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Michael Gehrisch stepped down as president and CEO of Destination Marketing Association International this week after 15 years advocating for the tourism bureau industry.
DMAI’s COO Charles Jeffers assumes leadership responsibilities until the group’s board of directors determines a successor.
In a press release, Gehrisch said he was moving on to spend time overseeing family business investments, and he will consult with DMAI’s board on selecting his replacement. For any association CEO position, 15 years is a relatively long time, and Gehrisch told Skift this summer during the annual DMAI conference in Austin that he was reprioritizing certain values following the recent passing of his father.
During his tenure, Gehrisch emphasized the role of destination marketing organizations (DMOs) as a vehicle for developing partnerships with local travel suppliers to drive economic development and job growth. He was also a strident advocate for educating elected officials and business stakeholders that the economic impact of tourism promotion extended well beyond filling hotel rooms.
Gehrisch entered his position when the organization was originally called the International Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus. In July 2005, he stewarded a strategic brand repositioning to rename the organization: Destination Marketing Association International. The purpose behind that was to emphasize the role of DMOs in destination branding and business development, versus what had devolved into producing printed destination guides and operating aging visitor centers.
“Michael unquestionably has taken DMAI such a long way, and given it more credibility than anyone else before him,” says Bob Lander, chairman of the DMAI board, and CEO of the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau. “In any association, you’re going to have people who support you and people who oppose you, and I always thought that Michael handled that very well. I understand why he chose to regroup. In our industry, you’re on 24/7, expectations are always high, and things are always moving rapidly.”
While many industry people consider the IACVB/DMAI rebranding as Gehrisch’s most important legacy, he was also instrumental in leading the development of DMAI’s DestinationNEXT research over the last three years.
The first phase of the landmark research launched in 2014, which surveyed a global selection of 327 DMOs to empirically calculate the most successful trends and strategies in tourism promotion.
At the annual DMAI conference this year, Gehrisch introduced the rollout of phase two of DestinationNEXT. It provides a comprehensive series of best practices for destination marketing in the 21st century, and a self-assessment tool for destinations to determine which specific best practices they need to adopt.
Until this year, there was never a truly scientific road map for destination marketers to improve their effectiveness in an industry undergoing unprecedented changes in digital communications and economic development opportunities.
“One of the big takeaways for phase one of DestinationNEXT is how it’s really proven the value of social media and the move online of our industry,” says Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake. “Secondly, while there’s an enormous amount of ways that we’re structured foundationally, we are all bound by our impact on the local economy, how that affects our global economy, and our connection with our economic development communities. That has been transformational, and I think it will be one of the legacies of this [second] phase of DestinationNEXT.”
As DestinationNEXT bears fruit over the ensuing years — as long as the global DMO industry continuously provides a stream of new data to keep it relevant — that should evolve into Gehrisch’s defining moment at the helm of DMAI.
A primary component of DestinationNEXT outlines the direct and indirect impact of DMOs on their local visitor economy. Gehrisch repeatedly emphasized how DMOs need to drive that message home to their local government officials.
“Voters don’t often recognize the economic value of tourism, and we can show all these big numbers about economic spend all we want, but for most voters that’s just a lot of white noise,” says Lander. “Instead, we need fight the battle to explain the number of jobs and the taxes that tourism provides. Voters understand that.”
We asked Lander what impressed him most about the outgoing CEO.
“Michael was always curious about how other organizations were innovating,” he said. “He developed alliances with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for example, so he opened up some doors in Washington D.C. that weren’t availed to us before. For that, and other reasons, we’re going to miss him.”
DMAI faces numerous challenges heading into the future, including expanding international membership that remains below 5% of its over 600 member DMOs.
The association also needs to connect better with Millennial industry members, just like most every other association, which it’s making strides with through its 30 Under 30 initiative. In Austin, Gehrisch said the association is looking at placing a Millennial age member on the DMAI board.
There’s also an opportunity for reinvigorated leadership detailing the growth of Tourism Improvement Districts designed to expand DMO operating budgets.
Most importantly, DMAI requires a new online content platform. How travel industry brands communicate today with their audiences is just as important as what they communicate. Whoever succeeds Gehrisch needs to focus on developing much more robust digital engagement with association members, using the same methods prescribed in the association’s very own DestinationNEXT research.