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As backyard tourism takes hold around the U.S. this summer and it begins to gradually rebound, the evolving role of destination marketing organizations (DMOs) post-pandemic will continue to be put to the test.
At the heart of the “build back better” discussions among DMOs last year was the challenge of determining how destinations can restructure their business models to survive future crises. Where does a tourism board begin to determine its resilience as an organization and quickly identify gaps to strengthen its destination?
Based on years of experience with tourism marketing offices and convention and visitor bureaus of various sizes, the tool is a 75-question destination survey covering six major segments: visitors, stakeholders, marketing and communications, leadership, team, and funding.
Each question has a 1-5 scoring scale indicating whether the action is in place or not — making it easy for a respondent to complete within 15 minutes.
The resulting score for each major category yields an overall number indicating how resilient the destination is and what its immediate and long-term “build back better” priorities will be.
“If you’ve been thoughtful about your visitors, you’ve got good leadership, you have adequate funding that’s flexible… all these things contribute to your destination being able to pivot when something happens,” said Matthew Landkamer, travel and tourism practice lead at Coraggio Group.
“So if you have a wildfire, an earthquake, a terrorist attack or a pandemic — you’ve got things in place that will allow you to bounce back quicker and not take as much damage, is kind of the idea.”
The City of San Luis Obispo, California is one of two destinations that participated in the resilience assessment survey as part of its trial phase. “Their total average score was to 3.41 out of 5,” Landkamer said. “They scored highest on their team section at 4.87 and lowest on visitors, which was 2.94.”
Molly Cano, tourism manager for San Luis Obispo and lead administrator of its tourism business improvement district, said that gaps identified in the post-assessment survey report have already led to a number of immediate changes, including putting into place a research study to track visitor and resident sentiment regularly over the next three years. The city’s budget has also shifted the allocation of funds towards research and development from one to six percent.
“Our board has been around for 11 years working on our tourism marketing district and I haven’t seen them make the investment in time, energy and funds like they are doing now with this because we have some data behind it — that we were a part of, they were a part of, and together we agreed it was a focal point of our work.”
The resilience assessment tool was completed in mid-April, but it will officially launch in August at the U.S. Travel Association’s annual Educational Seminar for Tourism Organizations in Los Angeles.
It’s still early to determine the resulting impact of U.S. DMOs being able to access a one-stop resilience assessment mechanism for the years of recovery ahead. But Landkamer believes this centralized tool is a first for the U.S. tourism sector.
If successful, it could well serve as a model for DMOs beyond the U.S. as they ask themselves the same question about weathering the next big global tourism crisis.
Asking the Right Questions
Destination resilience is defined by the survey’s creators as “a community’s ability to pivot and recover from challenges due to a foundation of relationships, balance, shared purpose and clear goals.”
Determining the right categories and questions to accurately assess the latter meant pulling from past client experiences, as well as talking to DMOs that have weathered multiple major crises in recent years — such as Visit Lake Charles in Louisiana — to learn from their experiences.
A sample of survey questions in each category of the destination resilience assessment survey includes:
- Visitors: Do you have a diverse segmentation of visitors? Do you have ways to manage visitation to do real time visitor management? Are you measuring visitor sentiment so you know what people are thinking?
- Stakeholders: Do you have really good partner relationships? Are you connected to the locally owned tourism oriented businesses? Are your residents supportive of tourism and do you have a good communication channel with them? Do you actively engage with your elected representatives?
- Marketing and Communications: Do you have a diversity of marketing channels that you can use? Do you do crisis planning as part of your marketing plan?
- Leadership: Is there a lot of trust between leadership and the team? Do you have decentralized decision making? Do you have some risk tolerance because that’s a measure of innovation as well?
- Team: Do you have systems in place to promote innovation? Do you have a team that’s cross trained and able to do multiple jobs?
- Funding: Do you have a diversity of funding sources? Is it flexible?
Once a survey is set up and run for a given DMO, it distributes it to relevant stakeholders. In the case of the City of San Luis Obispo, the survey went to Cano’s team, the city’s board members, the countywide tourism organization staff, non-tourism elected officials and other key strategic partners.
There’s a scheduled one-hour debrief with the destination to go through the results and then there’s a final report identifying the DMO’s strengths, gaps and priorities. The whole process might take approximately 60 days.
Prior to Covid, the San Luis Obispo received 1.5 million visitors every year, but that’s not the primary focus going forward.
“For so many years we were so focused on destination promotion, and bigger and more,” Cano said, adding that through resilience assessment, the emphasis had shifted towards destination management and not just promotion. “It’s become abundantly clear that less is more and especially for our community, being sustainable in our work and being conscious how our work is impacting the greater community is so important.”
Landkamer said that for now, the tool will remain reasonably priced at $5,000 each so as not to create a barrier for tourism boards in learning where their gaps were and maximize the use of the resilience assessment tool.
As the launch approaches, Landkamer is optimistic that the build back better conversation from DMOs isn’t just a platitude.
The Utah Office of Tourism has already confirmed to Coraggio Group that it plans to incorporate the assessment tool into a group planning program for Utah’s rural destinations this Fall focusing on their post-Covid come back and funded by the Economic Development Administration.
“What I’m seeing, working with those folks is that yes, the DMOs in the U.S. are way more thoughtful than they were just a couple of years ago, about a lot of things — sustainable tourism, managing tourism in a way that ensures good quality of life for people who live there, and increasingly conscientious about diversity, equity and inclusion in the way they operate and they way they market.”