Marilee Sonneman Kostadimas delivers 20+ years’ experience and acumen in corporate events, incentive travel, and destination management.
An alumna of San Francisco State University, Marilee pursued graduate and undergraduate studies in Classics and Classical Archaeology. She holds credentials as a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) and Destination Management Certified Professional (DMCP).
Speaker, author, byline contributor to the hospitality industry bible, the Convention Industry Council Manual 9th Edition: A Working Guide for Effective Meetings and Conventions, industry leader: As President 2016-2017 of Meeting Professionals International Northern California Chapter (MPINCC), the world’s largest chapter of the world’s largest hospitality-industry association, Marilee led MPINCC to a historic year of records and first, including global achievement as a two-time MPI RISE 2017 Award winner.
She also served two terms as President of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence Northern California Chapter (SITENCC) and four years on the Certification and Accreditation Board of Directors of the Association of Destination Management Executives International (ADMEI).
On this episode of Destination on the Left, Marilee discusses her expertise in storytelling as a crucial aspect of successfully sharing your destination with others. She chats about her framework for creating an end-to-end storyline, which includes the unique, the exclusive, the wow, the hidden gems, and the quiet in between, and how you can shift your perspective to better understand what your guests are looking for.
Perspective changes everything — wise words from my guest on the podcast this week led to a fascinating conversation on how she set up a travel business to showcase real travels and authentic experiences creatively. Marilee Kostadimas of Spotlight Sojourns joined me to share how the COVID-19 pandemic cutting short her world travel plans in 2020 actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The enforced pause gave her and her husband and business partner Paul the opportunity to figure out their fledgling business on the front end instead of the back end.
Marilee describes how she built her career on the power of professional storytelling through shared experiences. She also highlights the importance of understanding what travel really means to people and how to take guests on a journey that inspires them holistically.
We discuss how Spotlight Sojourns creates an experience that wows travelers and inspires them to explore and engage with a destination fully. Travel is something that many people are eager to make part of their lives again, and you can make your destination stand out with a story that shines. Marilee steps us through her five-pillar framework of the unique, the exclusive, the wow, the hidden gems, and the quiet in between and how they create an inspiring experience that travelers couldn’t do alone.
As travel and tourism professionals, we should be creating a cohesive end-to-end storyline. DMOs can use stories to give another perspective on their destination that isn’t falling back on the tried, true, proven, and popular. We need to figure out how to stop talking about meeting space capacity, hotel rooms, and facilities and really tell a compelling story that encompasses the five touchstones of a great travel experience.
We need to bring it back to engagement, connections, and relationships — Marilee explains how she does that for destinations like the New York State Canal Corporation. As a DMO, we’ve always got to keep in mind what the client is really looking for when hosting travel experiences so you can put a storyline together that fulfills the need to motivate and inspire.
Marilee gives her actionable tips on how DMOs and others in the travel and tourism industry can apply her framework to their own destination. We discuss how to get people thinking differently so that they begin to see their area through a different lens. Ask yourself why your destination is special, why you’d recommend visiting your beach, your lake, your hotel, as opposed to the beach, the lake, the hotel down the road — because it’s that differentiation that is going to help you tell your authentic story.
DMOs need to formulate a plan for the future and design ways that they can draw people in to visit their area and attractions. We represent our communities, so it’s important to reach new visitors and build relationships so that those visitors return again and again. Think about how you can leverage a connected storyline that ignites emotion in potential visitors — because when people are invested in your story, it becomes part of their legacy.
Coming down from Cincinnati, Marketing Manager of Ghost Coast Distillery, Kelcie Beausir, has extensive experience working in the beverage industry, including a recent stop at a winery in Asheville.
She is so happy to now be living in warmer weather in Chattanooga, TN, as a part of the Ghost Coast team. Kelcie is a former trapeze instructor who enjoys adventuring with her dog, Charlie, and husband, Cameron.
On this episode of Destination on the Left, I talk with Kelcie about her experience as marketing manager for a startup distillery of expanding into new markets during a global pandemic. We discussed the importance of embracing creativity as part of your organizational culture and how collaboration has driven Ghost Coast distillery forward into a period of growth.
Putting creative partnerships together and forming long-term relationships is a great way to push forward through adversity. Kelcie and Ghost Coast have been working hard on building mutually beneficial relationships, and she joins me today to share her advice on finding brands that your travel and tourism organization could work with.
Laying the right groundwork for a successful collaboration is all about promoting your brand and demonstrating how you can help others. Companies in the travel niche are busy, so you need to stand out as an organization with new, different, and special ideas. Kelcie describes the importance of figuring out your creative idea before you approach other brands to let them know how you can benefit them as part of the collaboration.
We also dive into why we need to nourish relationships once we’ve partnered with different brands and why there’s nothing worse than just letting the momentum die. Figuring out how to keep working together and building on those collaborations and relationships is so much more helpful and supportive than just one-off events.
Ghost Coast Distillery was founded in 2016 and since then has been committed to hiring great minds, bouncing ideas off of each other, and really learning how they wanted the company culture to look. Kelcie describes the evolution of the organizational culture and how it has developed over the years to an open-minded, playful environment where everyone’s ideas and suggestions are welcomed.
We also talk about how the small team has been able to put together fun events that differentiate themselves from others in their industry, such as puppy yoga and comedy shows, and why that freewheeling spirit has helped them grow and build a reputation in the artisanal spirits space.
Kelcie shares how COVID-19 showed Ghost Coat they had opportunities to deal with the challenges they were facing creatively, personally, and as a company. She describes how they were able to pivot as a small organization and pursue new opportunities that formed the golden lining of their challenges.
