An interview with Leslee Gaul, President & CEO of Visit Oceanside
Visit Oceanside Conference and Visitors Bureau Visit Oceanside is the official tourism marketing organization in Oceanside, California; promoting travel to the city for both leisure and group visitors. The organization influences about one-third of the $ 507.5 million that is generated by visitor spending in Oceanside each year, which supports nearly 3,600 jobs. Visit Oceanside also operates one of the state’s official California Welcome Centers.
Meet Leslee Gaul
We were lucky enough to be able to ask Leslee Gaul, President & CEO of Visit Oceanside on her take on some of the major challenges and opportunities facing place branding. Leslee Gaul joins us to share her experience of leveraging her place’s cultural heritage to attract tourism and investment.
She is the CEO and President of Visit Oceanside. A leader in destination marketing and management with several years of experience in the tourism industry, her accomplishments include the creation of a Destination Marketing Management Organization (DMMO) for the City of Oceanside.
Leslee, what’s the history and heritage of the Visit Oceanside Convention & Visitors Bureau?
Visit Oceanside was established in March 2010. At that time, I was with the Oceanside Chamber as their director of tourism. With tourism as a key economic driver for the city as well as providing the most potential for economic growth, I felt it was important to become a separate organization with intentional focus on our industry’s mission.
I was able to build consensus and collaborate with Oceanside’s lodging partners, tourism leaders and city officials to create Oceanside’s first tourism marketing organization, Visit Oceanside. The organization is primarily funded by a tourism marketing district. The tourism marketing district provides a secure, long-term funding mechanism that enables us to market Oceanside as a visitor destination.
How challenging is it to maintain a strong collaboration with many local businesses?
The Oceanside tourism industry has grown significantly over the years, making it increasingly challenging to ensure that we foster and maintain these important relationships. We want to make sure we are communicating with each business, providing them with the individual attention they deserve while educating them about new opportunities. That is why it’s critical that we provide two-way communication as much as possible. Our small businesses are what make Oceanside unique and special.
They are an important part of our story, promoting the destination. It’s important that they are engaged, sharing their news, and partnering with us on marketing opportunities. Since we have hundreds of businesses, we try do this through various platforms that include industry meetings and events, e-newsletters, personal meetings, and social media.
Will you highlight the product that you’re offering today?
Oceanside is the quintessential California beach town. It’s home to wide, sandy, picture-perfect beaches, charming bungalow neighborhoods and yesteryear pier and boardwalk vibe with plenty of new and unique experiences weaved in. Many of these experiences are brought to us by local artisans and craftsmen, making the entrepreneurial spirit ubiquitous. The culinary scene is flourishing. Cultural expression is blossoming. Within the Oceanside Cultural District alone you will find historic theaters, the Oceanside Museum of Art and the California Surf Museum. One of the most popular activities is the self-guided Oceanside Mural tour.
Our history and native heritage can be explored at the Mission San Luis Rey, California’s largest Mission. Recreation is also thriving with unlimited outdoor and ocean activities. Although new things are happening, we pride ourselves in staying true to our roots. We’re a diverse community that embraces authenticity while welcoming new experiences and new ways of thinking.
Where did your passion for Oceanside and this role develop?
I raised on a family farm in the Midwest. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents loved and most importantly appreciated travel. My mom was an avid reader of non-fiction, and my dad was a huge geography buff adding to their love for exploration. Experiencing and learning about new places was important to them and they instilled that in us. Whether it was short week-end trips or longer trips to visit national parks, world fairs and rare museum exhibits, we always traveled by car, making it easy to explore new places along the way. I’m also a lifelong learner and enjoy tapping into my creative side, travel is a wonderful conduit for these passions.
What do you believe are the emerging opportunities? Any particular markets, sectors, or marketing channel opportunities that excite you?
It’s an exciting time to be a part of the renaissance in Oceanside. Our story is starting reach far and wide, providing new market opportunities for us, whether it’s geographically or lifestyle. Especially as we look at viable new niches such as luxury travelers who are craving authentic and unique experiences. With new product coming online, it allows us to target a new consumer that values destinations that are staying true to their roots, care about their environment, while offering new culinary, cultural, and recreational experiences.
