Despite prioritizing destination development—or management—destination organizations continue to invest significantly more dollars and resources in other areas. But ignoring this vital DMO function could lead to alienated locals, confused stakeholders and missing the chance to be the connective tissue of your destination. 

By Chris Fair

For more than a decade, Resonance has worked with dozens of destinations and DMOs, always advising on adding a second M—“Management”—to the utility belt that destination marketers wear daily.

We were very excited, then, to attend a revelatory session at Destinations International’s Annual Convention earlier this month titled “Building Your Destination Development Team.” Destination International’s Jim McCaul moderated the discussion with Catherine Callary, Ottawa Tourism’s senior director, destination development, Chuck Davison, CEO of Visit SLO CAL, and Lori Janson, Tourism Vancouver’s director of destination development.

“In DestinationNEXT Futures Study Update, we asked destination leaders, ‘If you were to establish a new destination organization, what would the primary role be?’ The #2 answer, behind only ‘Brand/Marketing,’ was ‘Destination and Product Development,’” McCaul told the standing room-only crowd in his opening remarks. “This was ahead of traditional destination organization activities including ‘Meeting and Convention Sales,’ ‘Leisure Sales’ and ‘Visitor Experience Servicing.’”

Despite prioritizing destination development, he noted, destination organizations continue to invest significantly more dollars and resources in these other areas. “As an industry, it’s time we align our actions with our values and invest in destination development professionals.”

I couldn’t agree more. While most destinations are talking about destination management, few have truly integrated and developed it as a core part of their organization. At Resonance, we’ve worked with a number of progressive destinations on this ranging from Tourism Vancouver to Travel Portland. The journey most often begins with the creation of a Tourism Master Plan or Destination Development Strategy. But for any plan to be successfully realized, it requires a long-term commitment of resources – and may be the most important person your organization hires next year.

Here are six key takeaways from this illuminating discussion for destinations who need to ramp up the destination development and management side of their services—and add that second M to the DMO.

The destination development panel in Anaheim at the 2018 Destinations International Annual Convention

The destination development panel in Anaheim at the 2018 Destinations International Annual Convention

1) IT STARTS WITH A PLAN

McCaul noted that “every member of the panel made the decision to add a destination development professional following the development of a strategic plan or destination management plan.”

But Chuck Davison, CEO of Visit SLO CAL, said it best when he noted, “no destination wants to create another plan that ends up sitting on a shelf.”

He referred to the current Destination Management Strategy that Resonance is building for San Luis Obispo County as a blueprint for destinations. “One of the things that came out of Resonance’s recommendations was to give the ownership of the [destination development] process to a senior person on our team. They recommended that we hire today for the role we’ll need in two years.”

2) PLANS ARE GOOD, BUT IMPLEMENTATION IS VITAL

We’re seeing destination organizations collaborate more and more with non-traditional stakeholders in their communities and create tourism master plans, but there’s often no individual within the organization who is tasked with implementing these plans on a daily basis. In both the cases of Tourism Vancouver and, more recently, San Luis Obispo County, Resonance Consultancy’s recommendations incorporated this roles, its parameters and integration into the larger DMO team.

3) THE ROLE SERVES LOCAL CITIZENS

The panel discussed the perils (and subsequent headlines) of what happens when destinations ignore a vital audience of their organization, namely, the residents. Tourism Vancouver’s Lori Janson pointed out that, “Your community will let you know if you have their permission to operate within the destination.” Ignoring these local signals means the manifestation of calamities like overtourism and destination organization funding under threat because residents of communities felt like their voices weren’t being heard.

Ottawa Tourism’s Catherine Callary pointed out that her two-year-old role involves being the face of her organization to the community. For too long that role has been left to CEOs, or worse unattended, and “we’re beginning to understand the need for professionals to fill that role on a daily basis.”

4) KEEP THE DESTINATION DEVELOPMENT ROLE FOCUSED

Managing the destination doesn’t mean owning or doing all the work. In many cases, DMOs can accomplish more by delegating. That means having a seat at the table of various discussions around a destination and providing leadership through a support role.

Ottawa Tourism’s Callary agreed, using one of her many sports analogies during the panel in saying that “you can’t swing at every pitch.”

Each destination has its own set of community growth areas, challenges, visitor experience gaps, advocacy issues, she pointed out. “It is pretty easy to bite off more than one can chew, especially since it is easy to cast a wide net on the scope of the destination development role.”

To stay focused upon starting her role, she conducted an environmental scan of Ottawa’s top visitor experience gaps and challenges, via many one-on-one interviews with stakeholders, running media scans on topics related to the local visitor economy, and ultimately running Destination International’s DestinationNEXT diagnostic report.

She then prioritized. “When new gaps were brought to my attention, I would either order them into existing categories of priorities that were underway, or I had to decide if it was within the purview of my DMO to tackle that topic, or not.” To be effective, she pointed out, each destination development opportunity should be assessed in terms of the DMO’s role to “lead, to support, or to get out of the way.”

5) IT’S ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS

Tourism Vancouver’s Janson noted that “Destination Development is the continuous practice of coordination, collaboration and development of amenities, facilities, experiences, services to deliver exceptional experiences for visitors and enhance residents’ quality of life and well-being.” 

This means building a tremendous amount of trust with all partners within a destination. And doing so before you need something.

“Develop the relationships you will need without an ask, before you actually need them,” advised San Luis Obispo’s Davison.

“Do this by understanding your audience’s why and speak to them with a message that shows you understand,” he advised, noting that the managing of a destination is greater than just tourism.  “You must understanding the ecosystem of your community and successfully steer and influence the policies, processes and programs to achieve success, even those that are not tied directly to tourism.”

Callary reminded destination development professionals that to go fast, they can go alone. But to go far, it’s best to go together. “Destination development is all about those milestones that move the destination forward—improving the community’s capacity to work through a gap together; improving resident pride in a place, thereby elevating the way residents interact with visitors or levels of customer service; and leaving lasting impressions with visitors, who will speak highly of your destination, becoming ambassadors.”

These are not quick fixes, so a certain level of patience is required.

6) THE REQUIRED SKILLS

Lori Janson, Tourism Vancouver
“The ability to communicate effectively is vital. Relationship-building and partnerships are equally key. So are government relations and very strong strategic thinking.”

Catherine Callary, Ottawa Tourism
“Destinations needs to hire for their specific needs, so it depends. However, communications are important across the board. In Ottawa, given we’re Canada’s capital, government relations is key.”

Chuck Davison, San Luis Obispo
“We look for someone who will own the process and makes it theirs.”

If you are interested in discussing our views on the future of destination marketing organizations and the role a DMO can play in the development and management of your community, please give me a call or contact me via email at cfair@resonanceco.com.