Karlee Cemo-McIntosh is the brand and community engagement director for Visit Sacramento. (Photo by Wes Davis)

How to Tell the Story of Sacramento

Back Q&A Jul 1, 2021 By Sena Christian

This story is part of our July 2021 Young Professionals issue. To subscribe, click here.

Karlee Cemo-McIntosh is the brand and community engagement director for Visit Sacramento, a destination marketing organization that is funded primarily through hotel tax. Cemo-McIntosh, a Sacramento native and graduate of San Diego State University, joined the organization in 2015 to manage Sacramento365, an events website under the umbrella of Visit Sacramento. In her current role, she’s tasked with improving the visitor experience in Sacramento and helping to tell the story of the region. Comstock’s spoke to Cemo-McIntosh about how the organization has taken advantage of new opportunities over the past year.

How has the pandemic shifted your efforts as a brand and community engagement director, and altered the opportunities Visit Sacramento was able to pursue?

Visit Sacramento … is a destination marketing organization, or DMO. … Our primary audience is the visitor, and we have always been very effective in our marketing to that audience. We are selling them on Sacramento (as a) destination. Between 2018 and 2019, we were in the midst of reimagining our partnership program, going through a rebranding process, and we were really starting to fully grasp how loud our Sacramento megaphone was, especially across our social media platforms. And despite having this recognizable organization name, a relationship-focused president and CEO and leadership team — and a highly engaged digital presence — we saw that Sacramento residents and businesses didn’t fully comprehend who we were, what we do and how our work impacts them.

At the beginning of 2020, I was actually really starting to transition into this brand and community engagement space within our organization, because we saw this as an opportunity to be more cohesive and strategic in our local outreach, marketing efforts and overall messaging about Visit Sacramento and our family of brands. My expertise with Sacramento365 has really helped me get into that place because Sac365 has always been that hyperlocal arm of Visit Sacramento. … I think COVID really accelerated the shift of this community engagement mindset. … With travel at a halt for much of this past year, our residents became our audience. Travel, thankfully, has started to pick back up, and I feel this silver lining for us is that this past year put us in a position to really understand the importance of our partnerships and our relationships with our residents.

We’ve recently created our organization’s chief of diversity, equity and inclusion position, which Sonya Bradley, our longtime chief marketing officer, has transitioned into. Now we also have this emphasis on economic recovery coming out of COVID, so that element and that focus on community engagement I think is more essential than ever. From the travel side, from the visitor perspective, we know Sacramento’s leisure travelers, many of them are visiting friends and family of our region. We also know that word-of-mouth is always one of the most trusted types of referrals. So from that community engagement aspect, we want to be able to help empower our locals and businesses to be Sacramento’s ambassadors and help create a welcoming experience for everyone (who) visits our city. But we can’t tell our residents how to feel; they need to be able to authentically experience that and feel that sense of pride for themselves.

What are some more examples of how you implement a community engagement mindset?

We’re storytellers. … As an example, across all of our brands’ social media platforms, which includes Visit Sacramento, Sacramento365, (America’s) Farm-to-Fork (Capital) and (Sacramento Sports Commission), we have over 440,000 followers and receive over 67.7 million annual impressions. We have a “Visit Sacramento Podcast” … that has been a fantastic addition to our marketing tool kit, and especially for that local audience and capturing those stories. Video content has actually been a really fun thing. That’s an area we’ve expanded on over the past three-plus years.

Tell me more about the “Visit Sacramento Podcast.”

I wish that I could take credit for this. It is such a wonderful addition to the type of content we produce, and our ability to be those effective storytellers, but Brandon Darnell, our content marketing manager and podcast host, gets the credit. A little backstory: In 2019, we partnered with Johnny Flores of Flores Podcast Consulting to pilot the podcast with six episodes centered around farm-to-fork conversations that aired in the weeks leading up to the Farm-to-Fork Festival in September. The overall feedback (and) engagement were a great success, and the plan was to expand the number of episodes and conversations in 2020, putting a primary focus on that visitor audience. The first episode of 2020 was scheduled for the week that the country started shutting down (due to the coronavirus pandemic).

I think COVID really accelerated the shift of this community engagement mindset. … With travel at a halt for much of this past year, our residents became our audience.

