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It’s no secret that the state of destination marketing funding in the U.S. is imperiled. From the federal to the state level, officials don’t want to be seen as spending money or resources on things that don’t have a clear benefit for voters. Often, tourism falls into that bucket.
Indeed, the U.S. has always had a general aversion to the idea that government should be involved in tourism promotion, and whether and how money is allocated to these efforts has always been a political issue. But, according to Jack Johnson, chief advocacy officer for membership organization Destinations International, the current political climate is a particularly unsettling time for CEOs who manage destinations.
“The number of destination organizations being put under the microscope by politicians, by government officials, public advocacy groups and by the media is growing,” Johnson told Skift. “Destination organizations are beginning to see their government funding and too often their own existence under attack. And as we have seen in Florida and other places, defeating these attacks in any given year does not in any way guarantee that they will not return the next year for another crack at it.”
To respond to these challenging times, Destinations International — which has destination marketing organization (DMO) members spanning 13 countries, but maintains a heavy North American base — has taken up somewhat of an unconventional tactic for a trade organization. Instead of lobbying local, state, and federal governments to prioritize tourism funding, it is focusing on the conversation around funding itself. By doing that, it can assist its members in getting out in front of situations where their own funding may be in peril, as well as in better communicating the return on investment of DMOs in this challenging environment.
Partnering with a software firm called Quorum based in Washington, DC, it’s using predictive forecasting and a method called “dialogue tracking” to figure out when a destination’s funding may be on the chopping block. Using a database that gives it access to all statements from relevant public officials at the local, state, and federal level — including press releases, newsletters to constituents, tweets, Facebook posts, and more — it’s able to detect potentially hostile sentiment coming from local officials or public policy groups, which can often drive this kind of agenda.
Once it does, it can alert its relevant members to areas where a battle around tourism marketing funding may be on its way. Seeing a battle brewing in one location, like Florida for example, can also help it detect if similar dynamics are at play elsewhere. Though Destinations International does not publicly comment on any specific case studies, Johnson animated how these tactics work in practice.
“For instance, to track efforts by extreme libertarian organizations — particularly those funded by the Koch Brothers — to eliminate funding for destination organizations, we will track phrases like ‘picking winners and losers’ and ‘corporate welfare’ along with the names of their many organizations such as ‘Americans for Prosperity,'” Johnson explained. “We identified the phrases by researching people advancing these ideas and making note of reoccurring words and phrases in their communications.”
Part of the reason such vigilance is needed, Johnson explains, is the source of tourism funding in many places has been framed almost too successfully. It’s become an easy funding source to divert to other means that are not tourism-marketing related.
“Unfortunately, we have done a great job of positioning visitor related taxes and fees such as the hotel tax as not being paid for by residents. And that has made these revenues attractive to realign to other purposes,” Johnson explained. “Or to increase these taxes and fees without providing a portion of the revenue to invest in travel promotion or meeting facility improvements.”
So once Destinations International is able to identify a public official or policy group that may have it out for a given DMO, what do they do with that information? Much of it, Johnson says, is about arming the relevant member organization with the intelligence soon, before the sentiment morphs into, say, a dedicated campaign to axe its funding or existence. In addition, knowing early can prepare DMOs to respond to aggressive tactics like program audits, which can overwhelm an organization (often intentionally so) if it catches them by surprise.
But perhaps more importantly, Johnson notes, the current moment requires that DMOs change how they communicate their value to officials. Simply citing visitor numbers and GDP contribution may not be enough to warrant continued funding in the current climate. To that end, they are using Quorum’s software to identify language that aligns with what politicians are communicating to their constituencies.
“We believe that our industry needs to learn how to interact with our residents and our elected officials in a language that they understand. A language based on shared values and emotion,” Johnson said. “We built a political lexicon saying you need to make this emotional, value-based argument and these are the words you use…it’s actually been quite revolutionary.”
For better or worse, Johnson said, appealing to emotion and identity-based beliefs is now key for DMOs that want to survive.