SOBCon 2010 Interview Series: Becky McCray and Sheila Scarborough on Tourism, Tech, and Rattlesnakes

ReveNews interview series with participants of SOBCon 2010 continues with a conversation with Becky McCray and Sheila Scarborough co-founders of Tourism Currents. Becky and Sheila started their venture in helping local tourism organizations last year from SOBCon 2009. They return this year to share their success story and the lessons they’ve learned. Enjoy.

What brings you to SOBCon?

Shelia:  Becky and I actually launched our business after discussions at SOBCon last year. We were sitting together in the cafeteria talking about how we might combine social media knowledge with knowledge of the travel and tourism industry. From that conversation Tourism Currents, an online social media company for training for tourism folks, was born. We’re thrilled for the opportunity to come back this year and show how we started our business and how we figured out what we could provide customers.

That is an interesting process because we’re talking about businesses launched at a conference designed to create collaboration.  What was the initial bug that got this idea percolating?

Becky:  On the airplane to Chicago I was going through pages of notes trying to map out everything I was doing in my business.  I went through all the topics that I know about and I started thinking about the questions people come to me with. Then I started to think about which of those topics were ones that I could partner up with someone else to build into a business.  I came into SOBCon with a list of potential businesses and potential partners. It just so happens Shelia and I were rooming together and had known each other for a long time.

Shelia:  So when in doubt and starting a business, share a room and brush your teeth in the same sink as your prospective business partner. (laughs)

Yeah, I suppose if you guys can room together you guys can do business together.  (laughs)

So now it’s essentially your year anniversary.  How has the business evolved and has the direction brought you down the path you expected to go?

Shelia:  Well, we spent last summer thinking about how we wanted to work together and developing a clear vision.  We set a launch date for the 9th of September which seemed like oodles of time in June and at the end of August it was like, “Oh my god, it’s not right. We’re not going to get all of this ready.” But we did and we launched on time. (Sheila and Becky pictured below)

I think the biggest surprises maybe that we found was that you have to anticipate where you’re prospective customers are going to find you.  Becky and I had huge online networks but many of our customers are not online or they’re not really strong online and we found in order to find them we had to meet them face to face. Speaking engagements and workshops are some of the best opportunities for us to find clients.

In terms of people paying for our services, many convention and visitor bureaus (CVBs) have not heard of PayPal, do not have PayPal accounts, do not have a business or a government credit card, or require paper invoices.  One county had to run our service through the county auditor before they could cut us a paper check! We rapidly discovered we had to be flexible to what was easiest for our customers.

In a time of budget cuts, I’d expect online to be the first to get cut because it might seem nebulous to an organization that’s never heard of PayPal.  How do you guys make it feel real to those clients?

Becky:   I have a lot of experience dealing with small government organizations and in most cases the organization we’re dealing with is the tourism association, or the CVB, or the tours and promotion group. Most of those agencies have a little bit of flexibility on how they set their government funds and we find that the folks that are our target customers are terribly interested in getting online.

Most of them won’t cut online spending first thing when faced with budget cuts. If you’re in the tourism business then you understand that promotion and marketing is essentially the only thing that you do. So when they are faced with budget cuts they tend to look at other areas they can cut. Like old, traditional promotional methods as demand and response for those decreases and online interest increases.  Admittedly it is difficult with established methods of behavior and established ways of doing things for them to funnel money from paper to online. But that is what a lot of them are starting to do. We feel like we’re in a really great position since they understand that online is the avenue to the future.

What technology or what tools do you feel that they are clamoring for?

Shelia:  The folks that we are dealing with are not large organizations. They want to have presence online without spreading their resources too thin. They’re really interested in things like Facebook or Twitter, a little bit less interested in blogging because it is frankly seen as too labor intensive when done right. We are seeing a lot of interest in video. Everybody has heard they need to do something with video and aren’t quite sure what. We try to provide very customized information about using these tools for specific tourism purposes.

For example, tourism organizations do tours, so one of our lessons talks about digitizing the standard press trip familiarization tour by incorporating wired participants like bloggers, elements of video, and audio and podcasting, while making the tour mobile and friendly. We offer basic training with the tools but then we always show them how they can be mixed.

Another example is using Twitter and TwitPics to do local fall foliage reports. Showing them examples of organizations that have already adopted Twitter where people are uploading TwitPics of what their trees look like at that time of year. Those examples really turn the light bulb on for people.