When you are always focused on continuous improvement, can you take moments to appreciate how far Visit Oceanside Convention & Visitors Bureau has come?
Oh my gosh, I think about this almost every day. The civic leaders, VO board members and industry leaders have been incredibly dedicated partners over the years. They keep me motivated to continue to learn, adapt and grow for their benefit as well as the community’s benefit. This has truly been a grassroots effort with many playing a role in further developing Oceanside as a destination. I’m grateful that it was important to the community to honor Oceanside’s founding fathers’ vision in creating a seaside destination. We have always been blessed with incredible natural resources, people, and solid bones; I think we benefited from it being such a thoughtful process to avoid becoming another cookie cutter destination.
What are your ideas and plans to reinforce Oceanside as a sustainable tourism destination?
As we head into 2023, it’s going to be an exciting time for Visit Oceanside and the industry. We are embarking on Oceanside’s first sustainable tourism master plan. It will be a 10-year-action plan for stewarding tourism growth towards a sustainable future that will benefit the economy, environment, and community. We will be looking at ways to enhance the visitor experience, new product development opportunities, infrastructure and other policies that will help ensure the health of the destination while improving the quality of life for our residents.
One of the most exciting aspects is that we are working with the Travel Foundation to do a destination assessment that follows criteria developed by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). Oceanside is the first beach destination in California to do GSTC assessment as part of their tourism master plan process. The goal is to the launch the plan in the Fall of 2023.
There are many tremendous developments happening in O’side. You must be pleased with all that’s occurred. What are you most excited about and why?
I love all the new amenities and experiences that have been created for our residents to enjoy as well as visitors. Especially with the renaissance that has occurred in our dining scene along with the new cultural resources that are available. It’s created a true sense of community with all these local gathering places that tourism helps support. However, I’m most excited about the sustainable tourism master plan. It’s opportunity to influence Oceanside’s future in a responsible, strategic way.
It will provide a much-needed roadmap that will help tourism remain a viable economic engine while being thoughtful of the needs of the residents and the environment. It’s a symbiotic relationship that must be taken care of and managed proactively. I’m proud of our board directors in making this a priority for Oceanside, helping to move the needle across the board.
What are the Visit Oceanside CVB’s long term goals around branding, research and marketing this premier resort destination?
Our brand is critical in differentiating Oceanside from other destinations. The Visit Oceanside board has made it a strategic imperative to be activists for the brand, ensuring its integrity and that we are working in unison. However, it’s also important that we can evolve as the destination evolves. Regardless, the way we tell the brand story needs to remain authentic to who we are and that we are delivering on that experience as a destination. As we move forward, data will play an important role in our marketing strategies as well as our brand strategies.
The team works hard to make sure they are aware of new technologies and research that will help provide a guiding light for the future. The tricky part is having the capacity to utilize all the data in a strategic, meaningful way. As a small organization, that is a major challenge that we will continue to contend with and manage as we move forward.
What’s the message you’d most like Italy as well as the rest of the world to understand about Oceanside?
Oceanside is a diverse community nestled along the Southern California coastline. They have a creative, entrepreneurial spirit that is unapologetically genuine. It is one of the last authentic beach destinations where visitors can experience the local laid-back surf culture while enjoying Michelin-rated culinary experiences, award-winning craft beverages, and nationally recognized resorts.
Leslee, when you’re not dedicating your time to marketing Oceanside to the world, how do you spend your free time?
I’m a passionate person for living and I like to do many things, especially making memories with my family. I enjoy sports and being outside as well relaxing with a book. As I mentioned earlier, I love to travel and experience new things. I believe every place has a story to tell. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve gotten to see most of our country and visit several other countries. In fact, every place, especially the people I have met, have had a positive impact on me, influencing who I am today. I’m always looking forward to the next adventure and how it will continue to mold me, enriching my life.
by Severino Ricci