee Group
Flint Institute of Art
Flint River Watershed Coalition
For-Mar Nature Reserve and Arboretum
Genesee County Parks & Recreation Commission
Keep Genesee County beautiful
Longway Planetarium
Mott-Warsh Gallery
Sloan Museum of Discovery
Southern Lakes Parks & Recreation
The What’s Up Downtown Project

Interested in becoming a CTA or helping your organization achieve a Blue Star designation? Visit to get started.