Skift Take

Swapping its marketing role to focus on social impact is as inspiring as it gets coming out of a destination's tourism board. But Vancouver Island's 4VI will need to communicate at a whole new level of transparency — staying mindful of priorities that its resident communities may consider most important.

Tourism Vancouver Island announced in April it was dropping its traditional tourism marketing business model of more than 60 years to operate as a non-profit social enterprise — a business designed to invest all its revenue back into social goals. There’s no doubt this represented a paradigm shift in the debate about the expanded role of tourism boards these last two years, from destination management to destination stewardship and regeneration.

Rebranded as “4VI” to reflect its four key pillars — community, businesses, culture, and environment  — this “social enterprise tourism board” appears to be the first such entity of its kind to date.

But of particular significance behind Tourism Vancouver Island’s decision is this: it pulls back on the “why” of a destination management organization and defines what “tourism as a force for good” actually means.

“They’re making an incredibly clear statement of, this is why we are here — we’re not here just to serve tourists, we’re not here just to serve the hoteliers; we are here to improve the quality of life and the tool that we have is tourism development,” said Jonathon Day, associate professor at Purdue University’s White Lodging-J.W. Marriott Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

“What you’re seeing is real clarity about the purpose of tourism development in a community: to make it sustainable and benefit the local people,” said Day.

Anthony Everett, chief executive officer at 4VI, said that Vancouver Island’s board of directors, made up of tourism businesses, as well as its partner Destination British Columbia, quickly signed on to the idea.

The group at 4VI now describe themselves as “respected tourism advisors” who “are known for investing profits into powering the stewardship of our destination and our home.”

“We basically stopped the idea that we are a marketing organization,” said Everett, president and CEO of Tourism Vancouver Island turned 4VI. “We want to focus on the social impacts that tourism has been having on Vancouver Island. It’s fun to be able to be like an entrepreneur and all the things we’re doing have to fit with social responsibility.”

Everett added that every contract it currently holds, in addition to its government contract, focuses on social responsibility and that any work offered in the future that doesn’t align with its social goals, 4VI will turn down. 

Will this clarity of mission cause positive ripple effects in an industry that for the most part, coming out of the crisis, continues to prioritize tourism growth while claiming it can simultaneously minimize the impacts on residents and planet? 

“Now you’re going to have a realignment yet, in terms of how they promote what they promote, making sure that the needs of the community are involved,” said Denaye Hinds, managing director of JustaTaad, a sustainability consultancy firm and a board member for the Center for Responsible Travel. “Their SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis is going to be completely different.”

From an early decision to diversify revenue to defining what true collaboration entails to solve tourism’s key issues, a number of early lessons for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) are emerging from 4VI’s social enterprise shift, even as their strategy continues to take shape.

A Gradual Shift

Tourism in British Columbia generated $22 billion in revenue and 130,000 jobs in 2019. Vancouver Island, one of six regions in this province, pulled in just over 20 percent of that visitation. Growth of tourism had slowed in the sector pre-Covid, but the pandemic changed that with domestic tourism taking a front seat.

In the summer of 2021, with Canada’s international borders still closed, Vancouver Island faced rural overtourism when it received a record number of domestic travelers during a two-week period in August. Small town leaders were ovewhelmed with visitors infiltrating areas not intended for them, Everett said, bringing to a head the need to find solutions to manage crowds and relieve pressure on the environment and Indigenous communities.  

Raised on the island and with decades in tourism, 4VI’s Everett said he’d grown increasingly uncomfortable with the pressures on his island home and had felt dissatisfied with how the tourism board engaged with them even prior to the pandemic. 

“I used to spend so much time in my career talking about the value of our industry and how it contributes to communities, and we fast forwarded right past that to people saying it’s a problem,” said Everett. “So if travel’s going to be a force for good, then there’s things we need to talk about.”

Often structured as a non-profit, the social enterprise model exists in many global destinations, but few had heard of the structure within the tourism industry in Canada, Everett said, just as the 4VI team learned of it in 2021.

“In  many cases, social enterprises have come from this increasingly challenging situation of trying to find donors for developmental activities,” said Purdue University’s Day. “Instead of relying on charity, these entrepreneurial minded folks who want to achieve these social goals decide to generate our own funding so we don’t have to rely on charity from other people.”

That’s what Tourism Vancouver Island had begun doing in 2019: diversifying the DMO’s funding beyond its primary contract with the government, so that it could expand its role beyond marketing and help manage tourism in its backyard.  

“We did trail strategies; we also started to manage more of the local community DMOs here on Vancouver Island so we took contracts to operate them,” said Everett, adding that this provided those organizations with resource capacity. 

But it wasn’t until 2021 that the tourism marketing entity stumbled on the social enterprise model as a solution moving forward. Today, Tourism Vancouver Island has a renewed three-year contract with the government with two-year options, plus three ongoing DMO contracts on Vancouver Island.

Everett said other DMOs from outside of Vancouver Island have been in touch to work on social purpose and new engagement with the industry as they grapple with similar issues. 

While everyone can put social purpose at their core, not everyone in this space can be a social enterprise, Everett said. Building up expertise internally ahead of time and getting used to delivering services was a critical early step. Now the door has opened wider to internationally-based partnerships.

