What Does It Cost to Build a Website? Blog

How Much Does It Cost to Develop an Engaging Destination or Tourism Website?

The Bell-Shaped Curve  |   The Original Question  |   Breaking Down the Costs  |  Remember and In Conclusion

If your website is nothing more than an online brochure, you may be missing the boat.

Whether you represent a destination marketing organization – CVB or chamber of commerce – or a tourism business, your end goal should be to move the user to the next step – to go from being a looker to a booker – to convert them to becoming actual visitors or customers.  Your website should facilitate directing users to where they can book a room, buy a ticket or book an activity.

Websites that are engaging, entertaining, open quickly and are helpful and informative allow a user to readily navigate the content. More importantly, sites need to display correctly on all devices – desktop computers, tablets and smartphones. We believe they need be inexpensive to update, too.

Your visitor’s experience actually starts before they leave home. It begins the moment they reach your website. Your website’s job is stand out from the competition and to tease users to want to come and experience the real thing.

Consider where vacation planners focus their attention:

  1. Event Calendars – Does your website offer an online calendar? Does it indicate to visitors that your destination or business has tons of things to do? Can event organizers easily submit content, reducing staff time and limiting his or her role to gatekeeping?
  2. Things to Do – Is the photography dynamic? Would you like to feature videos? Can you show your location(s) on a map? Is the description enticing? Is the information in a list or is it scattered throughout articles or both? Is your website searchable?
  3. A Request for Information – Potential guests are inviting you into their home or inbox. In many cases, it’s a request for a travel or visitor guide or an email sign-up to stay in touch. Can the guides be viewed online or downloaded providing immediate access?
  4. Assistance in Planning – Can users narrow their selection by filtering categories, locations, etc. and then send the results to themselves? Do you showcase experiences by market segment – families, couples, baby boomers, etc.?
  5. A Request for a Map – With all the electronic mapping and GPS options, this request may be rather surprising. However, local maps plotted with hotels, attractions, restaurants and other points of interest reduce the learning curve. The convenience of seeing the entire landscape of options and their proximity to one another eases the decision making process.

For any size CVB but more so for smaller CVBs and chambers of commerce, it’s likely a sizable investment. So how do you know what amount to budget when it’s time to create or update this critical marketing tool?

With a bit of insight, when bids do come in, you won’t be left scratching you head and wondering why the bids are so different.

Bell Shaped Curve

The Bell-Shaped Curve

This is what we’ve observed during our many years in travel and tourism marketing and while serving on the board of directors of non-profit agencies. Bids will fall into three distinct categories:  low, middle and high. While this is not true in all situations, they usually do break down like a bell shaped curve.

The lower bids will most likely be from freelancers, part-timers looking to make side money apart from their full-time jobs, a very small graphic shop or offshore vendors.

The bids will be from…

  • Graphic designers who may or may not have Internet technical proficiency or the know-how to incorporate all the features desired or an understanding of the website’s physical set-up and tie-in to the Internet.
  • Website designers using cookie cutter design templates that they slightly modify – colors, layout and design elements. The similar styles will be obvious when you take a look at their portfolio.
  • Small shops without high overhead may be missing some of the things you require – software, skillsets, etc. or many not understand your needs or those of your industry.
  • Vendors outside the country with a cheap supply of labor are likely to be highly technically proficient but without an understanding of your culture or industry. The design may be stilted to their home culture.

The mid-range estimates will be from small to mid-size marketing or graphic or website design firms that understand the scope of the work and have the tools and talent to allow you to achieve your desired outcome. Their staff will have the ability to:

  • Understand the infrastructure of the site and get it set-up correctly. Think security.
  • Develop the architecture or navigation of the site adapting it to display properly on multiple devices.
  • Design it so it is graphically pleasing and includes strong imagery.
  • Work with the DMO (destination management organization) or tourism entity to write or craft content that will drive visits by well written, search engine optimized copy.
  • Recognize some agencies may be open to the client making minor updates so as to avoid small, last minute projects. This will hels keep the client’s maintenance costs down in the long run. However, this set-up assumes the DMO’s or tourism business’ staff has requisite talent. If or when someone messes something up or if the technical needs exceed the in-house skillset, the design firm should be around to fix things. The challenge will be how quickly they can respond to a panic call amid their regular scheduled work.

The key question here is, does the bidder understand your industry, the multiple-markets – sometimes with different languages or terminology – you serve or solicit?