How do you get them to tie online to the things they do offline?

Shelia:  Tourism organizations are very focused on bringing in visitors. But we feel, especially with social media tools, that you have people living right under your nose who love your town and who will talk about it and they have relatives and friends who come to visit who are already warm prospects. If you can wire those people in to help generate buzz to your destination and they live right down the road, all the better. We always recommend having all your local bloggers in for a cup of coffee and explaining to them what you do as a tourism organization. Organize a photo walk to your local sculpture garden or other local attraction and build up local enthusiasm up about your town while generating content that connects the online with the offline.

(Below is a video from the Round Rock Texas Chamber of Commerce)

Becky:  What is hilarious to me is how fast people are adopting video.  Shelia herself is now the video queen.  She is doing some work with her local CVB in Round Rock, providing some video to fit with the offline branding they are now taking online. She is not only filming everything you’d expect in terms of football and baseball, but she’s also out there filming lacrosse and didn’t you also film some cricket?

Shelia:  Yeah I’m planning on it.  We have cricket leagues here, but I’m planning on doing a video segment on cricket and most people, me included, had no idea there’s a cricket field in town or for that matter a cricket league.

Becky:  And she’s doing the video and pulling it together but what her CVB doesn’t realize is she is also providing them with help in creating a strategy of how to use that content. Because their strategy right now consists of “we ought to do some video” and Sheila provides a complete plan of how it moves their marketing objectives forward.

What types of fear or objections toward social media have you run into? If something negative comes out about an area its potential impact is a bit different then a business’s fear about a negative review of a product.  Have you guys heard those concerns from your clients and how do you advise them to address those fears?

Becky:  I will say this, if your tourism board has the potential for any kind of bad news, if you have one of those negative labels out there in your community and you are not participating online…then you are leaving the conversation entirely to that negative label. It is up to your tourism board to get out there, to participate in the conversation and to tell whatever the positive side of your town’s unique story is because until you’re the one out there sharing your story the only story that is being told is the one you like the least.

Shelia:  I couldn’t agree more.  Bad news does not get better with time and as for just ignoring things, well, maybe that worked a few years ago before people had such powerful communications tools but sticking your head in the sand now is not a real smart public relations or marketing move.

At workshops it is always one of the first questions we get. A hand goes up and they ask “What if somebody says something negative?” Our response is that if it’s not a troll, if it’s someone who has a legitimate concern or complaint you need to deal with it. If you have messed up then you do just what you do in real life. You say, “I’m sorry. How can I make it up to you, or how can I make it better, or how can I make it right?” If it is an ongoing problem of some sort, you say “Yes, we are aware of it and also concerned about it.  Here is what we are doing to try to fix it.” If someone is incorrect about the facts around their complaints and concerns then you can provide the facts and the correct information to them and the community. Ignoring the problem is just not an option.

What is the quirkiest tourism board promotional oddity you have seen in the last year?

Becky:  I bet money Shelia will mention the goat barbecue.

Shelia:  Yeah there’s (laughs) an annual goat barbecue cook-off in Brady, Texas. They have a rocking Facebook page and year round they are talking goats and (laughs) they’re really into it. There is also a Twitter account for the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Association, as in agricultural threshing equipment run by steam, and there are enthusiasts who just go nuts talking about steam threshing. They get together every year for Labor Day and thresh, you know, they take video of it and I know Becky has some input on some rattlesnakes as well.

Becky:  A Rattlesnake Derby weekend specifically in Magnum, Oklahoma. A town of nine hundred ninety three people has ten maybe twenty thousand visitors to town in three days and they really hunt rattlesnakes but it’s also a big huge street festival and party. (Photo right from the Magnum Rattlesnake Derby Photo Booth)

Shelia:  Rattlesnake really does taste like chicken. (laughs)

Becky:  That is what everyone says.

Being from Arizona I’ve had rattlesnake and I’d have to disagree; it tastes like alligator which does not taste like chicken. Of course, they may taste different in Oklahoma.

Shelia:  (laughs) Every town has some sort of a festival and more and more we see these events bring people back on a yearly basis. It can be incredibly hard to connect to all those scattered visitors. And the costs of buying newspaper ads or do a mailer to reach that audience would be far too expensive.

