128: Make Your People Happy With Danny Cohanpour


Danny Cohanpour is the CEO of Trove Tourism Development Advisors, a New York-based digital strategy and marketing agency that helps tourism authorities, boards, associations and tour companies improve international visitor growth through innovation. We discuss the ingredients to successfully market a tourist destination, how to run a global tourism team, and the state of the post-pandemic tourism space.

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Make Your People Happy With Danny Cohanpour

I have Danny Cohanpour, the CEO of Trove Tourism Development Advisors, a New York-based digital strategy and marketing agency that helps tourism authorities, boards, associations, and tour companies improve international visitor growth through innovation.

Danny, welcome to the show.

Thank you very much for having me. I’m excited.

I don’t think we ever had someone from the tourism sector on the show, especially your niche, advising countries on how to attract tourism looks very unique. How did you land in this tourism marketing field? How does one discover this space?

First of all, thanks for having me. I appreciate being your first tourism person on the show, especially coming off the heels of such a tough time for the industry. I’m excited to be able to represent. I’ve worked in the tourism and government space for about ten years, looking at how to help tourism boards, which are, in most cases, government agencies or government adjacent. I help them better represent their destinations abroad. I’ve been doing that for many years, but I decided to start my company a couple of years ago because of a trip that I took that inspired me. I can get into that a little bit later.

For the most part, I’ve been in this space for a while. It’s also extremely important. With COVID, it wiped out, for the most part, travel for about a year and a half. There was constant strategizing. We were like, “How do we get it started again? What do we have to do? What innovations do we have to implement?” All of those best practices came to the fold, and we were able to bring them into Trove.

What are the critical ingredients to this business and to be successful in marketing destination? I saw that you were working with Cambodia. What do you need to do in order to make this a success?

Every engagement that we have with a tourism board has a similar blueprint of how we approach it, but every client is vastly different. What I say is, to account for that, we approach a conversation usually with about a two-and-a-half-hour call where we try to understand what their actual needs are. In all cases, they’re different depending on the destination.

For instance, Cambodia’s focus is not on bringing visitors to the temples as they’ve done for years. It’s about diversifying that product so visitors can go all around Cambodia, a beautiful country full of flora, fauna, and beautiful beaches that nobody knows about. It’s about how to extend that a little bit and disperse them a little bit better. That was the goal in Cambodia. We only gained that from being able to sit with them for about two and a half hours, understanding who they wanted to target, how they wanted to target them, and how they’ve been doing it before, and looking at what’s worked in the past for Cambodia and what some of the opportunities are.

Also, for every project, we have software that we have configured in-house that tells us what people are saying online about a destination. All social media channels, online channels, blogs, and Reddit forums, we try to understand what people are saying about this destination and how we are going to be able to take all that information and bring it forward. We use that for every single project, but we gain valuable insights that are different for every destination.

That is interesting. Do you encounter when your prospective client or your actual client is surprised that the conversation is about different places than what they would expect it to be?

Yes. In a lot of cases, there is that distinction between what we think it’s going to be, what our client thinks it’s going to come out of it, and what comes out of it. We find that, in most cases, there is a difference because destinations have long been working on these marketing campaigns. They’ve been focusing on a target market that’s worked for years, but after 2020, everything was turned on its head. We have found that, especially in the last few years, there’s been a major difference in target markets and what kind of things that people are looking for. They’re not looking to go into the sweltering heat of an urban city anymore. They’re looking to get out there, do new things, and see different things.

After 2020, tourists are no longer looking to go into the heat of an urban city. They want to get out of there and see different things. Click To Tweet

The people that are traveling are different. Backpackers are increasing the amount that they’re spending. Destinations have, for so long, looked down on backpackers. For many years, they have looked down on backpackers as major spenders, but the trends in how much backpackers spend, for example, have changed over time. We have seen what destinations expect to see in tourism versus what’s happening in reality. There are major differences there.

You work all over the world because all these destinations are in remote areas. How do you recruit employees, and how do you keep them engaged? We talked about this before that you have a global workforce and you are running the business from New York. How do you, first of all, engage your people, and how do you keep them motivated? How do you keep them connected to your culture? What is your blueprint for them?

