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At the IMEX Frankfurt meetings industry trade show last week, Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) showcased its online DestinationNEXT assessment tool during a session attended by convention bureau executives.
The tool is the result of an expansive, multi-year effort designed to get elected officials, destination marketing organizations (DMOs), business stakeholders, and academic leaders together to determine where they agree on the effectiveness of their cities to attract leisure and convention visitors, and where they don’t.
Don Welsh, the new CEO for DMAI, coming over from Choose Chicago; Paul Ouimet, the architect of DestinationNEXT; and Anja Loetscher, director of the Geneva Convention & Visitors Bureau, shared their views on the value of the DestinationNEXT platform as the cornerstone of DMAI moving into the future.
Dozens of DMO C-suite executives have told Skift that the key to a destination’s ability to attract conventions relies on getting government, tourism, business, and academic organizations around the same table. The goal of bringing those interdisciplinary networks together is to offer convention organizers access to as much of the destination’s knowledge-based industry as possible.
But with so many conflicting political and business agendas involved in any destination, it’s often challenging for everyone to be completely transparent in the necessary spirit of collaboration required to create effective public-private partnerships.
DestinationNEXT was designed to address that. Everyone invested in a city’s convention industry can participate in the online survey, comprised of questions focused on 20 different variables relating to a destination’s infrastructure strength and level of community engagement. Those variables can be weighted individually to customize the survey to the destination.
Data based on answers to those questions is then plotted on a graph, so everyone can see where they agree and diverge in their opinions of the destination as a whole.
The value of that information is that it provides an empirical starting point for discussion based on hard data from the entire community. In practice, DestinationNEXT helps cuts through all of the politics and agendas among stakeholders by delivering a shared platform for collaboration.
Nothing like that existed before.
Following is the first detailed interview Welsh has provided to the media regarding his new role at DMAI and the organization’s strategy revolving around DestinationNEXT, Airbnb, and the value of partnering with convention industry associations.
Skift: How do you judge the impact and effectiveness of a DMO?
Don Welsh: The things I learned in Chicago under Mayor Rahm Emanuel was he judged us really on three things. What’s the economic impact, and therefore the taxes? What is the job creation, both new and as well making sure those who are in this industry remain employed. And third, how is the media generated from our industry telling a great story about your destination?
Skift: DestinationNEXT touches on all of that. So how do you think DMAI should position DestinationNEXT to make it more understandable and more accessible to more DMOs?
Welsh: First, within our organization, we have a suite of products and services like DestinationNEXT, but they’ve traditionally been siloed in how we’ve provided these services. Aside from DestinationNEXT, we have our DMAI Accreditation Program, our education programs, our EmpowerMINT platform, and others. They’ve sat in different structures, different buckets along the way, so our goal is to position them more as an interdisciplinary whole.
So far, being three weeks on the job, I have been very impressed with DestinationNEXT, both when I was sitting at the CVB/DMO level in Chicago, and seeing what it’s capable of now having been here. To me, DestinationNEXT is trendsetting. This is a very forward thinking tool for any destination, whether it’s an established destination or whether it’s an up-and-coming destination. I think it gives you a road map. I think it gives you a solid strategic road map in terms of how to attack your business, whether you’re contemplating expanding your convention center, or getting into a different segment maybe you’ve not been in before, or any number of other opportunities.
Skift: What do you see as the greatest takeaway from DestinationNEXT for bureaus?
Welsh: It answers the question about what is the perception of your brand. What is the eternal perception of your brand within your community? What is the political awareness and support of your product and your business in that community? I think it gives a lot of different stakeholders data in a very unbiased way to be able to make decisions.
Mostly, I think DestinationNEXT de-mystifies everything. I think all of the sudden when you get hard data, you get to know more or less how your destination compares with another, and you can marry that with some of the work that we’ll be doing more aggressively on the advocacy and research side.