With today’s technology it’s possible for Watonga, Oklahoma to discuss their cheese festival online and reach out to folks who are from far away. Social media enables them to connect with their audience throughout the year so their visitors are much more likely to come back. And that means a lot for a small town’s ability to survive in a completely changed economy.

How do you counsel your clients from not just running after the latest new social media trend?

Becky:  I don’t really feel the clients we work the most directly with have the desire to chase after the new shiny things. We deal with mostly smaller towns and communities who are usually a step or two from where the cutting edge folks are. The people you are thinking of spend every waking moment fretting over what the newest, coolest thing is.  It’s completely different than the approach of small town CVBs.

You really have to prove something is worth the time for them to adopt before they will ever consider adopting it. They will not just adopt Twitter because it is cool.  We spend more of our time showing them things that have been established and proven and showing them how much better it would benefit their business. For us that is a much more interesting position to be in.

Shelia:  Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. We tell folks over and over again that it’s a lot better to really understand and effectively use and build a good community on one or two of the tools then run around, throwing up accounts everywhere and then let them all die. We’d rather see places like Grady, Texas do nothing more than rock their Facebook fan page and if they never get on Twitter and if they never get on Flickr because they simply don’t have time, that’s okay.

I am going to make you both bring out your crystal balls. In the next five years what are these small towns’ tourism bureaus going to look like online?  What’s going to be their big evolution?

Shelia:  My guess is that we are going to see a lot of partnerships between the visitor’s bureau, the chamber of commerce, city and county government because trying to keep track of all this online stuff is really like dealing with a sprawling octopus. The Internet doesn’t have much tolerance for silos. A flattening technology like the social web makes sense in terms of maximizing your effort, spreading the workload and the best use of your resources to partner up.

I see that in my own town of Round Rock the chamber of commerce and the city government have partnered up on to build a shop local program “Shop the Rock for Round Rock” and I envision there being a little more of that type of partnership activity in the future.  Most tourism related websites are very slick and they are very nice and people spent a lot of money for them to make their particular town, state, or region look good.  But the social web allows voice and personality of a town or region shine.  I think that you are going to see more elements of a real spark coming out that maybe because frankly, you have one or two savvy, bubbly individuals who are in charge of Facebook fan pages and the Twitter stream who have strong personalities suddenly they are going to be identified with their town.

Becky:  I think in the next five years we are going to see tourism websites where the tourism staff has the ability, technical ability and the permission, to update and maintain the overall web presence and all of the interactive tools themselves without having to go through an outside provider to get permission to publish content. We are going to see a change in a way the entire web presence is handled and it’s going to be forced by the interactive social tools that we are using everyday right now.

About Angel Djambazov

Born in Bulgaria, Angel Djambazov has spent his professional career in the fields of journalism and online marketing. In his journalistic career he worked as an editor on several newspapers and was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Wyoming Homes and Living Magazine. Later his career path led to online marketing where while working at OnlineShoes he earned the Affiliate Manager of the Year (2006) award at the Affiliate Summit, and In-house Manager of the Year (2006) award by ABestWeb.

For four years Angel served as OPM for Jones Soda for which he won his second Affiliate Manger of the Year (2009) award at Affiliate Summit.

Currently Angel serves as OPM for KEEN Footwear and MedicalRecords.com. His former clients include: Dell, Real Networks, Jones Soda, Intelius, Graphicly, Chrome Bags, Onlineshoes.com, Vitamin Angels, The Safecig, and Bag Borrow or Steal.

Angel is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher for ReveNews.com and ReveNews.org.

Angel lives north of Seattle, spending his free time reading up on obscure scientific references made by his wife MGX, while keeping up with a horde of cats and a library of books.

You can find Angel on Twitter @djambazov.

2 Responses to SOBCon 2010 Interview Series: Becky McCray and Sheila Scarborough on Tourism, Tech, and Rattlesnakes

  1. Hi Angel,

    Thanks very much for the interview about Tourism Currents; we really enjoyed it and hope you did, too!

  2. […] SOBCon 2010 Interview Series: Becky McCray and Sheila Scarborough on Tourism … ReveNews From that conversation Tourism Currents, an online social media company for training for tourism folks, was born. We’re thrilled for the opportunity to come … http://revenews.com/angeldjambazov/sobcon-2010-interview-series-becky-mccray-and-sheila-scarboro… […]