Destination Marketing 3.0: The Best Story (of WHY) Wins

The tourism and meeting/events industries have long lamented that they are misunderstood and under-appreciated, particularly when it comes to government policy matters.

So…why is that?

Some say it’s because locally, nationally and internationally we are hopelessly fragmented into a thousand different tribes and voices competing with each other for attention (and cash) from stakeholders. Lincoln’s “house divided” speech comes to mind. Fortunately the meeting/events industry in the US realizes this and is rallying to create a united voice.

Some say it’s because hospitality is in our DNA and we try to get things cleaned-up with a silk handkerchief instead of a chainsaw. Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association, often sums it up by saying “The industry behaves like the glee club when it should behave more like the football team.”

Some say that in the big scheme of things the trials and tribulations of an industry that all-to-often allows itself to be embodied by international air carriers, cruise lines, lodging companies, celebrity chefs and red carpets, aren’t what’s keeping the world up at night.

It’s probably all of the above and more.

But boil it all down and you come to one simple insight: Our story sucks.

You know our core story: “We are a $multi-trillion global industry employing millions generating $billions in annual tax revenue so we deserve respect.”

Now, there is no doubt that this story is true and significant.

We also know that every other industry of significance uses the economic impact story-line. Its become table stakes to get into the advocacy game. But if everyone is using the same story-line, it’s no longer remarkable or memorable.

 “Whoever tells the best story wins.” – John Quincy Adams

If we apply Simon Sinek’s wonderful Golden Circle model we quickly conclude that our current story is all about the WHAT and that truly inspirational leadership story-telling starts with the WHY…as in WHY SHOULD WE CARE? WHAT = Pragmatic. WHY = Emotional. Guess which approach best inspires action?

Here’s a thought: We need a story that gets more than just economists excited about us. One that doesn’t measure our worth by how much money we spend but by how much we change people’s lives.

And herein lies an opportunity for destination marketers to carve out some local emotional real estate and build some important grass-roots community cred: Find and share the local industry’s story of WHY.

As marketplace story-teller we’re in the business of creating great stories that inspire people to visit our destinations or select it as an event location. So how about applying those very same story-telling skills in our own communities to make them care about WHY an industry they often take for granted makes their lives better? DMOs are closer to the emotional experiences and realities of our industry WHY than anyone. And since all politics is local, starting with local hearts and minds will likely get better traction.

Let me share an example:

When I was in Toronto we were honored to host the 2006 International AIDS Conference. It was a huge conference with 26,000 attendees, keynotes by Bill and Melinda Gates and Bill Clinton, $25 million in local spending etc. Like most DMOs we touted the economic impact of 26,000 people on our taxis, restaurants, hotels, shops etc. It was a one-day story and was soon forgotten. The real story of that conference, the one that people cared enough about to share and remember, the one that the media covered endlessly, was how the conference brought together AIDS researchers and hospice workers from third world countries with their Toronto counterparts to learn from each other. The “best story” for our community was not about the economics, it was about how the shared learning from the conference would save lives. This was the WHY that people who mattered cared enough about to act on.

We got thank-you’s from local politicians, doctors and nurses because of that story. I can’t remember getting anything from the souvenir shop owners.

Business Events Sydney (the DMO) examined this at a more empirical level in its 2010 Scoping Study of Business Events: Beyond Tourism Benefits.

Destination marketers must play a pivotal industry and community leadership role by harvesting and sharing the best stories of WHY, not just WHAT. By expanding our story-telling focus beyond the marketplace to include the hearts and minds of our internal communities, the tourism and meeting/event industries will be better positioned for the inevitable policy challenges.

Because advocacy is no substitute for a story that sucks.


8 thoughts on “Destination Marketing 3.0: The Best Story (of WHY) Wins

  1. Great article Bruce. We absolutely have to make it about the Why and your example from the Aids Conference is right on the money about looking for the deeper level of why people meet in Toronto. In the Consumer Marketing side, we cooperated with a local independent film maker who happened to have access to the red carpet during TIFF. Rather than simply collect platitudes from the film stars, they pushed for “Why do you come to Toronto?”. This is the result:

    Be well, Joel.


