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Instagram is the perfect platform for sharing holiday photos – and you won’t miss home if your stay is punctuated with Insta-lovehearts. But one tourist board has bigger plans for this visual social media platform than a few holiday snaps. Instagram is fast becoming part of Costa Brava’s worldwide marketing strategy, with the aim of changing outdated perceptions of the region.

If I say Costa Brava, what would you say? Sun, sea, or sand? If, like me, you missed last year’s TBEX Conference Girona you might call to mind a beach strip studded with white high rise blocks, and restaurants offering menus with pictures instead of words. I did. And what did I base that opinion on? Pre-social media memories of orange BBC TV travel presenters sipping on sangria, 70s news reports of a boom in Spanish resorts that my parents couldn’t afford to take me to, and glossy brochures on travel agent shelves in the days when a ‘Trip Advisor’ was someone who sat at a desk in the shopping mall.

A region that has moved on

Perhaps that’s what the Costa Brava was then. But I know from a recent visit that’s not what it is now. Sure, you have your Lloret de Mar resorts filled with Brits that have turned an off-putting shade of tomato. But nowadays the region delivers cosmopolitan cities like Girona, cultural experiences like the Dali Museum, artist enclaves like Cadaques, and world class sailing and diving marinas like L’Estartit. And apart from one blip when all the food critics went to Copenhagen, it has continuously held the title of ‘best restaurant in the world.’

Held back by the past

Yet when I returned from Costa Brava, people only asked if I’d enjoyed my beach holiday. The region may have embraced the future, but the old image remains, hanging round like yesterday’s paella. For the Costa Brava Tourist Board this might be seen as something of a problem. But Jaume Marin, Marketing Director at Costa Brava Girona is upbeat. He believes most tourist boards have an outdated image or legacy to change.

“The most important thing about marketing is the perception. More than the reality. And every destination has problems with perception. Even places like New York have a mountain to climb,” says Jaume. “I think Barcelona has one of the strongest images for a destination in the world. Yet tourism is focussed on one part of the town, overloading the capacity of that part of town.”

A marketing man with a plan

Jaume is putting his belief in social media into action – or, more specifically, into a catchy little hashtag. In the time it has taken me to write this post someone will have probably looked at an image tagged #incostabrava. By the time you’ve read this article someone else is likely to have used that hashtag on a new image. Many of these pictures have sun, sea, and sand woven into the mix, but many others do not. There are pictures of spires and statues. Of alleyways and arches. Of markets and museums. Of forests and farmhouses. Of tall towers and top tables.

When I last checked there were 76,640 images on just that one hashtag. Jaume Marin believes that over time, hearts and minds can be changed through these single snaps that, together, make an almighty holiday album. But why would Instagram be more effective than leaflets and brochures? He argues that new generations are being influenced by social rather than traditional media and publicity.

“It’s no good if I say ‘The Costa Brava is more than beaches.’ Somebody else has to say it,” Jaume tells me. “If someone local says it, then it’s not the tourist board creating brand, but our own community creating it.”

Another part of his strategy is to bring expert bloggers and travellers out on a regular basis. “They have a big number of followers and people rely on them and believe them. In the past the tour operators were important and there were millions of brochures produced. But that is the past. Who creates the perceptions now? A campaign like Instagram is real and it’s authentic. Local people are part of it. And they are proud of it. This is a growing community.”

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Instadays filled with instalikes

The tourist board has been facilitating the growth of the hashtag by organising free Instagram days – free guided photo walks with Instagram experts on hand to offer tips – across the region. I attended one in Cadaques. It was a sunshine fiesta of 200 snappers and I was still looking at pictures of it on my phone several weeks later. And this free Instagram day was then repeated somewhere else. By the time I met Jaume in England in June, he had clocked up 14 of them, with another 18 in the pipeline.

But I was curious. Did he put so much faith in social media platforms that they were becoming central to his marketing strategy?

“Yes. We are switching,” he said, nodding. “We are a public administration and we don’t switch from one day to another, but in the end it depends on the people who are involved, and if I’m still there, we are going to switch.”

A measurable marketing expense

One of the advantages, he explains, is that social media is measurable, unlike other channels where he could put his marketing budget.

“The circulation of a newspaper might be 100,000. But how many people read it? I don’t know. And my advert might be on the 38th page. I don’t know how many people read the 38th page. With a blog I know how many people read it and for how many minutes.”

But he’s also aware that figures aren’t everything, even in tourism, and that sometimes accountability is taken a bit far.

“Are we going to measure how much people enjoy an exhibition? Is a hotel going to ask what the return is on changing the chairs? Or how many people benefited from changing a light bulb?” he asks with a shrug.

Expanding the network

Before he left England, Jaume was keen to track down UK Instagrammers.

“I would like to set up an Instagram day with the igersLondon and igersCostaBrava communities. If we met for a day and it was a failure then we would still have a great weekend. And if we met for a day and it was a success then Instagram days could be expanded all over Europe. And we would be the pioneers.”

Author Bio: Kirstie Pelling is one fifth of The Family Adventure Project, a website all about families getting active and having fun together. Along with husband and co-founder Stuart Wickes and their three children, the family have cycled more than 12,000 miles, across more than 20 countries. And with 20 years of journalism and travel experience under her belt, Kirstie is an expert in inspirational adventure writing. You can follow her and the family on Twitter @familyonabike, Facebook, G+, Instagram and YouTube.