The higher bids will be most likely from advertising agencies with a sizable office and staff and sometimes multiple locations. It doesn’t mean you won’t get a better website, you may get a fancier show. Oftentimes, they will want to handle the maintenance for you because of the complexity they’ve built into the website. In many cases, junior employees or interns are involved in the development of their websites and one step removed from you. Think in terms of what and how this generation thinks. What they “want” perhaps isn’t in tune to your needs.

As a dear friend who once worked for a large well-known tourism focused ad agency with long-standing contracts with state and county DMOs once said, “We win awards all the time but I’m not convinced that our end product serves our client’s needs and brings them business.”

There may be times when a large agency may provide more than a medium sized firm. However, selecting them may not necessarily achieve your ultimate goal. Large agencies may outsource, too. Sometimes bigger just means more layers and more people involved and the client is farther removed from the people actually doing the work.


So back to the original question and the question that is asked the most, “How much does it cost to build a website?” It’s the same as asking, “How much does it cost to buy a house or a car.” The answer is, “It depends.”

A DMO needs to have done their homework in order to help the bidder answer this question. As the adage goes, if you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there. Also know in the accounting industry as SWAG – silly wild a** guess.

The more detailed – but without creating a chokehold on a project – a client can explain what it is they want in a website, the greater chance a realistic bid can be received. The client doesn’t need to design the site but only to convey what they like and don’t like. What they’d like to include. What they love and what they hate.

So a DMO can understand the complexity of what’s involved in assembling a bid, these are some of the pieces the bidder will address when putting a bid together.  The items in bold below are those areas the DMO should focus most of its energy in order to be helpful in the bid process.

  • How many visitor have been or are anticipated to use the website?
  • How fast should the website open and move from page to page?
  • Has the client researched and identified samples of websites they like or don’t like?
  • What’s the degree of difficulty or ease in creating that look?
  • Does that look lend itself to all types of devices?
  • What special moving elements are desired?
  • What type of content and artwork does the DMO have in its file today?
  • Does the agency presently have access to those elements or do they need to be produced or refreshed?
  • How many market segments need to be addressed in the website?
  • How many different annual licenses need to be used to achieve the desired website?
  • What is the monthly hosting fee? And are the licenses and updates included in that fee?
  • Has the domain name been purchased?
  • Does the DMO have a logo or does one need to be created?
  • What social media does the DMO actively use?
  • Will search engine optimized content be included in the pricing?
  • What type of year-round maintenance and support is available?
  • Will e-commerce, secure certificates, PCI compliance, API tie-in for banking be required?
  • Will email collection be incorporated?
  • Will a blog be needed?
  • Will eBlast or eNewsletters be needed?
  • Will social media feeds be included?
  • Will logins be required for specific areas such as members, board and media?
  • What type of support and response time is available?
  • What is the frequency the website is being backed up?
  • What is the turn around time from bid OK to final delivery?
  • What role will the DMO play in proofing the website?
  • Will the DMO’s decision maker be the point of contact? If not, how in sync is the point person with the decision maker? How much authority does this person have?
  • Will staff training be needed for the content management system?

If a DMO spends little time doing advance research, anticipate a higher estimate by a bidder to over anticipate costs. As the expression goes, garbage in; garbage out.

Is this a project you personally don’t have the time to handhold all the pieces and need a firm that understands your industry and can just handle it? Will you allow them to take the lead and ask key questions when pivotal decisions are needed. Will they guide you through the process, removing the need for constantly gatekeeping a project you’re not too familiar or comfortable?

Website development is filled with a thousand if-thens. If this happens, then what do you want it to do?

Will you assign a staff member to assist and respond to requests for information. Small details that may seem insignificant can and do impact a website. The DMO’s point person needs to be the person who has the authority and responsibility to make approvals or can get approvals quickly. When the “authorized person” says yes, only to have his or her boss say, “No, let’s do it this way” results in change orders that grow the final bill.

Because of this, some firms will estimate and then charge based on an hourly rate. As we all know, everyone works at a different pace so a highly skilled person may turn a project quickly whereas a lesser talented worker may bill a low hourly fee but the end results gets you to the exact same price. Location – big city, second tier destination, urban, rural areas – all play a role in pricing, too.

Steps Involved in Website Production

Breaking It Down

Below is a broad brush stroke view of pricing.