We put a pause on the series for a couple months, and ultimately decided to kind of shift that focus to more of the local audience, and it’s just been so much fun to watch how it evolved, and the number of listens continue to increase each month. … 

Earlier this year, we had Cecil Rhodes, founder and co-owner of Nash & Proper on an episode. … Toward the end of the interview, Cecil shared how an unexpected post on Visit Sacramento’s Instagram helped Nash & Proper keep their doors open and put them in a place where they haven’t looked back. … COVID has reminded us that we need to continue to harness (our) power to not only be effective storytellers to people outside of our city but share those exciting places and inspiring stories with our locals. They are the ones to regularly frequent a restaurant like Nash & Proper, know the employees at their go-to spots by name, and (are) the best and most trusted referral to all of their family and friends that visit Sacramento.

I’m curious about Sacramento365. It’s largely contingent on events. So what happened in 2020 in terms of the website?

(Sacramento365) will celebrate 13 years of existence in September, and we’ve always been under the Visit Sacramento umbrella. But since the beginning, we’ve also been a joint project: Visit Sacramento, the City of Sacramento’s Convention & Cultural Services and the (city’s) Office of Arts and Culture. When the shutdown started last March, we had almost 1,000 events on our sites, and within a week, nearly 40 percent of those events had been canceled or postponed, which was just such a surreal thing to witness. … 

One of the biggest things we instantly implemented was starting to allow virtual events, which we had never done before. That not only provided a lot of value to the organizations that utilize our site, but also allowed us to maintain that connection over this past year.

I’d be interested to hear more about how you measure the website’s success.

We are a fully digital resource, so the measurements of our success (have) always been a lot of tracking (of) analytics. We average 50,000 monthly visitors; we have a very significant social media presence. In recent years, what we’ve seen pre-COVID was that we were getting a lot of increased traffic to our website from outside the Sac region, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area. (What’s) taken a big hit this past year is, in normal times, we would average over 800 events on our site per day. March to May, October through December, those times of the year could be upward of 1,000 events on our site a day. Obviously, (with) advertising stuff we took a hit this last year, but I’m hopeful because we are really starting to see an uptick in our advertising, and just the general inquiries for our platforms.

As far as the importance of having a site like this, again, we’ve always been that local arm of Visit Sacramento and really cater to the greater Sacramento region. But having that access for residents and visitors to find events gives people the opportunity to explore the city and region beyond what they are familiar with. We feed and manage eight other area calendars, including Capital Public Radio, Go Downtown Sac and Explore Midtown, and so collaborating with these community partners allows venues and event organizers greater access to increase their promotional reach. … For our partners, they have this robust calendar presence that’s branded for their sites and is providing value to the businesses in their area, but they don’t have that hassle of maintaining it.

You’ve touched on how Visit Sacramento over the past year shifted to promoting more locally based things and wanting to engage residents more. Can you tell me about the connection to the Travel in Place campaign? 

We’ve had a few iterations of our Travel in Place campaign since last summer. The campaign is designed to encourage locals to safely get out and explore Sacramento and take a night or two away out of the house and wake up in a new setting. It started while I was out on maternity leave and was really created to help drive that critical business to our hospitality partners who, in absence of visitors, really needed that local support. … When I returned, we had funding partners in the community, like Golden 1 Credit Union and SMUD, who were interested in collaborating to help give these businesses a boost specifically around the holidays. I was tapped to work with our team to develop the holiday Travel in Place campaign, (which) our funding partners could help fuel. We had this amazing program together … (and) just days before the launch, we went back into a full shutdown. That change obviously meant that those businesses that needed our support before were in an even more dire position going into what would normally be one of their busiest times or the busiest time of the year. So we quickly pivoted the messaging to “Home for the holidays” and encouraged locals to shop local, order their favorite takeout and make new holiday memories with their loved ones.

(A)s we continue to make progress and move towards … a goal of reopening (June 15), we already have some fun concepts in the pipeline to welcome visitors back to Sacramento. … One that we’re most excited about internally is WTF, “Where’s the Fun?” … and then GTFO, “Get the Family Out.”

What else would you like to mention?

Pre-COVID, Sacramento (was) a $3 billion tourism industry. … September is the Farm-to-Fork Festival, which includes Legends of Wine, Tower Bridge Dinner and the Farm-to-Fork Street Festival — or Visit Sacramento-produced events — and in 2019, that 

two-day festival had over 155,000 attendees. … The Sports Commission is responsible for facilitating the partnerships and collaborations that bring large scale events like March Madness, and this year, in October, (the) Ironman (Triathlon) to our city, so we definitely cover a lot of ground under our organization. 

Edited for length and clarity. 

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