I recently had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth McLaughlin, who heads research for the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Elizabeth has experience both on the supplier and the client side of market research, and she shared some valuable perspectives on the interplay between research supplier and research client. She also talked about the types of research VTC does as well as how she serves her internal clients. And of course, I asked her about the iconic tagline, “Virginia is for Lovers.”
Here’s the interview:
So this morning we’re speaking to Elizabeth McLaughlin, Vice President of Market Research at the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Good morning, Elizabeth.
Good morning, Dana. Hi.
Hi. Thanks for taking some time.
Sure, it’s my pleasure, thanks. I appreciate what Research Access offers.
Thank you very much. I think a lot of people out there would be interested to hear, how does one become the vice president of research at a state tourism agency? And what was your path to where you are today?
Great. Well, I started my career in a couple different fields. Investor relations at a publicly traded company, and then kind of transitioned to the marketing department in a consumer products company. And then from that, I actually bought a full-service marketing research firm in 2003 with a business partner, and transformed that, really, into a small agency – we had about 16 full-time staff members and clients throughout the US, a lot in travel and tourism.
And from that, just as life changes started to occur, I realized that I was on the road a great deal of time throughout the US, and not at home with my son as much as I wanted to be. So looked for a different opportunity, and the Virginia Tourism Corporation was a client of mine at the time. And unfortunately, the research director passed away unexpectedly.
And so I started to do more and more to try to help VTC kind of fill in some voids, and one thing led to another, and it just seemed like a good transition to come over to this side of the world, to the client side full time. So I sold my half of the research company and came over to lead the research program at Virginia Tourism. And have enjoyed being at this perspective and on this side of things since January of 2011. So, almost a year and a half now.
Wow. So you have the perspective of having been on the research provider side, running your business, and now being on the client side. What was that change like, and how is life different on each side of that divide?
Yeah, life is certainly different to some degree on each side. It’s been helpful, I think, to have the agency experience and then to come in. Because it helps me– we have a research agency of record here that partners with me at Virginia Tourism. So I’ve certainly been in their shoes in every facet of accounting and project management and question design and analysis and determining the best way to present the data.
So I understand their kind of business model, and try to make sure our needs and our requests fit in their flow. So I really appreciate our partner’s unique perspective and the way their business operates so that we don’t disrupt that. And I think being here, I know now a lot more about what my internal clients need.
And so we can work together with my research partner to make sure our reports are actionable. No one has time for 100-page reports anymore. So we do a lot more real time research. We have built an online community of 300 that we are constantly asking questions.
Research is now much more fluid with Virginia Tourism, because we are able to take kind of the tools that we’ve built with our providers and then my perspective of knowing how we need access, literally, today on what someone thinks of a promotion we’re going to offer, or the way our ad’s looking, or messaging, or a new campaign we may be developing. We want to get consumer feedback.
And so the tools are in place to do that. And, because I understand what our agency’s like, it’s able to really work together seamlessly.
Could you talk a little bit about how you interact with your internal clients and what you strive to do as you work with them in a research role?
Sure. The way it works for me at VTC is I’ve kind of got two buckets of clients, if you want to think about that, or two audiences I’m trying to understand is a better way.
The two audiences that I want to understand are the consumer is A, and then B, really trying to understand the pulse of what’s going on in the travel industry, for what our industry needs in terms of things like proving economic impact and our economic contribution.
We want to know how what our industry is doing is providing tax benefit to the community and things of that nature. Because in the real world, they have to continue to get funded, and we want to help show the value that they are bringing. So we understand the consumer and we work to serve our industry.
So those are the two areas that we focus on the most. And within that, the internal clients at VTC are – I’m on the executive team here and my peers are the VP of marketing, and obviously we have Rita [Lee] who is our interim president and CEO. They’re doing a national search right now for our CEO. And then the VP of partnership marketing, who really runs the industry relations and our development work.
And so we are constantly working together as a team to say, “What do we need to understand? What’s the next big thing out there?” So I’m constantly feeding them information. And I want to be mindful of the way individuals here want information packaged. Some want more detail, some want less. So there’s the internal team, my fellow peers on the executive team.