  2. Bruce, I totally agree the 99% of the story. I do however; disagree with your last line, “Because advocacy is no substitute for a story that sucks.” Advocacy is the story and about the story. The meetings and event industry is about the personal stories of people, organizations and industries that change, advance and reshape society. The impact of what happens when people meet. How they learn, share, grow, and expand one’s horizon. Again advocacy is the story – it is just not the story about how big we are to the economy. I agree with you that no one outside the meetings and events industry really cares about our size and scope. Advocacy is much more than statistics to impress government officials – it is about making a positive argument about one’s real value. In the case of the meetings industry it has to be about why we need to meet – not just that we met, where we met, how we got there, and where we stayed.

    Yes Bruce – let’s begin to tell the real story of our impact on the world.


    • Thanks Roger for engaging…

      First…I have to say that I’m thrilled that the meetings/events community is working together to help make its advocacy efforts more formidable.

      My point is this: I believe that any community advocacy effort will be more successful by starting with a look at its story. To quote Muriel Rukeyser ~ “The universe is made up not of atoms, but of stories.”

      In TO we hammered endlessly on the industry’s economic story (“WHAT”) with fleeting success. But when the story changed to make it more human for the people in the community (as opposed to politicians and economists) we finally nailed it. The event and the industry suddenly was seen by many more people to be making a tangible difference for them around something that really mattered. I believe the WHY approach to the story clearly trumped the WHAT approach. It inspired action. At the very least it sucked less than the economic one.

      In short, instead of hammering harder to get our point across we used a sharper nail. In our case it made our future advocacy initiatives much more successful…which at the end of the day is what its all about. 🙂


  3. Thanks for your insights, Bruce, a question keeps popping up as I read about the disruptive behaviors of Toronto’s mayor. How should a convention bureau handle the behaviors of the main stakeholder, the Mayor, to protect its brand? Will brand Toronto (clean and safe) be damaged by the Mayor buying crack on a street corner? I guess this is disruption at its worst!


    • Michel – as a fellow Torontonian and respectfully, with an ego-centric delusional Mayor who believes he has a chance of being Prime Minister of Canada someday, ‘clean and safe’ is not going to cut it!

      While one unqualified politician does not make a city, we need a forward-looking story with a clear point view of where our city is going. Not a story from the past that’s no longer relevant. In my opinion.

      Bruce…curious…you’re very familiar with Toronto, what would you be looking for?


      • In this case I would expect Torontonians to make it clear in some way, shape or form (San Diego went the petition route) that Mr. Ford’s actions and behaviors are not part of Toronto’s story. In a city of 3+ million people there are endless stories of people making a remarkable difference every day to make Toronto a better place. That’s what I’d be looking for.


    • Great question Michel. Obviously this hits close to home for me. 😉

      I fear the day that destination brands become so embodied by the actions and behaviors of their government leaders that the leader and his/her story becomes the essence of the brand. Mr. Ford (not sure you can call him “Mayor” any more) is the latest poster-child for that nightmare but there have been plenty of others: the days of Mayor Bob Filner of San Diego and Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, DC were far from their respective community’s finest hours.

      Like others, I have been watching and reading the extensive global comments, perspectives and parodies about Mr. Ford’s behavior. Fortunately, Mr. Ford has made it increasingly clear to most that there is considerable separation between his brand story and the essence, values and appeal of Brand Toronto.

      In short, Rob Ford is not Toronto. And everyone seems to know it. A testimony to the strength of the core essence of Brand Toronto.

      Great destination brands have stories that are defined by their communities, not their leaders.

      In the most recent case of an out-of-control mayor in San Diego, the community made it abundantly clear that allegations of harassment were so toxic to their community story that they all but stampeded to sign recall petitions. He took the hint and resigned and Brand San Diego carried-on.

      In Toronto’s case it will be up to the community to demonstrate that the real essence of Brand Toronto can and has been insulated from the toxic behavior of one of its profile citizens.

      A DMO can certainly play a role in this: by continuing to share the definitive brand stories that make the destination remarkable and delineate its true brand essence. This might also be an opportunity to go a step beyond story-telling and embark on a “story-doing” initiative — not only telling the story but actually making more brand essence stories happen. By doing this the DMO reminds both the community and the marketplace that what really defines the destination at its essence are the stories of its people, not the stories of a rogue and ridiculed leader.


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