Basic Website (4-6 pages)

Offshore/Freelancer – $500 – $1,500
Small Agency – $3,000 – $4,500
Large Agency – $7,000 – $10,000

Small Custom Informational Website (up to 10 pages)

Offshore/Freelancer – $1,500 – $2,500
Small Agency – $4,500 – $8,00
Large Agency – $7,000 – $10,000

Mid-Size Custom Informational Website (up to 20 pages)

Offshore/Freelancer – $2,500 – $4,500
Small Agency – $8,000 – $15,000
Large Agency – $7,000 – $10,000

Large Custom Informational Website (20+ pages)

Offshore/Freelancer – $4,500 – $8,000
Small Agency – $15,000 – $75,000+
Large Agency – $20,000 – $100,000+

Below are the many elements that that come into play when preparing an estimate. The more guidance a DMO or tourism business can provide the more accurate a quote can normally be. As mentioned earlier, don’t be so controlled in what you want that you choke the process. Giving creative license can have its rewards.

General Site Set-Up
$75-$200 per hour

As part of your website estimate is should include setting up the technology infrastructure – securing or transferring the domain name(s), configuring the site, basic site security and tracking software – your ability to track visitors. Google offers free and paid analytic service. Before you go down this path. Ask yourself what information/data do you need and want. Other options are available if you’re willing to pay for it.

Design and Development
$75-$200 per hour

  • Pricing varies based on the skillset and location.

Content – Copy
$50 – $200+ per page

  • Be careful if outsourced to an off-shore vendor or a freelancer who may or may not know your industry.
  • A marketing firm may have industry specific knowledge.
  • Content may or may not be written to maximize search engine optimization. To improve results – because SEO drives traffic to your site – may cost additional.

Content – Images or Photography
Royalty Free Stock – $15 – $100+ each image
Stock Agency – $300- $5,000+ each image and will vary based on usage rights
Professional photographer – $500 – $5,000 rate per day

  • You may think you have lots of photos but toss everything out that isn’t dynamic. Now how many do you have?
  • Stock images can easily be purchased online. However, if they aren’t destination specific AND dynamic, should you really use them. We say no.
  • Hire a real, professional photographer to capture your destination in a dynamic way. Rates vary and are usually quoted as full or half day rates plus expenses. This is another subject completely but negotiate to buy all the usage rights. Allow the author to own the copyrights. Project costs will vary depending on your needs and the photographer’s talent. A good web development team may be willing to review your photographer candidates and offer insights from their years of experience.
  • Secure copies of the original images as some photographers overdo software corrections making the images look fake, with an odd color cast, unnatural or looking like artist renderings. You’ll want your team to work off the originals to create realistic images that are apples-to-apples with other images in your library.

Content – Video
Freelancer – $1,000 – $5,000 per video
Agency – $5,000 – $15,000 per video

  • Rinse and repeat. You may think you have lots of video footage but toss everything out that isn’t dynamic. Now how much do you have?
  • Video scripts are written and approved in advance to keep everything on track. Nothing should occur on the fly unless you want to pay more.
  • Alternately, you may have plenty of video footage, you just need someone who can handle the post production work – creating the video, adding sound and call to action.

Content – WOW Features

  • Many, many options are available but remember they may be added onto the estimated budget and most likely require licenses and periodic updates.
  • Not all plug-ins integrate nicely. Some fight with existing software and elements. Additional research and time may be required to find a compatible plug-in.
  • Some are free but offer limited scope and can move up in price from there. Note:  in many cases, these features involve an annual fee.

Customer or Staff Login
Customer Account Dashboard  +$2,000 – $5,000
Membership Area  +$2,500 – $5,000
Client Area  +$2,500 – $5,000

  • This can include board of directors, members, staff, the tourism industry and the media. It provides each group limited access to specific pages or sections, some not available to the public.

Directories/Event Calendar
Directory/Event Calendar  +$1,000 – $3,000
Directory/Event Calendar with E-commerce  +$3,000 – $7,000

  • Directories are fundamental tools of tourism websites and typically involve accommodations, restaurants, attractions with filters and sorting capabilities.
  • Event and tourism-related activity calendars serve to drive day and overnight stays. To save on staff time, admin areas can be set up to allow third parties to enter their own data; gatekeepers review and approve content prior to public display.

E-Commerce, Shopping Carts and Online Store
E-commerce  +$2,500 – $5,000
E-commerce Custom Product Configurations  +$5,000 – $20,000

  • This feature has multiple layers including secure certificates, online payment processors, PCI compliance, shipping data and rates and sales tax. The DMO or tourism business should also research the costs tied to operating this business.
  • This set-up works well for membership payments, some event registration, ticketing and merchandise.
  • It can include an initial sample set of products.
  • A link button to an online payment processor like PayPal is fairly inexpensive.
  • Researching online payment processing options and integration into a website can be more involved.
  • Pre-packaged e-commerce options are also available.
  • Custom options pricing can go skyward.