And then we have our marketing team who wants a lot of detail about how things are performing, where can we get ahead of the next trend, that type thing. And they’re often on the road and traveling. There’s a lot of quick back and forth packaging. Again, it’s got to be simple, and brief, and to the point, and interpreted for them. So that’s the way that I serve them the best.
And then our industry partners in the field, the DMOs that we partner with, attractions that we work with, our lodging partners, they’re oftentimes saying they have no budget or a very small budget, so they need us to kind of be their research arm. So we fill that need by trying to keep our website active with current trends, lodging reports, and they oftentimes need really specific numbers about economic impact or economic contribution.
So we run the gamut of what our different clients need. But, bottom line, everybody wants to know what’s the number, but more importantly, what do I do with it? And so that’s kind of what we see our chief role to be.
OK. And the research partner that you work with, having been in that sort of role – what do you most appreciate about what they do, and what are you kind of looking for them to do in supporting you?
I most appreciate that they always try to find a solution. Not meaning that it’s always “Yes, we can do that right away.” But if I call and say, gosh, we really want to understand x, y, or z, they’ll say “Let me go back in the data and see what we have that we might be able to interpret that way, maybe we want to ask the online community that way. We’re going to have to field something and we need to create what’s that going to be.”
It’s always very much a partnership. So I don’t feel it’s them as the vendor. And I know that gets said a lot. But really knowing that I can call and count on them to say, “Yeah, we’re going to figure this out with you. We know you’re being asked or you need this for some specific reason.” They’re very solutions oriented.
The other thing that I appreciate is keeping on the right schedule. And that seems sometimes like it’s under-appreciated, but if we’ve got an ad campaign, and we’re testing messaging, I have lead times built in, because I want to work with our marketing team, and we’ve got to get information to our ad agency. So there’s kind of a domino effect.
If we get off schedule with the research, then, unfortunately, things can move forward without the research, which we never want to hear, or things get delayed, which is also bad, especially if we’ve got media buys lined up and all that. So it’s just critical that we stay on time and on schedule. And doing that is always appreciated in my mind.
And then the third thing that I really look for from them is being there with me interpreting the data. I love it when they say, “Oh my gosh, we just looked at something and this is interesting. Have you looked at the data this way?” Or, “Gosh, maybe this is a new market for us.” So they take just as much responsibility as I do to say, “What does this mean?”
Don’t just say, “OK, here’s your deck of data.” We’ve put a few conclusions in there. But just the dialogue, picking up the phone or sending a quick email that says, “We saw this and this was interesting. Did you expect this?” And they’re great at giving me data along the way. So when we do field larger studies and data’s still in the field and I’m, like, itching to get—“What are we hearing? What are we hearing?”
They do a nice job of keeping me informed kind of with little teasers throughout the way. So I always feel like I know what the consumers are saying.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you communicate, how you go from the insights that you generate in your partnership and in your analysis, and how you communicate those to the various busy professionals that work in different domains?
Yes. We still do generate PowerPoint reports or PDF reports for the big independent studies we field. And I will typically then take that and do an executive summary, and then present that internally. Or if it’s something that needs to be presented to our industry, I’ll pull a few slides out of that. So we have that as a backup piece just so I can kind of pull slides as I need to of those full reports.
But there are emails from me every day either going to my internal audiences and clients or external clients with, “Hey, here’s a new research factoid.” Or– we call our online community The Insiders—“and this is what’s come out from The Insiders today.” I field questions with them at least three times a week.
So I’m always constantly generating reports to our team saying “Hey, this is what The Insiders said. We tested this new welcome sign, or here’s what they’re saying about the top motivator for travel, or this is what they’re doing on their weekend trip they just planned, or this is the sale that last motivated them.” So there’s constant communication between me and the rest of our team inside and outside of this building.
Those reports are important so that we have that body of work. If someone ever comes back and says, “Hey, what did our prospective traveler say in 2012 about what they wanted to do,” so we’ve got that deck that we can go to. But more importantly, I might pull five bullet points from that and send it to the executive team, or send it out in a little alert to our industry or post something online. So I am constantly repackaging the information.
Yeah, and it sounds like email, if I’m not mistaken, is an important part of the way you communicate.
Yes. Email is key because we don’t do our job at Virginia Tourism if we’re sitting in our offices all the time. We’ve got to be out in the communities, in the different locations throughout the state, knowing our product and being able to talk about it and share that. And I’m often out talking with industry partners about what research questions they have, or understanding studies that they’ve done.
And so there is constant motion. And my peers are also out just as much as I am. And it’s great to know that my travel is within Virginia. So I’m not flying all over the US anymore. But they were always all gone, and unfortunately, or fortunately, however you look at it, we’re all attached to iPhones and BlackBerrys and iPads. And so email is the best way that we share information.
We also have an intranet and then we have an industry website that we post some of our data on as well. So our industry partners can tap into that to see it. Some of our more confidential information, we obviously just share internally.
You mentioned you have a panel of consumers, about 300 people. What are some of the other methodologies that you use.?
Consumer-wise, we have our Insider online community. And then we also field separate studies quarterly with a national panel, a national sample. And then we also partner with TNS for the ongoing visitor profile data.
So visitors come to Virginia, are asked questions, and then we do a follow up survey with them as well, and that’s year round. We also have a web conversion study that we do through Texas A&M that’s ongoing. And we field other studies. We’ve got a specific audience study that’s coming up. And so we’re going to partner with a national panel provider for that as well.
And then we subscribe to all kinds of secondary research and other reports.
So it sounds like a lot of online research. Is the visitors’ study online as well?
Yes. And then we have an intercept study going on right now in our southwest region of the state to understand visitation within that region. So that’s in person, and then followed up with an online survey. We continue to do focus groups when it’s needed. But I’ll just also talk to consumers wherever I am in the state, you know, talk to travelers if it’s not intrusive.
So we kind of have a lot of different ways we touch them.
No phone studies?
No phone studies.
And have you done anything with mobile?
Yes. Well, we’ve used mobile devices. So we’ve used iPads for some of our intercept studies, and we have questions in our welcome centers on the mobile devices, so when people stop in our welcome centers, we get data from them. We haven’t distributed the survey on mobile devices yet. But our online community can tap in, we have a mobile app for them so that it’s real time wherever they are.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the iconic tagline, “Virginia is for Lovers.” Do you do constant tracking? That’s really been the state’s tagline for years.
Yeah, over 40 years. Ever since I’ve worked with Virginia Tourism, so as a provider first, and now inside the building, “Virginia is for Lovers“ has been a mainstay of the questions. So understanding what people think about it. Looking at it aided, unaided, in terms of awareness among travelers in our target DMAs to people here. What did it mean before you came? And now you’ve experienced Virginia, what does it mean?
So we are looking at to try constantly to understand kind of the romance perspective versus the family perspective. So if you think about “Virginia is for Lovers“ romantically, it originated that way. And now we have a craft beer initiative that we’re working on. And it’s Virginia is for– little arrow up– craft beer lovers. We’ve got wine lovers, golf lovers, history lovers. So everybody kind of takes our assets and our drivers and usually says Virginia is for blank lovers.
Sometimes they’ll say “Virginia is for Lovers“ or whatever. But we also right now are really trying to communicate that Virginia is about love, pure and simple. And everything you love in a vacation you can find in Virginia. And trying to have more of a family messaging and imagery associated with that. And all of that comes from research, to understand what consumers are saying and thinking pre- and post-visit.
And certainly those who have never been here, what they think about it. How do we migrate that over, less romance, more family. So it’s at the very top of mind around here, and it’s asked a lot.
Fascinating stuff. Elizabeth McLaughlin, thank you so much for your time today. This has been very interesting and I appreciate you taking some time to share some insights on your daily life and how you work for the State of Virginia.
Thank you so much. Yeah, I love my job, and I’m glad to share it with you a little bit. Hope that it was interesting.
Oh, yes. Very much. Thank you.
OK. Great, Dana. Well, thank you.