Skift: How are you going to promote DestinationNEXT moving forward though, because it’s still a bit of an unknown for many DMOs?
Welsh: Looking ahead, we’re going to redesign the entire DMAI website, and on that website will live DestinationNEXT. There will be real-time examples, along with who potentially has completed it, who’s in the process of maybe going through the exercises now, and who’s signed up. As we re-engineer what the website will look like, we’re going to take programs like DestinationNEXT, like the education program, like the accreditation program, and sort of tell the story of what it is. We’re going to be much more proactive in pushing out this information to tell a CEO or somebody on their team that these types of products exist.
In all honesty, DestinationNEXT seems like it has not had top-of-mind awareness. This is something that as a product, and one that’s very cost effective, I would have probably used in Chicago. Again, even a mature destination can never rest on its laurels, particularly if that mature destination is adding new product in a competitive situation. So yeah, we’re going to promote it, and make it a global promotion, because it has a global application.
Skift: Speaking of that, DMAI’s membership base of more than 600 DMOs is less than 20% international. What are your plans to expand that?
Welsh: We’ve had some great meetings here at IMEX Frankfurt. I had discussions about the European marketing partnership we have with European Cities Marketing, and with Anja from Geneva, who is also on our board of directors. She’s been the liaison to make sure that our association has remained at least somewhat active here in Europe. We already have an educational joint venture between us and ECM, so we’ll be coming over here again in August when their educational summit takes place in Zagreb.
We’re having meetings with them to find out, what are the products and services that we can provide to complement what they do? It seems to me that a DestinationNEXT is something that the European countries are very interested in. They’ve been very active so far in the number of workshops we’re provided, so I think that’s going to be our calling card. I think this product here can clearly become a calling card, as can the accreditation program, as can the EmpowerMINT project, and a few other things we can offer.
Skift: One primary theme in the convention industry revolves around how DMOs are developing more public-private partnerships to attract conventions by sharing data and resources among more and more stakeholders. Can DMAI grow and become more effective in that discussion by working more closely with other industry associations?
Welsh: We had our DMAI CEO Summit last week in Puerto Rico. We had Deborah Sexton from the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA); we had Paul Van Deventer from Meeting Professionals International (MPI); and we had Dave Dubois from International Association of Exhibitions & Events (IAEE), and we were talking about the future of global meetings. When I looked at some of the data and I heard what they were saying about it, we all acknowledged the amount of detail and content that have within our databases. I also spoke with the International Convention & Congress Association here (ICCA), and it was the same thing.
Except, with our associations a lot of that information is just sitting there, and it’s sitting in rather dispersed channels. I think when we begin to try to find a way to strategically align our information, and make it available to each other, that’s going to provide an enormous amount of value. Let’s say, a North American destination has decided that it wants to get into the international arena, or that it’s decided that it wants to attract some of the association business within Europe. There will be channels where, all of the sudden, we begin complementing one another.
So, what can DMAI do to support ICCA? What can DMAI do to support the efforts of PCMA, or MPI, or IAEE? I think there’s beginning to be this really great collaboration and understanding of the value of that collaboration. We’ve got a global audience here, and that global audience needs different information depending upon their market and what their goals are.
Skift: DestinationNEXT highlights emerging industry trends like the impact of sharing companies on destination marketing partnerships. What is your perspective of how DMOs should view and/or engage Airbnb?
Welsh: It’s interesting. We’ve seen how Uber and Airbnb are clearly disrupters. They’re changing the way we consume and view services in our industry. If you look at my background, I’m a traditional person who moved from 20 years in the hotel industry to the DMO/CVB space. So I had a built-in bias against Airbnb that here was this product that came into the market that somehow wasn’t going through traditional channels. However, using my experience in Chicago, we saw that 7-800,000 room nights in our marketplace were consumed by Airbnb on an annual basis. That sort of changed my paradigm in terms of thinking, you know what, number one, it’s still driving visitation to my destination. It’s driving economic impact to my destination.
