LANSING — In the midst of launching new TV ads encouraging Michigan tourists to try Michigan craft beer or restaurants that specialize in farm-to-table meals, the state is falling short with some basic functionality of the trip-planning feature of its official travel website.
Namely, vacationers who want to use Michigan.org as a detailed planning tool can’t accurately gauge distances between attractions or their proximity to accommodations in the area.
“I am trying to determine distances from (The) Henry Ford and Greenfield Village to a campground,” wrote one prospective tourist. “I could not tell where these attractions were in relation to any of the campgrounds that displayed.”
“Sometimes the interactive maps are harder to navigate,” wrote another. “I needed something that showed area-to-area or city-to-city and how close they were (with the goal of planning to do things in two locations if they were close enough to each other, given limited time).”
This is a problem for state tourism promoters.
After years of false starts and trying to resolve problems on Michigan.org with patches and tweaks, Travel Michigan, the state’s tourism division, plans a full redesign of what is believed to be a decade-old website before the end of the year. Improving navigation and content will be priorities.
The Michigan Strategic Fund board last month awarded a $390,000 contract to Sarasota, Fla.-based Miles Media LLP for the website project. The company plans to incorporate more photos and videos, personalized content, social media and trip-planning tools as part of a site that is responsive to both desktop and mobile users.
Today, “it’s just not a very usable, intuitive site,” said Dave Lorenz, Travel Michigan’s vice president, adding that many people instead seek out regional convention and visitors bureau websites to find the information they want.
“The last thing we want to do is frustrate people when they come to the website and force them off,” Lorenz said. “That’s just wasting a lot of money and a lot of time. The website is an incredibly valuable tool — when it is delivered properly.”
Vowing ‘better maps’ and more
That’s not happening regularly, according to open-ended website feedback provided to Crain’s by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The research is conducted by Ann Arbor-based ForeSee, which measures customer experience and website usability for clients in such industries as retail, healthcare, consumer products, government and travel.
Visitors encountered broken links, incomplete events calendars, overly broad search results and, one user said, “a lot of useless info to sift through,” according to the feedback provided. Variations of the suggestion “better maps” came up repeatedly.
The challenge for Travel Michigan is to create a website that can respond to the needs of a diverse audience of residents who are familiar with the state and out-of-state visitors who are exploring it, said Tim Smith, president and CEO of Detroit-based creative firm Skidmore Studio.
“You have the user first in mind” with any successful website, Smith said. That is followed by a clean, simple design; navigation that anticipates what a user will be looking for and making those items easy to find; and, in Michigan’s case, better integration of the popular Pure Michigan campaign.
“Other than the Pure Michigan iconography and the brand mark, it makes some attempts at doing that with typography, but it doesn’t carry the brand,” Smith said.
Ironically, emphasis on the state’s $33 million Pure Michigan marketing campaign has kept the state from investing in its travel website: “Because we’ve been putting our resources into other marketing efforts,” Lorenz said, “we haven’t kept up with the time and changed with the new technology.”
He said he doesn’t remember when the tourism website last was redesigned, but for years it has been subject to so many small, back-end adjustments that future technical fixes aren’t possible.
Travel Michigan has tried to jump-start the project at least twice before. The request for proposals that produced the Miles Media contract was the third such request in more than a year.
Finding a match in Florida
Miles Media won the current website contract over 21 other companies that submitted bids, including 12 based in Michigan.
At least two others have done work for the state — MRM/McCann, based in Birmingham, whose sister advertising firm McCann Erickson is the agency of record for Travel Michigan and produces the Pure Michigan ads, and Lansing-based Gravity Works Design LLC, which redesigned the official state government site, Michigan.gov.
Critics say the state should have found a Michigan-based company to do Michigan marketing work, though Lorenz said the decision was based on the recommendation of a committee that evaluates proposals based on both price and value.
The committee, which included marketing staff and industry professionals, considered only bid amounts of finalists — a process Lorenz called standard in the industry, to avoid biases or favoritism when choosing a vendor.
Smith said Skidmore Studio saw the state’s request for bids and opted not to submit one, saying the process can cost a bidding firm at least $100,000 to prepare a proposal and the chances of landing a government contract are slim.
Regardless, Smith said, the choice of vendor is hard to defend.
“We really do need to invest in the state, but they don’t see that their own actions contradict that very message,” he said. “They’re not investing in Michigan firms, even though Michigan firms bid on it.”
Roger Miles, founder and CEO of Miles Media, bought the company in the 1990s. It had its start as a producer of travel brochures and pamphlets, the kind often found in hotel lobbies.
Today, 90 percent of its work is digital, said Doug Luciani, Miles Media’s communications and branding vice president.
The company employs about 200 people and has more than $50 million in annual net revenue, Luciani said. That figure is projected to grow by 10 percent in the next year.
Miles works exclusively with the tourism industry. Clients include more than a dozen state tourism departments, along with regional visitors bureaus, international travel agencies, resorts and airports.
It has not worked directly with Michigan before, said Luciani, who added that he has seen Pure Michigan ads. However, the company has worked on behalf of the state through Brand USA, a public-private organization that works with the tourism industry and the federal government to market the U.S. as a vacation destination to international travelers.
“The current website is not only dated in design and content, but performs only modestly in seasons outside of summer,” the company wrote in its proposal. “The site is backwards-looking in its key capabilities and features around content, personalization, measurement, monetization and social media integration.
Miles Media will hire Brighton-based digital marketing agency TwoSix Digital as a subcontractor, though the scope of work and subcontract value have not yet been decided.
Dave Serino, TwoSix Digital’s founder and strategist, said his company is a small consulting firm that would not have bid on the project itself.
TwoSix Digital and Miles Media have collaborated on projects dating back 10 years, Serino said, including marketing work in Louisiana and New Zealand.
Serino’s background is in the tourism industry. He said he helped develop a website for the Ann Arbor regional convention and visitors bureau in the mid-1990s as its marketing director and later worked on an early email marketing program for the state.
TwoSix Digital was founded in January 2014. It offers clients help with strategy and digital and social media platforms.
“We are going to be the local experts” on the website project, Serino said. “Miles has all the tools, all the expertise and the development end, and we’re bringing our local relationships and our local expertise.”