Project Management & Information Gathering
$75-$200 per hour

  • Phone calls, tracking (or chasing) down files. This can include driving over to an attraction, standing in the reception area and not leaving until a member of the development team picks up a file promised weeks ago.

Website Customization

  • Can you make that box twirl and then display a photo of your staff? You like what you see but now you want to modify the WordPress template. Programmers or frontend developers now need to get involved. Changes will impact your estimate and perhaps impact more than just one page
  • Tying other elements into your website is an add-on and integration takes time.

Web Hosting
$5 – $350 per month

  • Varies by the size of your website and content.
  • Inexpensive shared servers typically offer slower speed and are limited to what can be installed on the server.
  • Secure server with quicker speed allows visitors to view pages more readily.
  • Dedicated offsite server with access to support are another option.
  • E-Commerce hosting varies based on needs.

Maintenance, Security and Updates
$20 – $200+ per hour

  • Check to make sure your maintenance package includes updating plugins and themes and allows for X number of hours of site content updates as well as security scans and security updates.
  • Is your website backed up routinely?
  • Are you prepared if your website is hacked because someone used a password like “admin”?
  • Was your content created in such a manner that it is timeless?
  • Will your website developer create a site that isn’t too complicated, allowing you organization to make minor updates to your website internally?
  • Can your vendor train your staff how to use the content management system (CMS) with costs varying depending on the CMS and skillset of staff?
  • How responsive is your website team when you need support?
  • If your website is the thread that runs through your entire organization and affects your staff’s ability to function, it needs to be up 100% of the time.
  • Cheap out on maintenance and when you need it most, you’ll quickly find out why that wasn’t a smart move. Lost business does have a cost.
  • Regardless of the size of your operation, your website should be driving your business. The size of your business and your website’s functionality and maintenance requirements will vary.

Content Management
$75-$200 per hour

  • Your maintenance contract may include X hours of site content updates.
  • Content management is not the website’s technical “wiring” maintenance.
  • It most likely will not include writing blogs, etc. This would be a separate package.

Marketing Tools
$400 –  $2,500

  • Email collection, email database storage and email marketing are key to staying in front of your guests. Costs depend on the number of people on your list, the number of emails sent out and the frequency.
  • Email templates showcasing your brand can be developed by your website developer to make sure your messaging is consistent.


In searching for a vendor, it’s important to know that your web developer has the requisite tools in their tool boxes to display dynamic images, directories, calendars, blogs, videos, media libraries, mapping, contact us forms, email sign-up, merchandise and admin/non-public access. You’ll find the answers in their portfolios of websites or simply by asking.

  1. To receive a more realistic bid, spell out the minimum specific features you’d like to see included for a new or updated website. Allow for add-on options. What you need to be able to do is compare bids apples to apples in order to make the best decision possible.
  2. When presented a menu of add-on options, you can sometimes see what you didn’t realize you should have requested. The options and associated costs will allow you to better see what’s involved to bring you to your desired goal. No one likes surprises after the fact.
  3. If your bid process requires you to select the cheapest bid, your challenges may just be starting. What you thought you wanted and what the winner can deliver may be miles apart. If your criteria are for “best” bid you are more likely to receive a better end result. Otherwise your project and budget may grow and suffer from “scope creep”..
  4. Those that design your website may be techies but that doesn’t mean that they understand  the hospitality industry – your industry, the end consumer or how the product or service is delivered…and I don’t mean in a big truck either. Case in point, I’m aware of a hip young agency that attached a 20 MB download file to a website. C’mon. That’s too big to even go through most email systems, yet open on a smartphone quickly.
  5. Remember to ask, if the website will be thoroughly tested on all size devices before you see a “proof” or if it will be your job?
  6. Lastly, find out if training is included.

In Conclusion

After reading this blog, I trust you’ll better understand why “it depends” is a common answer.

Finding a firm that’s good match for your destination should begin a tourism marketing agency having experience in the hospitality industry but more specifically with CVBs and chambers of commerce. Those that are familiar with your target audiences and the unique needs of each will save you time in explaining the subtle nuances of each.

More importantly, the winner should be able to showcase “how to experience” your destination in a manner that entices visitors to want to come, explore and stay … on a desktop computer, tablet and smartphone.

Will you be a small fish in a big web development firm’s pond or a big fish in a very small web development pond? Or the right fish in just the right size pond?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *