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Q&A With Visit Estes Park CEO Kara Franker
February 7, 2024
By Matt Swenson
Estes Park

As a former NFL cheerleader, Kara Franker is accustomed to rooting for the home team. In the DMO world, few do so with more passion than the CEO of Visit Estes Park. As the base for many visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park, the destination has a home field advantage when attracting tourists. But there is a responsibility the CVB gladly accepts to protect the town and its neighboring national park. Here, we talk to Franker, co-host of the eTourism Summit April 2-4, in Las Vegas, about balancing sustainability with bringing in valuable tourists.

Estes Park

Estes Park is a natural draw for anyone visiting the Rockies. Given that selling point, what are the essentials in promoting the destination to visitors?

Estes Park is really something special – it’s a destination that attracts a mix of visitors, from families to couples and solo travelers, looking for everything from luxury vacation homes to affordable accommodations. And our marketing is all about highlighting those options, from comfy stays to exciting adventures and events for every taste. It’s a year-round destination, so summer is all about outdoor fun, winter is like stepping into a real-life snow globe, and fall is when the leaves show off while the elk do their famous rut. But above all, Estes Park’s mountain town charm and incredible location outside Rocky Mountain National Park keep people coming back for more. We love sharing that story with the world.

One of Estes Park’s charms is its manageable size. How do you balance maintaining what is charming about it vs. trying to bring in as many visitors as possible?

We’re a small town with a big reputation and it’s important to manage this well. So, in our slower seasons, which are winter and spring, we strive to draw in more visitors and we seek to extend the season. Come summer and fall, when everyone wants to be in the mountains, we focus on sustainable tourism and education. One of the ways we do this is through our “Do Estes Right” series, which includes bite-sized videos that teach responsible travel practices. We also take on the role of a destination management organization by working closely with our local businesses to understand their needs and shift our focus as needed to best help them.

What sorts of media and social media have you found are most effective for reaching audiences?

We’re very active on social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, keeping the conversation going to attract visitors in every season. We find that there’s a different audience on each platform and we adjust our content to suit those audiences. Our media plan primarily focuses on digital media, which gives us measurable results and allows for better optimization and personalization. Paid social media is a huge part of that picture and allows us to be very nimble in our approach.

Estes Park Cowboy Brad

How has, if at all, destination marketing changed since the pandemic?

Destination marketing has absolutely changed since the pandemic. When social distancing was a top priority, outdoor destinations like Estes Park became a hot spot, so we had to shift our game plan from solely destination marketing to full-on destination management to protect the place we hold so dear. Plus, our marketing strategy got a revamp, too, with a new focus on diversifying markets and adapting to seasonal changes, while making sure to shore up our busy season to keep the visitation going strong. This pivot turned out to be a game-changer. It not only helps keep the visitor flow steady but also gives the local economy a boost throughout the entire year.

Storytelling is someone you hear a lot from CVBs and tourism agencies these days. As a media member yourself, what are some of the keys to telling your story correctly?

Storytelling is not just a strategy for us, it’s how we stand out in a world filled with options. We meet travelers where they consume media the most, delivering everything from immersive long-form blogs to snappy short-form videos. This crafts an emotional bridge back to Estes Park. We weave together tales of adventure, local stories and only-in-Estes businesses through the work of our talented staff writers and our in-house photographer. It’s not just about showcasing Estes Park, it’s about making every traveler feel like they are a part of the story.

Estes Park

What technology do you have your eye on to boost destination marketing?

As soon as AI started to become a buzzword, we fully embraced its inevitable role in the future of travel marketing. We saw AI as a huge opportunity and created two white-label AI tools, one outward-facing for consumers and one internal.

First, we launched the internal HappyPlaces+ AI tool for team efficiency. It’s an internal-facing GenAI model that is tapped into ChatGPT. We trained it on our website content, brand voice, things to do, events and partners while ensuring secure data handling. This tool can help us write in our Visit Estes Park voice and generates SEO-friendly words and phrases. The team uses it daily, making them faster and allowing them more time to focus on larger tasks.

On the consumer side, we partnered with Matador Network’s GuideGeek to create our AI travel planning assistant, the Rocky Mountain Roamer. We just rolled it out and it’s now available to the public. Travelers can access it via a QR code on WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, or directly on our website. It delivers trip advice, itineraries, travel route information and even booking options. And in the future, we’re hopeful it will allow real-time messaging with visitors while they are in the destination.

How you see AI fitting into destination marketing? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

I believe that everyone in the destination marketing space is going to need to embrace AI in order to stay competitive and that’s why we’ve focused so heavily on it early on. While learning how to use AI can seem overwhelming at first, it is worth the time and the effort to develop that skill set. If you’re ambitious, curious and creative, or you’re someone who cares about quality, AI can give you and your team superpowers, making you better and faster at creating killer content or analyzing data.

Photo Credit: Visit Estes Park

Have a story idea or want to be featured? Email Matt Swenson at [email protected].

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