This is the number one critical success factor of the business. This is what I learned in working in government consulting for ten years. It is that people need to be happy to come to work. Especially with COVID, the tourism industry was in disarray. Many people lost their jobs. They didn’t have a home to go to, not in terms of where they slept every day, but in terms of their office. The industry was put on its toes in terms of, “Where do we go next?” Tourism professionals were looking for that home away from home at their companies and at their jobs.

When I started hiring people, I thought, “What do I have to do to make sure that we’re utilizing the best that this person has to offer? What is their specialty in the tourism industry? Is it urban heritage? Is it tourism marketing? Is it digital in tourism and digital tools in tourism? What is their specialty, and then how do I bring that to the fold?” Almost always, in 99% of cases, the way to bring that to service and bring that to customers is by making sure that the person is happy on the day-to-day.

I’m like, “Are you happy?” I tend to ask that every day. All of our client workshops incorporate that element. That’s the number one thing that I learned from my previous employer. The number one thing that I learned in business is if people are not happy every day, it’s not going to translate. I don’t tend to ask people constantly, “Where is this? Where is that? Where are your deliverables?” That’s stuff we cover and that’s stuff I see already. If it’s not evident, it usually is. I tend to instead focus my time with the team on, “How are you doing? Are you happy? Does this make you happy? What’s causing you problems in your personal life and professional life?” Being open like that is the only way I’ve been able to start my business and the only way I’ve been able to grow and scale the team over time.

People respond to that. What about the different cultures that people come from? In some cultures, people are more open to sharing. Others maybe are more reticent. Do you find that this question works with everyone, or do you have to mix your approach up a little bit?

The question works for everybody because it meets them where they’re at. They don’t need to share everything about their personal life. I tend to become very close with the teams that I work with. The teams become close together. Not only am I asking these questions, but we’ve coached each other to do one-on-one touch bases when new people join to make sure that they’re working together and understanding where they’re coming from.

I tend to try to disperse that methodology across the team. Usually, if somebody’s a little bit more guarded, that’s also okay because they tell me how they’re reacting to the client. What is the client causing them to feel? What are the emotions based on the work that they’re doing? What are the emotions based on what they’re doing day-to-day?

I send them to an event, which happens a lot. We go to a lot of events. The tourism industry is an industry that is big on events. Zoom didn’t take off in the tourism industry. The first thing I ask is not, “How many business cards did you get?” It’s, “What do you feel about the event? How did it make you feel? What did you gain out of it? Did it teach you something in a new way?” That’s more important than the strict numbers. That’s how you grow a team of people that are fond of one another.

Learning something new is always more important than just being strict numbers. That is how you grow a team of passionate people. Click To Tweet

They’re people who are passionate about tourism but can bring that passion to one another. I have to say that that’s the most important part of any business. It’s the most important part of my business. We have software tools and analytics tools that we use. It’s all great, but it doesn’t work if you don’t have people who are happy and can be ambassadors for what you’re trying to do, it doesn’t work.

People are the most important asset. I like to say that every other asset in the company depends on your people to manage them. People must be the most important.

Especially in consulting and marketing, that’s what you have. That’s your asset. We’re not selling a product. We’re selling our expertise. We’re a virtual workforce most of the time. We have a small office that we go into, but it’s not where we do a lot of our work. We’re a virtual office all around the world most of the time. How do we keep that motivation alive? That’s critical. That’s number one for me.

I understand. One-on-one, you ask the question, “Are you happy?” You get a conversation, figure out what’s going on and what’s stopping them from being happy, and make action. What about creating connections across the team? You are dispersed all over the world. How do you get people engaged with each other, so it’s not a hub and spoke system, or is it that?

It’s not that. What we do is anytime somebody new joins, they usually have a specialty. I brought somebody on that is a digital marketing specialist in tourism. That means they know how to promote destinations online and what channels to use. That’s fantastic because it’s our bread and butter. I was able to link her up with somebody in our team that is an urban planning specialist. That’s what she does. They were talking for about seven months. They had calls every week to catch up, learn about what each other’s working on, and learn about different trends. They met in person in Rhode Island. We had an event in Rhode Island and they were able to make a connection.

A while ago, a project came up that we won that was around urban planning and digital marketing for a destination. Both of their skills came together in a seamless way. Had I left it to be a hub and spoke, that would’ve never happened. It wouldn’t have been as seamless as a team as we’ve been seeing. I tend to disperse it more. The team is reaching out to one another. The team is working directly with one another.