“The goal is if we can take our services out anywhere in the world basically and provide our expertise, then those revenues can come back and be invested in projects here,” said Everett.

As for solving the issues of overcrowding, lack of housing and impact on resources and services, there’s no silver bullet with 4VI transforming into a social enterprise, Purdue University’s Day said, but the intent to create additional revenue means those funds could go to resolve the destination’s needs in infrastructure or other needs as they arise.

“Somebody is thinking about how to solve those issues,” said Day. “If you’re focused on the right question, you can come to better answers from it and that’s what I like about what Vancouver Island is doing.”

4VI’s future plans, which Everett could not yet disclose in full, include owning a for-profit business with those revenues going back into its social goals for Vancouver Island.  

“We want to do this as an independent nonprofit that can build our business and make these investments and it doesn’t matter that the government goes up and down. This is what we believe and what we will maintain.”

As Tourism Evolves, DMOs Must Transform

Tourism Vancouver Island’s multifaceted approach in engaging with tourism’s negative impacts ranges from certification to climate action. The DMO turned social enterprise earned its biosphere certification from the Responsible Tourism Institute this year, designating it as a sustainable destination and one that is also committed to progress under all 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). 

“If you’re using certification correctly, you’ve got a clear idea about what you’re going to do to achieve your goal and you can track that over time, checking whether you’re improving or not,” said Purdue University’s Day, adding that it shows you’re not just ticking off a box. 

Why not stop at being a signatory of a rigorous biosphere certification process? The Vancouver Island tourism chief said he sees the latter as a solid center post. “The other one that we built in the middle is reconciliation with Indigenous people and right now our business strategy is being looked at with an Indigenous lens so that it’s in the middle of all the social purpose we do — all that will be part of the programs we can provide, the contracts we serve.”

4VI has chosen to make an additional, deeper commitment to focus on SDG 14 or Life Below Water as its social goal for the year ahead, with the aim to fund for healthy seagrass and clean up of ocean debris, for instance. A climate action plan will also be filed within a year under the Glasgow Declaration

With cruise ships back in Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, after a two-year absence, a record of nearly one million passengers are expected to visit up to November. That makes it difficult to see how an intentional focus on ocean health would succeed without also engaging with and tackling big cruise’s ongoing emissions and ocean pollution. Residents have also been split on the big ships’ return in their backyard. 

“The reality is I don’t know, but I can be honest about saying that we need to do better and we will point out that those things need to be tackled,” said Everett, adding that as a social organization there are now levels of federal government that are interested in their social enterprise work that had never spoken to the DMO before. 

There are other competing priorities that are ocean related that require attention, Everett said, such as the current challenges the island is having with salmon, which feed the Orca whales and the Orca whales are what attract visitors to the island.  

For JustaTaad’s Hinds, the industry has no alternative but to transform. “Tourism evolves, it’s an interactive service — you need people to do it and just as how you interact with humans and how humans’ lives, values, and moral compass changes, so will tourism change.”

This dependency on people to drive tourism, including on the receiving end, and the need for destination authenticity means there’s a need to track that tourism dollar closely to understand its impact on a destination beyond the economic one. 

“I think now we’re going to have new goalposts and new metrics by which to measure tourism when you look at it from a social perspective,” said Hinds.

The DMO As A Problem Solver

Among the challenges ahead for Tourism Vancouver Island is educating its stakeholders and community about its new role moving forward, while businesses have responded favorably to their shifted role. 

“At the community level we have a lot of educating to do about what our role is and our mandate and how travel will be a force for good,” said Everett, adding that while a lot of people are asking if they want tourism, they’re not actively seeking out opportunities to rethink what they do and that’s where 4VI comes in.

“So we need to be talking about — what does balance look like, what is stewardship of the destination? What can we do to influence that? So the challenge is to work locally in a collaborative way and get people to understand that collaboration means you have to give something up. Otherwise you’re just cooperating, you’re not collaborating.”

Purdue University’s Day agreed that communicating the change will be critical for 4VI moving forward.

“This is a change in the system and so they’re going to need to communicate continuously about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”

The complexities of destination management will remain, Day added, because with tourism, there’s no one single person in charge and change requires building a shared vision through collaboration across sectors.

“What are the metrics for improved quality of life? Are we satisfied with our social and culture life? Do we feel our environment is being protected? It’s complicated and every community has their own answer and none of them are right or wrong,” said Day. “This is why an organization saying we’re out there doing it for the good reasons and we’ll work through that with you — that’s a paradigm shift.

Problem solving as a DMO that is actively engaged in building a sustainable future will also mean prioritizing the human resource side. 4VI plans to hire up to four individuals over the next six months who can guide it within the sustainability and destination development field.

If the social enterprise business model has always been around, why haven’t more tourism boards explored it as a solution to tourism’s increased woes? 

“It’s that fear of trading in profit for the ‘feel good’ and not understanding that there’s a unique and intricate balance to be able to do both now,” said Hinds. “We talk about preservation of culture, we talk about resilience, and all those things go into being key values and benefits of a social enterprise.”

Tags: canada, climate change, destination marketing organizations, dmos, social enterprise, tourism boards, Vancouver Island

Photo credit: Brentwood Bay, Vancouver Island Izzy Edey / Unsplash