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2023 ESTO Insights

Megan Schlosser Filak Marketing Communications Specialist

Each year destination marketing professionals have the opportunity to learn and grow together at the U.S. Travel Association’s ESTO Conference. Attendees tackle topics at the forefront of destination marketing professionals’ minds  through networking and informative sessions.

This year’s ESTO Conference took place in Savannah, Georgia from August 20 – 22. Members of our Madden team led sessions, joined in conversations, and returned home with new insights from industry peers and perspectives from DMOs across the world. Following the conference our team members shared a few of their biggest takeaways from the event, and how we can continue to push the industry forward to create a positive impact for both travelers and clients’ communities.

The role of ai

Artificial intelligence (AI) emerged as one of the biggest focal points of both informative sessions and individual conversations. In fact, more than half of the 226 attendees who responded to a Madden survey distributed at the conference identified AI as the top trend they are excited about looking toward 2024. As AI has grown in popularity in recent months, the conversations surrounding it are also evolving, as the initial curiosity of what exactly is AI shifts to questions about how to integrate the technology into marketing strategy.

“AI is not here to take our jobs, but help us be more innovative and push the envelope with tourism and travel,” said Crystal Abrom, Madden Account Strategist.

“DMOs wrestle with what it (AI) is, where and how to incorporate it into their daily work and planning, and who’s the best resource to help them learn more,” explained Matt Stiker, Senior Vice President of Brand Strategy.

Coming out of the conference, it’s clear that AI is here to stay and should be embraced. The best way to do that is for DMOs to jump in and become familiar with what is out there. 

“Get familiar with AI. You don’t have to be a techy to try out different programs,” said TJ Fletcher, Destination Strategy Director. 

Emily Gonzalez, Destination Strategy Director, agreed, “Chat GPT is a tool that takes practice to learn and it can be an AMAZING tool to enhance performance for both DMOs and agencies.”

Read more about how AI is helping destinations connect with travelers!

Telling your destination’s story

As technology changes, so is the way in which destinations present themselves to potential travelers. With so many ways to “talk” to consumers, from social media to streaming ads to out-of-home (OOH) advertising and everything in between, it’s important for DMOs to explore new ways to share their story. While there are many ways to accomplish that, many ESTO conversations honed in on ways to do this in a way that felt real, generating a natural connection between the destination and consumers.

“There’s more audience demand for authentic voices and pairing your brand with the right influencers — a trusted source who also provides quality, real content”, explained Sarah Hupp Foster, Chief Operating Officer. The biggest impact can come from spreading this approach out over a wider time frame. “Look for ways to scale the production and reporting for a year-round approach, as opposed to the old way where influencers were used in only segmented, specific integrations or projects.”

Oftentimes, DMOs don’t have to look far to change their approach to storytelling.

“Be aware of storytelling fatigue. If you’ve been using the same assets, telling the same stories, and locking in on the same brand heroes, you’re losing your audience and becoming ineffective for repeat visitation and new audiences,” explained Hupp Foster. “Look to your local voices and new ways to tell your story, still staying true to pillars, but reinvigorating and re-engaging.”

Check out our “Salty Stories” campaign for Port Aransas to see local storytelling in action!

Embrace the change

One major theme in particular that emerged from ESTO is change. The tourism and marketing industries are on the forefront of new technologies, new developments, and new social movements. Exploring these changes, rather than fearing them, and seeking new ways to incorporate them is what will push destinations to new levels. 

“Clients need to know that ‘safe is the new risky,” said Stiker. “Be prepared to experiment, open your eyes, and get out of the way of the Gen Z staff members who are bringing refreshing solutions and unexpected ways of engaging potential visitors.”

“Change and innovation are coming and DMOs of every size can embrace both to enhance their destination presence,“ added Gonzalez.


Proof of what can be achieved when new approaches, new ideas, and new innovations are welcomed can be seen among the winners of the 2023 ESTO Destiny and Mercury Awards, announced during the final night of the conference. Among those celebrating their win was Madden client Visit Idaho who was awarded a Mercury Award, the top prize in the Integrated Marketing and Messaging Campaign category, for their “Beyond Words” campaign.

2023 ESTO Insights
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