Formalizing the Tourism Marketing and Economic Development Partnership

A colleague of mine from Vital Economy – one of the US’ foremost social enterprises focused on community economic development strategies – forwarded me a recent Forbes article about how cities are getting serious about marketing campaigns to attract talent to their destinations. They cite LouisvilleMontrealClevelandCalgaryRaleigh and Houston as examples of cities that have established comprehensive community development initiatives under various organizational constructs, such as economic development offices (EDOs) or chambers of commerce, to market their destinations as great places to live and work.

When you go to their respective websites (check-out Montreal in particular) you’ll find that their look, feel and approach is strikingly similar to that of a DMO looking to engage visitors. And why not:

  • EDOs are attracting talent and investment.
  • DMOs are attracting visitors.
  • Both are dealing with intensely competitive global marketplaces (the “war for talent” and investment is every bit as brutal as competition for meetings and events).
  • Both want to build relationships with executive-level decision-makers as well as engage individual consumers.
  • Both are in the destination marketing business – presenting their destination’s emotional and pragmatic benefits to their target audiences with the objective of making their community a better place to live, work and play.

The potential partnership synergies are enormous.

When DestinationNEXT identified the development of new business models as one of three provocative transformational opportunities for the future of DMOs, the top element in business model evolution was “greater involvement in broader economic development initiatives.”

So what does that look like?

There are currently numerous DMOs that have recognized the important opportunity that closer working relationships with EDOs presents for everyone in the community. For starters, many progressive communities have already seen fit to include the film and/or sports commissions as part of the current DMO since they too are in the business of marketing the destination. At the same time, many of those relationships remain issue and/or opportunity based – that is to say that there are currently very few examples of ongoing formal structural or MOU-type DMO-EDO initiatives with measurable objectives and aligned strategies.

Old DMO Design

Maybe the time is right for everyone to think a little bigger. Since DMOs and EDOs are BOTH in the destination marketing business (though to different audiences) does the future destination marketing organization one day look like this?:

New DMO Design

Consider some of the benefits of a broader consolidation with EDOs:

  • More business leads: Combining relationship networks across geographies and industries will help develop more leads for meetings/events, business investment etc.
  • Community support: Bringing stakeholders together in one entity will help community engagement and stakeholder understanding (e.g. business and investment community) of destination marketing activities, building both marketplace and political capital for use where and when needed.
  • Brand alignment: One consistent destination story will improve traction in intensely competitive marketplaces.
  • Destination development: Having a destination development plan (e.g. convention center expansion, tourism improvement district etc) that is broadly endorsed by tourism and economic development leaders/constituencies will help secure the required government policy support as well as private/public sector financing.
  • More business generation capacity: Enhanced operating efficiencies allowing for greater investment in direct business-generating destination marketing and economic development activities.

However, the idea has three fundamental challenges:

  • Funding: With prescriptively defined funding already in-place for many DMOs through hotel tax allocation and other lodging-based voluntary levies, having those proceeds dedicated to anything but visitor transaction generation could present problems.
  • Leadership: While the big picture mission (“making the community a better place to live, work and play”) won’t get much challenge, the need to also meet the expectations of the diverse individual stakeholder groups for each organization will take considerable energy.
  • Culture: This could be the biggest challenge of all. For example, while most tourism stakeholders have a richly-grounded hospitality ethos, the economic development mindset can be very bottom-line driven. Can they co-exist?

Of course its idealistic, simplified and maybe even naïve. But if superior relationship development and operational performance from community destination marketing initiatives in intensely competitive marketplaces is the objective, the concept of one organization formally leading a community’s various destination marketing initiatives is worth exploring.

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Nothing Ever Really Happens

I’ve spent the better part of 25 years in the world of destination marketing — most of it in the global meetings and events community — and will offer three foundational thoughts as I kick-off this BLOG for anyone who is a destination marketer, relies on effective destination marketing to drive their business/create community legacies or depends on destination marketing to make informed travel-related decisions for tourism/meeting and event travel:

  1. Destination marketing is a crucial element to grow and sustain the inherent social and economic legacies generated by the global tourism and events industries.
  2. EVERYONE has an opinion on destination marketing.
  3. Much of today’s destination marketing is increasingly ineffective, depriving businesses and communities everywhere from realizing their full potential as tourism or event destinations.

Not sure I’ll get much argument from anyone on the first two points. But on the third one there are endless conversations and deliberations about destination marketing – and its some of those perspectives that I want to share here.

