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Susan Estler, executive director of Travel Marquette, is a Superior Woman. Over the past year, she has spent time learning about the Upper Peninsula, its people and its passions.
By Dale Hemmila
You don’t have to be born and raised on the shores of the Big Lake they call Gitche Gumee to be considered a Superior Woman.
A great case in point is Susan Estler, who made her way to the shores of Lake Superior by way of Pennsylvania and Florida. Estler, through her role as the executive director of Travel Marquette, the official destination marketing organization for Marquette County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is now one of the busiest and most visible advocates for the Lake Superior region.
Estler has put her professional background and experience to work to make sure that the tourism business in Marquette County continues to prosper. As a newcomer to the area, she has been able to put a fresh set of eyes on the community, and has developed promotional strategies to keep Travel Marquette up-to-speed in the fast changing, and competitive, tourism marketplace.
A graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York City, she has more than two decades of experience in business marketing. She began her career in destination promotion in Florida in 2001, when she served as marketing director for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB). After that, she spent six years as vice president of marketing at the Panama City Beach, Florida, CVB. Immediately prior to accepting her position with Travel Marquette, she was the executive director of the Lackawanna County (Pennsylvania) CVB, which included the Greater Scranton area.
Prior to her January, 2018 interview for her job at Travel Marquette, Estler had never visited the Upper Peninsula. She began work in the U.P. just two months later.
“It was just refreshing to me to have a board made up totally of hoteliers, with a common goal of increasing tourism,” she said recently from her office in the bright Travel Marquette headquarters in the middle of downtown Marquette.
“(But) I always had lived on the east coast so I kind of wondered if I would feel land-locked,’” she said.
That concern changed when she saw Lake Superior.
“The lake is kind of the underpinning for everything Marquette,” she said.
In addition, learning the importance of iron and iron mining to the area allowed her to make comparisons to the Scranton area and its coal mining history.
“Coming here and seeing the beautiful architecture and the rich history made it kind of special,” she said.
During her first full year on the job, she has spent time learning more about what else makes the area “special.”
“Certainly the trails and the outdoor events are very important,” she said. “The arts and culture events integrate very well here.
“(There is) plenty to do and see, and when you’re here you can be very active with biking, hiking and cross-country skiing. You can be as solitary as you want, or get as much enjoyment of the people that you want. For having such a small town, we have so many different restaurants, yet we are so close to the wilderness. There’s such an abundance of wonderful things to do and see. This is truly a four season destination.”
The challenge, of course, for those in Estler’s position, is to make sure the Marquette area is able to stand out among the din of all the other places that are looking for the same tourism dollars.
At one time, promoters might have been able to lure tourists with a slick brochure, or an occasional television ad, but tourism promotion has changed dramatically in the digital age.
Social media has changed the way the marketing message is managed, she explained. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts can help build an area, or hurt its image. In addition, destination and travel forums offer any user the opportunity to post an opinion, photo or video in real-time to brag about a destination, or denigrate it.
For Estler and Travel Marquette, the challenge is using the digital tools at their disposal and selectively targeting the right audience. That means going behind the web page to use the analytics that websites can provide.
“Using the website and web traffic, we can find where people are located,” she said.
Armed with that data, the message can be targeted to the areas that are ripe with potential tourists who are interested in what Marquette has to offer.
Estler said those areas include Chicago, Wisconsin, downstate, Ann Arbor, and Traverse City.
Her first year on the job has been spent reviewing digital analytics and determining where the organization can get the biggest bang for its marketing bucks.
“It’s about what I expected it to be,” she said, reflecting on her first 12 months on the job. “I like to see what’s working, and what might need some subtle nuances. We’re doing a tremendous amount more of digital marketing than before. We want to take the assets we have in Marquette County and market that outside.”
That means optimizing the message for search engines, making sure the organization’s digital footprint maximizes its use of keywords so that those searching for tourism and travel activity offered in Marquette can find Travel Marquette. Not surprisingly, Travel Marquette is using tools compatible with Google, Facebook, Instagram, Pandora and other sites with targeted banner ads, short video ads and radio spots.
“We are picking specific markets and age groups in Michigan and Wisconsin,” Estler said.
All of this is a reflection of the background and experience Estler brought to Travel Marquette.
“Susan came to us with lots of experience after working in Scranton, and, before that, Panama City Beach, which are very different markets than Marquette County,” said Randy Larson, local hotel owner and president of the Travel Marquette board of directors. “She has adapted very quickly and is doing a very good job, and directing us and making sure Marquette County and Travel Marquette are well known throughout our markets.
“She has expanded our digital footprint into areas that we haven’t previously gone and is making headway into markets that we previously haven’t tapped into, while still maintaining a large presence in the silent sports area and keeping our trails marketing strong. Susan has definitely been a positive addition to our organization and she has surrounded herself with some pretty talented people whom we feel will continue moving Travel Marquette into the future.”
That future includes promoting the area beyond the U.S. border. Through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation Pure Michigan travel program, Travel Marquette will have a presence with Brand USA, the destination marketing organization for the United States, to help market the area internationally.
“Pure Michigan pays for half (the cost),” Estler said. “We will be marketed internationally in a very cost effective way.”
All of which, of course, is expanding the base of potential visitors who will bring their tourism dollars to Marquette County.
“There’s a bigger audience out there looking to have a good time,” Estler said.
Her hope is that, by using the marketing strategies she oversees, that the “bigger audience” finds Marquette County, has that “good time” and passes the word along.