Having skilled managers on board gives another purpose to destination marketing organizations that face questions from communities about whether tourism marketing is worth it in 2018.
Tourism boards have generally been tasked with selling, pitching a destination as other organizations handle economic development programs and incentives that help grow and manage local economies.
But increasingly, many tourism boards are wearing two hats as destinations grapple with overtourism and work to portray themselves as places you can also live and work.
Many destination marketers increasingly also consider themselves as destination managers and this shift in recent years is akin to how more travel agents pivoted towards travel advisors to broaden the scope of what they do for travelers.
Taking on a management role of a destination, such as looking at how to grow tourism capacity to levels the destination can actually handle and focusing on economic development, helps tourism boards stay more relevant amid the constant threat of funding cuts and economic booms and busts. Some tourism boards are also getting their staff certified in destination management as more academic certification programs are created.
Destinations International, a Washington, D.C.-based association that represents 600 destination organization members in 15 countries, launched its Certified Destination Management Executive program 10 years ago but it’s grown in popularity in recent years. The program has 360 graduates and currently has 400 enrolled destination marketing professionals taking courses. The program typically takes three to four years to complete, and the program had a big refresh in 2017 to add new courses that better reflect shifts in the industry, said Melissa Cherry, chief operating officer of Destinations International.
“Our industry changes a lot faster than it used to and our course offerings need to stay on top of what’s happening,” said Cherry. “Advocacy is one of the topics in the program that’s always changing because what the industry is advocating for is always changing.”
Cherry said the program typically attracts professionals who are on a leadership or CEO track. “We’re seeing people who have been in the industry for their entire career, and then people who are coming into the industry from other industries to understand the issues at the high-level,” she said. “It’s really a program that has a broad base of knowledge to track best practices to develop leadership in how CEOs are running CVBs.”
The program’s participants come from tourism boards with budgets of $2 million or less to those with more than $20 million budgets. “If you’re not in a city that has overtourism you don’t get exposed to it, but this program exposes you to that,” said Cherry. “Homelessness has increasingly been a big issue discussed in the program. The program includes long-term conversations rather than just short-term tourism numbers. This is where the shift comes with the marketing and management moves beyond marketing. It’s really around brand management.”
Skift Research’s “Destination Marketing Trends of 2018” Research Report also highlighted that brand management is a challenge many destinations are dealing with as social platforms give travelers a say in a destination’s reputation. Brand management has been top of mind for tourism boards for years but likely seems more relevant today given how fast information spreads.
The rise of Destination Managers
Visit Norfolk, the tourism board for Norfolk, Virginia, doesn’t have any staff certified through Destination International or another organization’s destination management program, but certification is something the organization is considering as it finds itself more involved with destination management responsibilities, said Sam Rogers, interim president and CEO of Visit Norfolk.
“When you’re involved in destination management there is a little bit more of an emotional appeal when you go to write a grant than if your organization is primarily involved in tourism research,” said Rogers.
Rogers said he was hired earlier this year to help Visit Norfolk shift from a destination marketing organization to a destination marketing and management organization. The Norfolk Tourism Research Foundation, a non-profit organization that Visit Norfolk created in 2003 and is run by a board of directors, is working with Rogers to spearhead the destination management shift. Visit Norfolk is also drawing on research from Destinations International’s 2017 DestinationNEXT Future Study and Richmond, Virginia-based market research agency Southeastern Institute of Research to help determine the best path towards effective management.
Rogers said he’s not currently hiring new staff to focus on destination management but it’s a possibility in the future. “As we continue down this path, there will be a need for staff training and new positions could materialize,” he said. “The next step is to create some working groups of staff, board members, and stakeholders so that staff gets to be part of this process.”
Hospitality workforce development will be a key aim of the foundation’s work going forward. “We’ll be working with students that are in Norfolk now in middle school and high school to demonstrate that hospitality and tourism is a viable career path for them and also working with our local universities,” said Rogers.
The foundation will also focus on customer service training for tourism employees in Norfolk. “How do we begin to work with hotels, restaurants, and attractions to help them help their employees become the best that they can be?” said Rogers. “That hearkens back to the visitor experience. Everything that happens can influence how you perceived the destination. All of this is in the boundaries of where the foundation is moving in the future.”
Attracting The Workforce
Some U.S. tourism boards’ involvement in bids for Amazon’s new second headquarters in the past couple of years is a prime example of how more organizations are thinking about managing their destinations, said Rogers.
“We’ve seen a trend in economic development in attracting people who already have the business here,” said Rogers. “Bids like Amazon are a huge effort to attract that kind of business. I think our city manager and his team looked at our own economic development needs and said we need to 1) increase the number of businesses functioning here and 2) increase the number of people living here so that the workforce grows.”
While many tourism boards like Visit Norfolk target some of their marketing to millennials, many are also trying to get millennials to move to their destinations for job opportunities, said Rogers. “We find that whatever works for a visitor tends to work for a resident,” he said. “If you don’t have those appeals for university-aged students when you’re recruiting, you have to get into (creating specific incentives to attract a targeted population). Things like walkability, transportation, and providing places for them to have fun, like sporting events.”
As part of that goal, Visit Norfolk recently expanded the scope of its public relations agency’s work to include promoting Norfolk as a place to do business. “We’ll be working on stories like listicles and rankings and we need to be on those lists of 10 places where millennials like to live,” said Rogers.
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Photo credit: Visit Norfolk and other tourism boards want to attract more tourists and grow its workforce as they work to better manage their destination's overall growth. Pictured here is the Norfolk waterfront. Mobilus In Mobili / Flickr