And while sharing is caring, it isn’t enough. The travel industry and destination marketing community is deluged with endless events, meetings and conversations about how to inspire real innovation and relevancy with business and government opinion-leaders. But as the children’s literary figure Kipper the Dog is fond of saying: “Nothing ever really happens.” The disconnect comes when one realizes the extent to which the customer/user/traveler has changed during the last hundred years while destination marketing has not.

So how did destination marketing get to this place of disconnect and waning relevancy?

I believe that many destination marketers either (1) ignored or (2) didn’t understand until it was too late, that today’s customers/users/travelers are the ones in-charge. This is best summed-up in the 1999 publication of the Cluetrain Manifesto and its signature quote:  “…markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.”

Technology-enabled connectivity has transformed markets into conversations by and for customers, not marketers. Everything needs to be designed and aligned around them, NOT the destination. NOTE: I’m not talking about customer service here. I’m talking about the WHAT and HOW marketers provide products/services to their customers.

An example: In the media world, Netflix is one of those disruptors that dared to put the customer in charge, most recently with its House of Cards series. Kevin Spacey recently spoke at the Edinburgh Television Festival about how Netflix courageously defied the entrenched industry approach to content development and gave the customers exactly what they wanted, not how the industry wanted them to have it.

I will strive here to showcase the hackers, the disruptors and the innovators that have recognized that destination marketing today needs to be turned on its head to make a real difference and are boldly going where few dare. Recognition is not enough however. It needs to be accompanied with the courage to act. That’s where it gets difficult. Paradoxically, for an industry often touted as creative and emotionally inspired, we (I include myself in this as part of the discipline) are typically late-adopters at best when it comes to change. (I recall more than one major lodging company that would not allow its sales teams to have personal email accounts until the mid-late 1990’s.) It’s no surprise then that much of today’s true innovation comes from outside the core destination marketing community.

And while enlightened brands outside the travel space as well as a few iconic brands in the space (airline and lodging companies seem to have gotten the memo) recognized the need for change, most destination marketers stuck with a neo-industrial broadcast approach – securing media placements, printing visitor guides, issuing press releases and undertaking email carpet-bombing that focused on buying the attention of prospects in the marketplace to drive awareness and interest, leading eventually (hopefully) to a purchase. Customer conversation and engagement was more often than not a bolted-on after-thought at best, enabled through some form of social media advertisement. Don’t believe me? Ask customers. Or better still check-out how and where destination marketers spend their money.

All is not lost however. Enter those hackers, the disruptors and the innovators who understand that today its all about the customers’ conversations, not the destination’s broadcast. They are typically not from the industry. Refreshingly, there are a few mavericks out there like Seattle’s 2DaysinSeattle experiment and Australia’s The Best Jobs in the World campaign. I am sure there are others. They are the ones focused on aligning how customers discover and share conversations about the destination experience with how it gets marketed and purchased, building trust and engagement…THEN they build business around the insight from that alignment. I want to celebrate them in this blog.

And because destination marketers have been slow to let go of the entrenched broadcast mentality, they are spending more money to be less relevant. Travel2.0 (an awesome blog on future travel marketing trends) reports that only 9% of travelers visit a destination marketing organization website. Where are they going instead?  To places that make customer conversations and purchase behavior preferences the focus of the marketing experience. Check out Peek and Triptease for a couple of killer innovative examples. And of course there is Trip Advisor with its 100 million user-reviews and 11 million monthly visits in the US alone. These companies pride themselves on unleashing authentic customer conversations to build trust, not fabricating artificial marketing constructs to build awareness.

So what happened to the destination marketers? Inquiring minds would like to know. Bill Taylor’s recent HBR Blog post “The More Things Change, the More Our Objections to Change Stay the Same” offers some good insight and advice.

Destination marketing is vitally important to the success of the travel and/or event industry everywhere. With millions more people around the world looking for compelling travel experiences every year, there has never been a better time to be part of this industry. But it is also more competitive than ever creating unprecedented opportunities for destination marketers to innovate. Effective destination marketing today means having the courage to move out of long-controlled comfort-zones which includes unleashing the scary power of the customers’ authentic conversations. Less broadcast, more engagement. Today in the world of destination marketing, the road less traveled is increasingly the road best traveled. Welcome to the journey.

Next up: What problem are destination marketers trying to fix?

Coming soon: The overcrowded meeting and event supply chain.