Quebec City has long been a huge draw for tourists around the world, but travel restrictions in Canada during the pandemic meant that Destination Québec cité (DQC) had to turn its focus to tourists at home. Working with marketing agency Adviso, the team pivoted in 2021 to create a diversified advertising strategy that completely changed how they marketed their city to potential visitors. Here, Philippe Caron, director of digital marketing at DQC, describes how they took on the challenge of saving a difficult summer for Quebec City’s hotels and businesses.
Quebec City has always had a predictable influx of international tourists. In fact, much of our city’s economy is built around tourism’s seasonal rhythms. So when the pandemic hit in 2020 and travel ground to a halt, the city — and our tourism operation — faced an alarming situation.
By March 2021, occupancy rates in Quebec City hotels were at a shockingly low 5%. (By comparison, Vancouver’s occupancy rate was at 40%, Montreal’s at 21%, and Toronto’s at around 30%.) With international travel restricted, we knew we would need to focus our efforts on drawing fellow Canadians to Quebec City.
But we were facing an uphill battle here too: The province of Quebec, at times, had tighter COVID restrictions than many other parts of Canada, so even domestic visitors were staying away. People who were travelling domestically tended to seek outdoor options more than the indoor adventures offered in a place like Quebec City. And the province kept adjusting its policies, leading to shops and restaurants being open one week, and closed the next. Many cities were facing similar challenges. Planning ahead became extremely hard for business owners, marketers, and potential visitors alike.
With 70% of Quebec City’s tourism typically happening in the summer months, which makes up half the year’s revenue, we wanted to pull out all the stops to ensure we had a successful high season. We teamed up with Adviso and Google to create a marketing campaign and strategy unlike any we’ve tried before — and we ended up with a 55% occupancy rate in August, which was No. 1 in the country.
Here’s how we turned it around.
Grabbing the attention of domestic audiences
In the past, our ad campaigns have been focused on international travellers, but now we had to reach domestic tourists. The goal was to create a unique message that would persuade Canadians to come to Quebec City. We decided to interview real people from around the world who love Quebec City and travel there regularly, and let them talk about how much they wished they could visit. From Mexico to Israel to Korea, frequent visitors told us what they loved and missed about the city, and urged Canadians to visit because they were lucky to have it on their doorstep.
The spots really hit home — they were personal and heartfelt during a time when there was a lot of emotional intensity in the air.
We knew we needed to reach a domestic audience, and thanks to the pandemic, Canadians were cocooning at home with their laptops, phones, and TV screens.
We were thrilled with the power of the campaign’s message, but it was essential that we delivered it to the right people at the right time. This is where our teams at Adviso and Google really helped us.
We turned to YouTube to help us find the right audiences for our message online, specifically Quebec and Ontario residents, and we combined this strategy with a TV campaign. We knew we needed to reach a domestic audience, and thanks to the pandemic, Canadians were cocooning at home with their laptops, phones, and TV screens.
We chose to work on the planning, management, and optimization of our campaign with Adviso. “We were aware that people were using multiple channels at a time, so while they were watching TV, and an ad came on, they’d open it in Facebook, Instagram or YouTube,” says Philippe Boutin-Lizotte, group director at Adviso. “We wanted strong video content that lived on TV and online at the same time, but with more niche messaging online.”
In the spring of 2021, we implemented our six-week campaign, including a deal sweetener for tourists: a $75 prepaid credit card if they booked two nights at a Quebec City hotel.
We developed and orchestrated a 360-degree media strategy with the goal of reaching a maximum number of Quebec and Ontario residents. “The aim was to make Quebec City top of mind for Canadians. All pieces were coordinated to go out at the same time and the strategy involved exposing the largest number of people possible to the campaign through a variety of different video formats, including TV, connected TV, social media, and local newspaper and media sites,” says Boutin-Lizotte.
An agile, omnichannel strategy drives sales
With a $5 million budget, we broke down our campaign into two phases: discovery and consideration. At the top of the funnel, in the discovery phase, we focused on making Quebec City look like a destination. We showed people long-form, journalistic content from our website, highlighting tourist attractions and reminding viewers that this existed in their backyard.
In the consideration phase we honed in on people’s needs, whether they were trying to find out about travel restrictions, hotel cleaning policies, or which restaurants were open. We then used social networks to reach engaged users with messages encouraging them to book their stay and included the prepaid credit card offer. Using Campaign Manager 360, we were able to monitor our digital campaigns across websites and mobile. It allowed us to understand where people were situated in their journey, and make sure we were serving everyone with the right message at the right moment in their decision-making process.
Data, data, and more data
As representatives of the city, we had many partners in the business community who were willing to share their occupancy and booking data, giving us direct insight into the effectiveness of our media campaign.
Given how unpredictable the situation was, we had to be more agile than ever, as we were constantly managing the changing capacities of hotels with COVID restrictions and labour shortages.
We used Google Data Studio to transform all of the raw data we had into metrics to monitor overall performance online. We were able to track what was resonating, and which of our actions were generating an increase in business. We could then react to this information in real time, and decide where we should spend a bit more and where we could hold back.
Given how unpredictable the situation was, we had to be more agile than ever, as we were constantly managing the changing capacities of hotels with COVID restrictions and labour shortages. A couple of times a week we would dial the campaign back, or up, depending on the data we were receiving.
For Adviso, this daily influx of data meant they had to adjust reporting to stay on top of things. We would update them on capacity daily and Adviso would adapt on the fly. “It was like running through a maze blindfolded. Should we stay low on the funnel and still try to attract people? Are we spending too much? Are we not spending enough?” says Boutin-Lizotte.
One of the key Google tools for managing such a multipronged, agile campaign was Display & Video 360. It allowed us to manage creative, analytics, TV, bidding, and audience insights, and track precisely how money was being spent and where ads were running, all in one dashboard.
The leap from last to first in the country
With the help of this agile, data-driven approach and our compelling creative, Quebec City’s occupancy rates went from being the lowest in the country to being No. 1 in Canada in July, and remaining one of the top three cities in Canada all summer.
We reached 10 million people and had a huge effect on the city, allowing hotels, restaurants, and businesses to survive the worst of the pandemic.
It’s great to have more website traffic, but to go from last to first in terms of actual occupancy rates is pretty big. Those numbers tell us we were doing something right, directing people correctly and guiding them through the right information — we had 200,000 clicks on our partner links with a conversion rate of 30%, which is extremely high. It was also a great lesson in how to market strategically in any scenario: by targeting our audience so accurately, and by making sure we showed up in the right places at the right time, it turned what could have been our worst summer ever into one of our best.
Through our omnichannel campaign we reached 10 million people and had a huge effect on the city, allowing hotels, restaurants, and businesses to survive the worst of the pandemic. What’s more, we were able to carry that learning forward and optimize video and connected TV to set ourselves up for the summer of 2022, which was the greatest in revenue Quebec City has ever seen, with hotels at an 85% to 90% occupancy rate.