Also, usually, they’re based on opposite sides of the world in most cases. One of our digital marketing consultants is spending three months in Mauritius. That’s because I trust her to do work and I trust her that that’s where it makes her most happy. On the contrary, our urban planning specialist is based right here in the States. They were able to work together even remotely in very different time zones. They not only established a time that works, which is more tactical but established, “What is our rhythm? How can we get to know each other? How can we learn about what each other does?” It’s so dispersed. It’s so distinct. That’s how I set teams up usually.

What is the setup of a typical team? Let’s say you have a client engagement. Let’s say it is Cambodia or something else. You’re doing marketing and strategic planning. You do research. What does a team setup look like? You probably have local people who can speak the local language. You’ve got the relationships. How do you construct your teams?

It is usually about 50% my in-house folks, about 30% local folks, and then about 10% to 20% any amount of folks that I need to hire for a very specific thing. That’s how I set up the team usually. There are three different types of goals that a client usually will have in the tourism space. A tourism board will come to us or we’ll go to them, and there are three usual goals. The first one is to develop their leisure tourism. The second is to develop their meetings and events tourism. We call it MICE in the industry. It is Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions.

The last tranche is tourism investment promotion. We’re like, “How do we develop more inbound investment into a tourism destination?” Those are the three areas in which we help destinations stand out. All of those have similar team structures where it’s about 50% to 60% my team, about 20% to 30% people that are local, and then about 10% to 20% people that we need to find with a very specific specialty.

For instance, we had a project with Aruba, which is an amazing destination. That was a project that was a meeting and events tourism. It is a project where we worked with them on a digital marketing campaign called One Happy Planner to promote Aruba to the business meeting and event planners. That team was structured. It was about 4 to 5 people that were in-house from our team that we brought to the fold that are specialists in tourism and marketing.

We had one, in that case, the new person that we were able to hire that was a specialist in a certain kind of business event that you don’t necessarily see every day called incentives. We then had two people local to Aruba. That’s typically how we approach a project. If you don’t have that local edge, you are not going to succeed because you need that sustainability as you develop and as you work with the client or as you work with the destination.

When approaching any tourism project, you always need a local edge. You won't succeed without it. Click To Tweet

In most cases, consulting firms will lie to you if they say, “In 100% of the cases, we have everybody in-house.” I didn’t have somebody that knew a very specialist form of business event and I was able to find somebody and bring them on the team. It defers based on goal, but in terms of team structure, we focus on what we have on the team or our great expertise. We usually augment it with local specialists.

You’ve got in-house people, local people that you hire perhaps for a temporary period, and then specialist contractors. You’re molding them all together. They’re dispersed in different time zones. It’s going to be a challenging task to do.

It’s fun. If the project succeeds, we tend to continue to do work in the destination, and we’ve been seeing that. We tend to be able to be hired consistently year after year based on the work that we’ve done. Usually, that stems from the expertise the team brings, but how we best contextualize it in the environment that we’re working in. If we’re developing a marketing campaign to promote tourism to the Pacific Islands, which we do, how do we contextualize that for the various islands in the Pacific?

It is the sustainability element of how you have to keep tourism sustainable. How do you have to keep tourism interesting for the residents and beneficial for the residents? How do you promote the things that are not necessarily what you want to see every day in those books and the guidebooks, but maybe new gems or new things that are unique about the destination? We try to incorporate all those elements. That’s how we get rehired.

Something caught my eye. One of your posts on LinkedIn talks about virtual reality being used in the tourism industry. What is the application? What does it look like?

With virtual reality, they tried to get it off the ground for consumers or everyday travelers to use during certain instances during the pandemic. That, in my analysis, has not come off the ground because looking at a destination through a headset, albeit cool, is not going to quench your appetite in terms of your wanting to go. That’s declined over time. What has increased over time is using XR and VR for trade or for travel agents to be able to better sell the destination to clients. We have seen that increase over time where destinations and travel agents are using VR to understand places better and be able to sell those places.

Oftentimes, travel agents are not just selling one destination. They’re usually selling twenty-plus destinations. We meet them all the time. Every day, I’m meeting travel advisors or travel agents that are selling more than one place. It is often 10-plus, 20-plus, or 30-plus places to a variety of different audiences. They need to understand the unique things to do, places to be, and people that are in every destination. I’ve seen great tech in that space, but in terms of putting a headset on a consumer, thinking that’s going to quench their appetite, that does not work.