One of Kelcie’s favorite creative solutions was collaborating with others to put on an initiative to safely bring live music back to the company’s hometown of Savannah, GA. Ghost Coast partnered with outdoor venues that sold their spirits to create a space where people could safely enjoy live music after the shutdown by enjoying a cocktail picnic style in the park.
We also discussed Ghost Coasts’s plans for the future — slowly and effectively growing footprint style across the nation, adding members to the team while keeping one foot planted in tradition, one foot pushing boundaries.
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Sarah attended Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and worked at a 5-star-5-diamond resort in Colorado, a 4,000+ all-suite hotel in Las Vegas, and an international restaurant company in New York City, all before graduating. At age 22, she was the Director of Sales and Marketing for a private resort in Florida. During a brief career in Boston, she managed a 220-seat jazz club in Harvard Square.
She then moved back to Vermont and started working with her mom and uncle as the fifth generation of her family to manage Basin Harbor Club. As the Director of Sales, she now describes her role as helping people enjoy all that Basin Harbor has to offer, whether that’s a family reunion, a wedding, a group retreat, or a day spent on the Lake. Sarah was also chosen as one of VBM’s Rising Stars in Vermont.
In her free time, Sarah is a lover of the great outdoors, a gastronome, and a world traveler, and she is also certified as a Wilderness First Responder.
On this episode of Destination on the Left, I talk with Sarah Morris, who is passionate about keeping pace with evolving customer expectations while staying true to her 136yr old Vermont resort’s brand. She shares her insights on gearing up for each new summer season and why a spirit of collaboration with resorts with opposite seasons helps when successfully hiring new staff.
What guests are looking for changes as much from year to year as generationally. So in a resort that has been operating for over 100 years, there have been changes over time. Sarah describes the themes that the Basin Harbor Club has carried forward over the years, including being actively involved in the tourism community, as well as the general business community in Vermont, and how that has helped them maintain their family-centered ethos.
We discuss the personality of a truly rural campus resort and how the Basin Harbor Club has stayed true to a product that they want to deliver upon experientially for their guests. Of course, it’s also important for tourist destinations to keep up with modern sensibilities, so Sarah describes how she has married online accessibility with an atmosphere of allowing people to disconnect from their home life, their work-life, and be very present during their vacation time.
When times are tough, as they have been in our industry over the last two years, we have to find creative solutions to help you overcome challenges. Sarah and I dig into some of the ways that she has leveraged the resort’s history to understand how to grow through adversity. We also discuss the importance of fostering a sense of ‘coopetition,’ where perceived competitors come together to do something bigger together than they can do on their own.
At Basin Harbor Club, they want to provide an experience that their guests love, and that includes recommending other resorts that might be more suitable for their needs. Sarah dives into what she loves about the willingness to share in the industry and why they love to work with local artisans and food and beverage producers, so they can highlight the region’s growers and producers and incorporate that Vermont flavor into their products too.
We also take the conversation in the direction of managing a seasonal property and the challenges of scaling from 20 employees in the winter to north of 150 employees in the summer months. Sarah lends her expertise on hiring seasonal staff strategies for scaling up and how she recruits new employees in collaboration with resorts and their current staff.
The joy of being a seasonal destination is that you can seek out opportunities to connect with properties that are in opposite seasons and make sure that you are keeping good staff in well-supported roles. Recruiting staff is such a critical part of creating an amazing guest experience, especially in a resort that prides itself on its family feel and counts guests and staff as part of that extended family.
This episode of Destination on the Left is a little different from the norm, and that’s because today I’m talking with Tom Ritter, Product Development Lead for the Niche Podcast Network. Tom shares why he is so passionate about podcasting as a marketing tool and why your podcast can help you build an exceptional professional network. We explore the importance of finding your niche, building an engaged audience, and how to offer value to your audience with your unique perspective. Tom also gives his insight into creating an exceptional guest experience so that you get the most out of the conversation.
Podcasting is a quicker path to trust-building when you can really niche down and be that subject matter expert.
My guest on the show this week is Tom Ritter, who owns and operates Niche Podcast Network, and I’m excited to share out conversation. The show this week is a little different as we’re discussing how to set up and host a successful podcast, and Tom’s advice on gaining digital equity with your show is so valuable.
We dive deep into the idea of niching down with your podcast and moving from serving a broad audience to a much narrower yet more engaged one. Tom shares how to identify and build authority in a niche and why focusing on a particular topic within your umbrella helps you earn trust and become a legitimate subject matter expert quicker. We also discuss how a podcast can act as a signpost back to your brand when you focus your show on a consistent and frequent message that builds listeners’ trust.
In terms of having a productive conversation with your guest, comfort is key. As a podcaster, you have the ability to set the scene for a great interview, but you also have to have processes in place. Let your guest know what to expect ahead of time and give them an idea of the show’s format and outline what you want to talk about. Having enough information to be comfortable goes a long way in creating an environment where an authentic conversation that genuinely serves your customers can flourish.
You might envision your podcast as a candid chat as if you were having an off-air coffee, but the reality is that a great podcast takes preparation. Having an outline helps the host, guest, and audience stay focused during the show itself. Guests often feel calmer and more prepared when they can make notes before they get on the show. But, if you have an outline or questions you want to ask, give yourself the flexibility to deviate from the plan, should the guest take you in a different direction. Relaxed spontaneity often offers up great opportunities to dig deep into the juicy subjects.
Your podcast delivers value to your listeners as you delve into some of those fascinating subjects, but how does it offer value for your guests? Appearing on a podcast as a subject matter expert gives people excellent visibility in their field.
The more focus you put on your guest, the more value your guest perceives, and the more value you receive as a host because you’re going to be found for your name and your brand. Create social media artwork, send snippets of the show for their LinkedIn profile, and link to guests’ social media channels so your listeners can find out more. Because what you’re also doing when you grow visibility for your guest is growing it for your show and your business.