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The tourism economy in the beachside city of Santa Monica, California has been increasingly strong year over year. In 2018, the city’s 8.4 million visitors spent nearly $2 billion on lodging, dining, shopping, and other activities and Santa Monica is anticipating nearly 85 percent hotel occupancy for 2019. Those numbers would make any destination leader excited as we head into 2020.
But Santa Monica Travel & Tourism (SMTT) CEO Misti Kerns is thinking longer-term, setting her sights ten years ahead toward 2030 and how the destination and the marketing organization will evolve. “
Many of us live here in the community, including our board of directors,” said Kerns, who recently completed the Santa Monica Experience Management Plan with Coraggio Group, a consultancy which helps destinations plan long-term strategies. “For us, it was really about taking a hard look at the long-term economic sustainability for the city and our businesses, trying to be proactive and looking to the future. We needed to ask, ‘what is the experience that we are delivering to both our residents and our visitors today and what does that need to look like in 2030?’
This thinking underpins a larger trend in tourism: the evolution from destination marketing, which focuses on driving tourism revenue, to destination management and eventually to stewardship, which widens the scope to benefit everyone in the community. In an era of rising concern about overtourism, climate change, and local quality of life, the transformation toward destination stewardship will be the defining factor of a future-ready destination.
How Visitors Perceive a Destination
You can’t draw the map to the future if you don’t know where you stand in the present. With that in mind, SMTT and Coraggio began their engagement by forming an initial hypothesis about what the most pressing perceptual issue might be through the eyes of both visitors and residents: the local population of people experiencing homelessness, a widely reported concern throughout many west coast cities.
They began a discovery phase conducting stakeholder interviews, surveying residents at local farmer’s markets and visitors via social media platforms, and hosting focus groups with travel planners. Working with City officials to distribute surveys to gain insights from local stakeholders was key – in total, more than 3,000 comments from cultural institutions, businesses, City Council members, and hospitality leaders were taken into account. Additionally, Coraggio worked with their partners at Sparkloft Media to analyze 8 million social media posts from the past three years about Santa Monica to better understand visitor sentiment trends.
As it turned out, while homelessness remained a concern for residents, it was less of a driver of visitor consideration for the destination than originally hypothesized. Instead, it was the overall destination experience that mattered most, a broadened lens that included everything from rising hotel rates and increasing rents for mom and pop shops to the seemingly overnight emergence of electric scooters and the safety concerns that follow them. No singular issue took precedence, but the confluence of opinions accumulated from stakeholders drove Santa Monica Travel & Tourism and Coraggio to imagine a more holistic vision for the future of the destination, one that would ensure long-term growth of the visitor economy without sacrificing local quality of life or the city’s independent, bohemian-luxe spirit.
“One of the interesting things we found was that visitors were missing the funky, local, artsy vibe that Santa Monica was historically known for,” says Matthew Landkamer, the lead of Coraggio’s travel and tourism practice.
“Independently-owned businesses were being replaced with national chains and franchises. And so, all these things came together for us to be able to say, ‘look, you have a challenge for small businesses. It’s creating a growing negative perception among your visitors who come here for that quintessential beach town and aren’t getting it anymore. What can you do as a city to make the business climate work for small businesses? What can you do to make permitting easier? What can you do to work on affordability? How can you ensure better workforce housing so service sector folks can afford to live here?’,” said Landkamer. “It got beyond the marketing questions and got into those bigger things that the city needs to wrestle with in order to enable this major part of their economy to keep humming.”
Becoming a Long-Term Catalyst for Change Starts with Locals
Destination Marketing and Management Organizations (DMMOs) that step up to the steward role will find themselves uniquely situated to drive the long-term health and progress of their destination. They listen to a wide array of stakeholder voices, connecting the dots between visitors, residents, public institutions, and local businesses to inform the design of the day-to-day destination experience. As a representative of these voices, they can identify the pain points, opportunities, and synergies to move their destination forward, helping to ensure its relevance far into the future.
“If you think of scenario planning or the sort of levers of change you need to think about, there’s some big changes coming down the pike with climate change, with international relations, with the potential economic downturn that I would say is more than potentially imminent,” says Landkamer. “Destinations that aren’t thinking long-term now, laying the groundwork, are probably going to suffer the consequences in terms of either a loss in room nights, or a loss in the quality of their visitors because somebody is competing for that visitor who spends more, stays longer and respects the environment.”
And when it comes to respecting the environment, DMMOs need to be mindful of the resident experience first and foremost.
“A lot of this time and effort has been spent on the resident experience, because we all know that if residents aren’t happy and they don’t want to stay in their own backyard, it’s unlikely that visitors are going to want to do so,” says Kerns. “So the residents’ input has been critically important to us and will continue to be because it’s an important, ethical thing to do. It matters.”