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CMO50 2020 #26-50: Tony Quarmby

  • Name Tony Quarmby
  • Title Executive general manager, marketing
  • Company Northern Territory
  • Commenced role October 2017
  • Reporting Line Deputy CEO Department Tourism & Culture
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 5 direct reports; 39 in team
  • Industry Sector Tourism
  • 2019 ranking 26-50
  • Related

    Brand Post

    This year has proven to Tony Quarmby his marketing team is even more resilient than he hoped. "Working in an industry that’s on its knees due to COVID-19 and coming in to work every day single-mindedly focused on supporting local businesses, who employ one in eight Territorians, has been a challenge but with new campaign approaches, incentive sales schemes and business support programs they have reacted stoically," he told CMO. "Even when their roles have changed and uncertainty has permeated the office they have remained focused on delivering the necessary outcomes."

    While the usual way of working is with a ten-year plan and a long-term strategic focus, more recently they have become more adaptive, sometimes instantly - changing campaigns and programs multiple times, often with little to no sufficient notice has been a new experience. "As a result, I can consider outcomes, consequences, multiple alternatives and left field scenarios through an ‘anything can happen’ lens, building adaptability into everything, He said. "After all, in 2020, anything really can happen."

    Marketing effectiveness

    Awareness and visitation for the ‘Top End’ has significantly declined over recent years and even the few people who were aware of the destination had inaccurate, outdated and often negative perceptions. "To reverse decades old negative perceptions and the decline in visitation I had to reimagine our marketing approach," Quarmby said.

    To change perception takes time and a large budget and with government elections looming and politicians demanding instant results, a perception changing campaign based on era defining content was needed that would also drive instant sales by reaching people authentically and emotionally. "Top End Wedding was born," he said.

    A tourism marketing first, it was the first time a state tourism marketing body has successfully created a global box office movie, aligned it with a web series and then integrated it with tourism sales partners. While the project wasn’t without its challenges, making a movie was brand new ground for NT Tourism and there was no guarantee a tourism body would be able to secure the private investment required to fund an entire movie. "I also had to convince the board and minister to sign on even though we had to remain in the background in terms of Tourism NT’s involvement," he said.

    "To secure a production company we had to guarantee  we would not inform the public  the film was essentially a 90-minute brand building vehicle. So we stayed hidden and instead leveraged the movie through the media, the web series and featured tourism experiences."

    Top End Wedding premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released on almost 300 cinemas across Australia. One of only 116 films selected out of almost 15,000 entries worldwide. It was also the number two Australian film for 2019 and well inside the top 100 Australian films of all time. Perceptions changed and by December 2019, the NT recorded two million visitors for the first time on record with a total expenditure of $2.6 billion.

    Influencing change

    By the end of 2019 the Northern Territory visitation results and forecasts for growth were outpacing all other Australian jurisdictions. Northern Territory surpassing national growth figures and five-year averages (for the year ending September 2019), but in December 2019 the Australian bushfires starting making global news, the reports of a virus outbreak in China then followed. The outlook for tourism businesses in the Northern Territory turned almost instantly from the most optimistic position in 30 years into business survival.

    Following National border closures on 24 March, the NT borders closed to all interstate visitors. The impact on the NT tourism industry was swift and devastating as the pandemic outbreak also timed with the start of the NT’s peak tourism season placing higher financial duress on NT tourism operators. The Territory tourism operators make 90 per cent of their revenue from April – October so the timing could not have been worse.

    "Day-to-day my CMO role had to also change from a focus on marketing, sales and consumer engagement to one of community communication, risk management, economic support and product development. At the outset my new tasks were to provide strategic and practical advice on health requirements, travel restrictions, product distribution and cash flow survival strategies for the NT tourism operators. I also changed the marketing team structure from being internationally focused to local and community focused with the first job being for us to talk to every tourism operator in the NT," Quarmby said.

    Data-led marketing

    This year COVID-19 has created increased challenges in the way his day-to-day CMO role operates, with new strategic approaches, activities and outcomes now required. "With international travel off the table for the foreseeable future, we had to double down on the local consumers and the Australian market. We also had to support the wider travel trade and travel retailers as the industry is interdependent," Quarmby explained.

    "The partnership I had developed over a number of years with Australia’s leading travel publication, Australian Traveller (AT), had proved invaluable and during this crisis it was to do so again. The initial partnership was the first travel magazine data sharing partnership established in Australia. The core deliverables were aimed at ensuring Northern Territory content was available across more third-party platforms increasing the share of voice in the domestic leisure market and generating sales opportunities for industry to leverage," he said.

