Creative Culture column: Trendy Steven plots another successful #LoveMK Day

#LoveMK is set to trend on social media in the UK once again on May 3rd. Richard Bateman, owner of award-winning creative agency westfourstreet, spoke to one of the driving forces behind the event, Destination MK’s Chief Executive Steven Gordon-Wilson.

Hello Steven, as CEO of DMK could you give the readers a little background information on what the organisation provides?

Destination Milton Keynes is the official Destination Management Organisation, or DMO, for Milton Keynes.

In a nutshell, some time back, central government stopped funding Regional Development Agencies and tourist boards and encouraged towns and cities to form independent DMOs to take on the mantle. Since forming as a small group of local attractions and businesses, DMK has grown into a full scale DMO providing visitor information, membership services and city marketing campaigns.

We’re generally invited to represent our members, and the Visitor Economy sector, on the organisation of large scale events and celebrations – most recently, MK50. To our members, we provide unique packages which offer advertising and promotional benefits, access to exclusive events and more.

Since DMK being founded, what have been the most pleasing developments for you personally in our ‘city’?

I have been involved – one way or another – with DMK since its inception. Prior to taking over as CEO of DMK in 2013, I was head of marketing for Xscape, and we were one of the attractions that initially set the company up.

One of the things that has been the most gratifying to see is how, through a decade of UK wide turmoil, Milton Keynes has pulled together to deliver an offer which represents so much more than the sum of its parts. Key achievements like hosting Rugby World Cup in 2015 show just what “Team MK” can achieve when we get the bit between our teeth!

In terms of city development, the investment in both time and human resource into the growth of the cultural sector has been extraordinary – for a city as young as Milton Keynes to boast one of Europe’s leading International Festivals as well as the most popular UK theatre outside of the West End is nothing short of incredible.

There’s an ongoing pursuit to drive Milton Keynes culturally. What impact does DMK have within this movement and how ambitious do you think we can be?

I think the only limit to our ambition is our imagination.

A couple of years ago, the decision was taken to put MK on the world’s stage once again by bidding to become European Capital of Culture in 2023. Unfortunately, politics scuppered the chances of the UK being part of the competition, but I genuinely believe that we stood a great chance of winning.

That’s in part due to the story of a small group of villages growing into one of the UK’s leading cultural hubs in under 50 years…that’s unprecedented and deserves to be celebrated on a worldwide scale.

Destination Milton Keynes are champions of the cultural offer and will continue to work with the council and other key stakeholders on the legacy projects that can still come to fruition after the EcoC project.

This year, we will be weaving a cultural thread through our marketing messages: 2017 was all about Unexpected MK looking at the visitor economy as a whole. In 2018 we focussed on MK as an unexpected business destination, and in 2018, we’ll have a fix on the city as an Unexpected Cultural Destination. Our members will have the chance to join in with a number of campaigns to promote themselves as a part of this incredible city.

One of your most successful campaigns, Unexpected MK set about to diminish pre-conceived ideas about MK. Do you think we’ll ever shake off the ‘labels’ or if we should continue to celebrate them?

It was a campaign that really hit home with a lot of residents and visitors – the last time MK had a national campaign like this anchored with a TV ad was back in the days of GO MK if you readers remember that far back!

The reason that it resonated so well is that overwhelming numbers of people that live, work and play in MK absolutely love the city. Unfortunately, the negative stigma is still out there, but picking it up and being quite playful with it really captured the mood of the city as a whole.

Our research has shown that the campaign certainly changed some minds – resulting in an increase in visitors to the city and spend per head. It’s going to take a long time though if we want to shake labels off, but there is a really interesting debate to have about whether we should even be trying.

I remember a presentation from the director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions when he championed the concrete cows – telling us that he visits destinations all over the world, and most of them would give the keys to their city for something as iconic as that herd with such international recognition.

To my mind, he’s right, as long as we don’t let them take over and become the main story. We’ll always have cows and roundabouts – but let’s not forget about everything else.

Your recent award at the MKBAA’s (Business Impact in the Community) is recognition of a lot of hard work behind the scenes, isn’t it? That must have been pleasing?

I don’t think I’ve ever been as elated to pick up an award: the team of staff and volunteers at DMK work tirelessly to promote our city and our members far and wide, and to be recognised for this was such a coup.

We’re constantly working on our membership offer to make sure that we’re impacting on businesses positively, and our teams work so hard to ensure the visitor experience is first class. To be awarded for the impact we’ve made was just amazing.

For a few years now #LoveMK has been a huge social media event, which has trended in the UK. Explain how it came about and how residents in MK can get involved and possibly win some great prizes too.

I remember the exact moment…. I hadn’t long taken over as CEO, and we were having a team meeting over coffee in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Tongwell. We got through all the usual business, and at the end, our tour-de-force of a marketing manager, Carys Underwood, pitched a “random idea”.

What if we asked people in Milton Keynes to use #lovemk in all of their social media posts on one day to see if we can get it trending? It sounded like a great idea and off she went, but I don’t think any of us knew what a phenomenon it would develop into over the years.

It trends every year from 9am and throughout the day. DMK members have the chance to offer something for our “12 prizes in 12 hours” competitions which we promote through social media throughout the day – the reach is unbelievable – members regularly tell us that it’s the most social interaction they get all year.

Most importantly, the idea of the day is for people that live, work and play here to shout to the world about how much they Love MK. It can be as simple as using #LoveMK on all your posts….or you can – and people do – get creative! It’s always fun to see the most outlandish things people can create with a hashtag

And finally, on a personal note. You have a free day in MK. Where would you go and during the day and in the evening?

I’m currently waiting for that elusive free day – I’m desperate to go the new exhibition at Hut 11a in Bletchley Park which documents the early findings in the codebreaking story.

The evening would definitely be MK Theatre: it doesn’t matter what’s on – a night out there is always one to remember. Probably a couple of cocktails to finish the night off… if my wife lets me stay out late!

This is an extended version of a column published in the May 2018 issue of Celebrate:MK lifestyle magazine. Read the full magazine above or by clicking on this link.

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