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Visit Tampa Bay's Doug McClain used Tampa as a story line

Doug McClain led the shaping of “Unlock Tampa Bay.”
Doug McClain led the shaping of “Unlock Tampa Bay.”
Published Dec. 5, 2014

TAMPA — Doug McClain's job is marketing. His passion is storytelling. To him, they are one and the same.

There is one story, though, that he loves to tell above all others:

"Telling the story of where you live," he said, "is the best job you can have."

McClain, 46, had that job for the past 2 ½ years at Visit Tampa Bay, the publicly funded, privately run agency that markets Tampa and Hillsborough County to tourists and meeting planners alike.

His last day as Visit Tampa Bay's vice president of marketing and communications was Friday. He left for Newport Beach, Calif., where he'll become the No. 2 executive for the city's tourism arm.

His tenure here coincided with a pivotal time for Tampa/Hillsborough tourism: the agency lost one leader and gained another in current CEO Santiago Corrada; the county set a new bed tax record as the industry rebounded from the recession; the city hosted the Republican National Convention and the "Bollywood Oscars;" and Tampa finally found a brand to market itself as a vacation destination alongside the bay area tourism magnet known as the Pinellas beaches.

McClain led the shaping of Tampa's first-ever tourism brand: "Unlock Tampa Bay." It was designed to sell the culture, history and experiences of Tampa — everything from historic Ybor City to the Gasparilla parade to Busch Gardens' roller coasters — to attract visitors.

He actually started out as a journalism graduate from the University of Missouri. He was working in Chicago at Ad Age, which covers the advertising industry and the media, when — his words — he "fell in love with advertising."

That was more than two decades ago. Since then he has done marketing for hotel chains, the American Marketing Association and the map company Rand McNally.

Then he left Chicago for Kansas City, where he helped rebrand the city's tourism agency as Visit Kansas City (it had been known as the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association) and rebranded the city itself as "America's Creative Crossroads."

Before his last day, he talked to the Tampa Bay Times about his craft, Tampa's big tourism problem, and how that got fixed.

So how did you go from journalism to marketing?

Marketing is storytelling. I love the idea of telling a story and all of the marketing positions I've had — from hotels to the map company, everywhere I've worked — there's no better pride than marketing your own city. That's just amazing to me.

I could be marketing razor blades and widgets and anything, but to market your own city is fantastic. I fell in love with storytelling, and that's what marketing is.

How did you help come up with the "America's Creative Crossroads" brand for Kansas City?

Hallmark Cards is based there. It's a very creative city, a very cultural city, a lot of James Beard (award-winning) restaurants. We ran it as "America's Creative Crossroads" because it's kind of at the crossroads in the middle of the country.

I love branding. That's one of my favorite things, too.

What exactly is a brand?

Trying to find the story of a city, that's what a brand is. It's not just a brand. It's the DNA of the product or the destination, and finding that DNA is the hard part.

How do you find Tampa's brand?

We did tons of research. What did people think of us? We did focus groups all over North America.

So what's in Tampa's DNA?

You need to talk about the authentic cultural assets of the destination. There's over 700 miles of beaches in Florida, so there's beaches everywhere.

But a cultural, urban destination? There are far fewer in this state. That's what makes us unique.

You can get lost in the clutter with all the beaches. That's one of the major reasons people come here. That's how we stand out, I think.

But when Visit Tampa Bay did its research, your agency discovered that Tampa got low marks for authenticity — that tourists thought Orlando was more authentic than Tampa.

That was really the reason we were branding, because we didn't have a brand. We didn't even know who we are as a destination.

We can't expect our customer to expect we're authentic if we can't explain why we're authentic. It really showed us why we needed to have a brand.

"Unlocking Tampa Bay" was to position the historical and cultural assets of this destination. That's what differentiates us from some of the other destinations.

Now that Tampa has a brand, who is it aimed at?

The demographic of the customer we're seeking is the culture-seeking family. It's the family or young couple that's looking for a getaway adventure.

That's the heart of our brand: adventure. You can go anywhere else to ride a roller coaster. But can you do that while zipping through live cheetahs (at Busch Gardens)? Especially millennials. They don't want cookie cutter. They want something unique.

So what's the future of Hillsborough tourism look like?

I think we've just now started to tap the surface domestically with our new brand identity. We need to get the whole Gasparilla season out there. Not just the parade, but the season, from January to March, all around the world. That is our peak winter season.

The night and music festivals, the children's parade, all of those events are some of our major attractions. That's one of our key things that we're just on the verge of getting the word out around the world.

Gasparilla can go worldwide now.

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.