    "And the truly unique deliverable of the partnership was the in-depth digital tracking and monitoring of individual consumer behaviour which allowed us to discover what content inspires, educates and triggers actual conversion. In response I switched from my normal CMO duties into influencing the Northern Territory COVID tourism response strategy, starting with representation on the National Tourism Incident Committee helping inform the National Tourism Incident Communication Plan."    

    Although the concept was not new, the actual technology, platform integration and partnership model had never been tried before. The platform helped the NT outperform all other Australian jurisdictions in 2019 and during COVID-19 has allowed it to monitor constantly changing consumer sentiment specific to the NT, in real-time, allowing it to know who, when and what to say as travel intention returns.

    CX capability

    With a population base of only 250,000 Territorians, without interstate and international travellers the ability for Territorians to financially support the tourism sector on top of hospitality, sporting facilities and retail sectors is unrealistic. "But we have a great marketing team and among their own COVID-19 worries they rolled out business saving recovery programs," Quarmby noted.

    "NT locals love their cars, love camping, love fishing and love nature, but they’re not used to paying for local tourism experiences, they believe, they’re for tourists. So one concept we developed stimulated locals to book experiences through an incentive of a $1 for $1 matched funding up to $200," he said. "This had never been attempted from a tourism body before due to the complexity and diverse nature of the numerous digital platforms and booking processes. Especially considering the majority of tourism businesses in the NT are micro- businesses with owner operators often working from a Collins diary rather than an industry standard integrated distribution booking system. "

    For this concept to work for consumers we had to find a solution that could incorporate every NT tourism business, big or small. NT Tourism contacted and tested every tourism digital booking platform but no solution was workable. "So we built our own," Quarmby said. "Through a backend technology system (Bookeasy) and utilising the local regional tourism organisations as the retail partners and a German-based voucher system called Passcreator."

    Trying to digitally integrate the smaller tourism businesses, then juggle governance issues, commission structures, competing pricing and political COVID-19 agendas proved challenging but all 26,000 vouchers were snapped up within nine hours. "We weren’t able to keep every business open but those that have benefited were able to stretch their cash flow until the interstate borders reopened. Tasmania and Western Australia are now rolling out similar initiatives with others states and Austrade showing interest."

    Commercial acumen

    The global pandemic has exacerbated the challenge the Territory has in trying to keep businesses generating cash-flow. One in three interstate visitors to the NT having never visited before, whereas across Australia there is a significantly higher familiarity with Australian states. "This means the NT has to work harder to inform interstate markets about its tourism offerings and to overcome misconceptions regarding the destination," Quarmby noted.

    Knowing the Top End Wedding project was changing perceptions and destination awareness was skyrocketing NT Tourism maximised the remaining 2019/20 budget around the growth areas seen through the previous year’s sales partnerships. This included making partnerships work harder through data usage, product alignment and media efficiencies. With less budget and less activities our targets were lower than 2018/19 but the end results were surpassing the previous year’s sales by 30 per cent until the bushfire and COVID-19 started to impact travel. "By financial year end and with virtually no results from February onwards we still managed to exceed the adjusted sales targets by 37 per cent," he said.

    COVID-19 innovation

    The need to react rapidly to COVID-19 health restrictions and the need to stimulate cash flow on top of the changes to travel distribution, consumer sentiment, demand and its organisational structure, Quarmby noted we are living in a different world. "Compounding the loss of international travel the interstate border closures have reduced visitation by 75-80 per cent as our customer base was instantly shut off," he said.

    The NT’s small population base has always meant it has a higher reliance on international and interstate visitors. But with every crisis brings an array of opportunities to productively adapt, act and evolve. "To start we re-defined what our focus, strategy and leadership needs are versus what they were, to ensure we can effectively lead, plan and enable operational transformation through creativity. One example is through continually reworking the consumer approach through data, digital tracking, UX design and by adapting the creative messaging to be relevant to the current consumer mindset," Quarmby.

    "We have had to adjust staffing roles to realign to where the increasing demand and value now resides," he said. This has meant a switch from global partnership marketing to local pricing and digital presence, from international product distribution to Regional Tourism Organisation membership pitching. "And we have redesigned team structures by creating holistic and cross functional teams to encapsulate health, policing, border restrictions and transportation logistics to enable us to integrate and adjust to any obstacles that impede efficiency and effectiveness."

    "And finally we have had to implement deeper management expertise across tourism businesses to create a sustainable and resilient tourism operator base so they can maximise the remaining high season and survive the low travel summer season ready to come out swinging in 2021.

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