The whole thing about travel is that you want to put yourself into the experience and live the experience.

You got to be there. You could travel an hour away to somewhere near your home that’s different and unique. That’s still travel. That’s an amazing travel experience. You’ll find little gems here and there. Going there, the immersive experience is, in my opinion, not one that can be completely replaced by VR or XR tools. At Trove, we do a lot of trend analysis almost every other month. We’re doing a white paper report about a different topic, whether it’s a digital trend in tourism, as we talked about, or whether it’s trends in meetings or in Millennial travel. These are things that we’re constantly doing to stay abreast of what’s coming in the industry in the next 6 to 12 months.

In the nick of a night, you’ll see things change. You’ll see a new pandemic come to the surface. You’ll see something come up that the industry was not prepared for. That happens in every industry, but travel especially because it requires people to move around. Staying abreast of what those potential risks are and staying abreast of some of the new tech in tourism is super interesting to us and is something that we’re continuing to do.

Before we wrap up, what are some of the trends that you’re seeing in the post-pandemic travel world?

We see so many. Let me tell you. You’ll be shocked at the rates of travel. All parts of the world have gone up significantly and, in most cases, have met or surpassed 2019 levels, which is fantastic. They are going to very different places. We’ve seen search results and bookings for outdoor activities, wellness activities, and water-based activities go up significantly post-2019.

We’ve also seen people traveling in groups a lot more. Those folks that are traveling in groups, in most cases, are booking through a travel advisor because they feel that if they are going in a large group, they need that extra protection. They need somebody to help guide them. We have also found, similarly, folks that are going individually are not going with a travel advisor. They’re figuring things out on the go. They want a little bit more of a trip that’s planned by them and customized by them.

We are seeing what we call free independent traveler rates go up, but not as fast as group travel. Parts of the world are opening up more quickly than other parts. American travelers are traveling to parts of the US, which are Central, South America, and the Caribbean, but they’re also going to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific at higher rates, especially in the last couple of months than were expected. Why? It is because they’re new destinations that folks didn’t travel to prior to the pandemic in large volume. These are places that are starting to open up.

They go to parts of the Middle East, like Dubai, but other parts of the Emirates, like Bahrain. Qatar is coming up for the World Cup. They go to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Fiji surpassed the visitor numbers that they expected. They also go to parts of Southeast Asia. These are new places that people, in most cases, had not been traveling to in such a large volume. It’s starting to increase so quickly.

These are some of the things that we’ve been seeing at Trove. There are consumer sentiment indexes that we do that say that people are looking for safety, number one, and enjoyment of travel, number two. We’ve seen that in most cases across the world. Barring 1 or 2 destinations, the requirements to enter destinations have significantly decreased. It’s a lot looser and more flexible to enter. In most destinations, you don’t need the documentation that you did prior. It defers based on destination. For the most part, it’s becoming a lot more flexible because the industry has realized the importance of the visitor. The residents have realized that as well. Doing that in an easy way for that visitor is critical.

The last thing I’ll say and the last trend that is important and top of mind is that people spoke about sustainable tourism as a concept for many years. They were like, “What does it mean? How do we implement it?” It’s coming to reality. In about 80% of cases, destinations are constantly thinking, “How do we incorporate sustainability,” meaning environmental and social sustainability, “in terms of what we do on a day-to-day? How do we bring in visitors in a way that is not going to wreck the town that we operate in?” That is hyper-critical. That action has started to happen because of a three-year gap in the industry where it’s a bit of a refresh, recap, and redo in terms of how we approach tourism. These are all exciting things. There will be a lot of upward growth for the industry.

We have Danny Cohanpour, CEO of Trove Tourism Development Advisors. If you are connected to the tourism of a unique destination and want someone who will figure out what the uniqueness is about, what is the conversation going on, and who should be targeted with what strategy, then Danny is your man. If people would like to learn more, where can they find you? How can they connect with you and your team?

TroveTourism.com is our website. You can follow us at @TroveTourism on Instagram. On LinkedIn, we are Trove Tourism Development Advisors. We’re constantly posting about travel and tourism. If you’re interested in that space at all, which, in most cases, people are, check us out.

Thanks a lot for coming to the show and sharing your treasure trove of ideas and concepts with us.

I love that end tagline. Thanks so much. I appreciate you.

Thank you.


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