Now, is it going through a different channel in terms of how it’s booked? Go back to the online travel agencies. Think about the traditional way we as an industry have changed the way you buy a hotel room. Airbnb is just another channel. They’re bringing another product mix to the destination, so my feeling has been that we need to embrace Airbnb.
Now, there are the legislative issues that need to be dealt with in terms of compliance and regulation. That’s fine, and I’m sure in every city and every country, they’ll deal with it in the manner that they deem appropriate. But I think right now, for someone running a DMO, Airbnb needs to be viewed as a strategic partner, because again, they’re going to help achieve the visitation numbers. They are going to help achieve the total tourism numbers, depending upon their convention mix of business. Trust me, people who are coming to conventions, both large and small, they are Airbnb consumers.
I think it’s an important point that a CVB or DMO, whatever the acronym may be in that respective country and city, they’ve got to embrace this because there will be other technologies that are going to bring additional services and products. So I am a big supporter, and I know in every city, in every country, they’re looking at the legislative piece, but I clearly think that Airbnb is a vital, vital part of the growth element in most destinations.
Skift: I’m deciding to attend certain events like IMEX Frankfurt, and South by Southwest in Austin last month, based on the value proposition that Airbnb affords. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it wasn’t for Airbnb. I would just go to IMEX America but not here. So I have the contention that the sharing economy is helping drive the knowledge economy, because more people can now go for professional development and industry networking events like this one, based on budget considerations. Does that resonate with you at all, this idea that the sharing economy is also helping more people attend face-to-face professional events?
Welsh: I think you just said it. There are certain meetings that people want to attend, and counting the registration and the cost of getting there and the cost of accommodations, that all gets factored into a decision process. I think clearly it is the intent and objective of every CVB around the world that you want to maximize attendance to your city. I think that if you look at that, and if you again embrace this changing culture, and the fact that it’s not going to go back — we’re not going to go back to the old ways of how people consume information — then I think we as destinations can’t ignore what a meeting planner wants for their organizations.
So how do you expand that circle, and how do you make it easier for people to attend, without again hurting room blocks? I think right now you hit it on the head. Airbnb gives an opportunity for a lot of people who may not be able to attend the conference, that benefit from that conference, by also making it more affordable.
Skift: When you came in as the new CEO of DMAI, you made some significant personnel changes in the organization at the executive level. What do you see as maybe some of the challenges at DMAI before you arrived, and where are you trying to move the culture of the organization moving forward?
Welsh: I started a couple of weeks ago, and I will say that I had tremendous support of our executive board for about six weeks. We had plenty of discussions before I officially took the job in terms of how we were going to get the organization to the next level. We discussed the things and products that we were going to provide for our members, and the whole culture we’re going to create now is based on how we exist for one reason, our members. Everything we do as we go forward will be based on what are our members want, need, and are willing to financially support — want, need, and are willing to financially support.
I think that right now everybody realizes that those [dismissed] are good people. Every one of the people that, and I’ve said this from the onset, are good solid people in terms of what they did and their contributions. However, I do think whenever there’s a new culture, a lot of times there needs to be changes in personnel.
I have the good fortune that some of the people that I’ve worked with over the years are going to be joining me in Washington, D.C., such as Melissa Cherry, our chief marketing officer, who worked with me for the last five years in Chicago. Jack Johnson, who was also with me in Chicago on the public policy side, will also be joining us in Washington D.C. next month. Alison Best, who was scheduled to be the chair of the foundation, has now been appointed as an executive vice president based in Oakland, California.
We’ve got a group of people now who have been in the DMO/CVB space, and I think there’s a difference between some of the people that are no longer with us that maybe didn’t understand the business to the degree that some of the new team coming in will, because they’ve been in the DMO space. They understand the pressures that a CVB has, and also they’re very accomplished at their respective positions, so I’m thrilled about where we stand, and we’re just getting started.