October 19th, 2014

Note To DMOs: Steer Clear Of The Politics, But By All Means Get Into The Community

Community Engagement Provides Opportunity For The Destination Management Organization Seeking To Build Local Influence.

guido“Get into politics or go out of business” was the message from Brian Crawford of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) to a gathering of San Diego hotel and tourism leaders earlier this year.

Crawford, vice president of governmental and public affairs for the Washington, D.C., based AHLA, was in town to brief local hospitality sector officials on a variety of public policy issues facing the nation’s visitor industry. His declaration was intended as a wakeup call to tourism stakeholders — get actively involved in the political process or risk losing your livelihood.

While Crawford’s counsel makes absolute sense for the private sector businesses that comprise America’s tourism industry, and the trade associations that represent them, it is not sound advice for one very important component of the hospitality sector: the destination management organization (DMO). For the DMO, wandering into the political underbrush can be downright perilous.

DMOs — also known as convention and visitors bureaus, travel boards and tourism authorities — are generally non-profit, full-service organizations that lead the development of their destination’s tourism sector, and to do so effectively depend heavily on the goodwill and support of local government.

coffeeAlthough primarily a sales and marketing organization, the DMO serves as a coordinating entity. Its job is bringing together diverse stakeholders — from educational institutions and arts groups to business associations and product and service providers — to attract visitors to their area. As somewhat of a neutral player and convener of disparate community interests, staying above the political fray is critically important.

There is, however, an instrumental role for the DMO to play in the civic arena, and it is a much more impactful one: community engagement. Although it requires buy-in and support from the organization’s board, and the unwavering involvement of the DMO’s executive leadership team, the long-term payoff is much greater and longer lasting.

Community engagement programs are becoming more and more important for the DMO, reports Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI), the trade group representing these promotional entities. And DMAI provides plenty of guidance to its member organizations seeking to create greater understanding and support among locals for their destination’s tourism industry.

‘Community engagement: The process by which community-benefit organizations build ongoing, permanent relationships for the purpose of applying a collective vision for the benefit of a community.’Wikipedia

“Public understanding of what a DMO does is often unclear. DMOs also spend most of their marketing dollars outside the market they serve; therefore, their efforts can go unnoticed by the local community. Strong public, private, and third sector partnerships and alliances within the community can help spread the word and articulate the value, purpose, and economic impact of the tourism industry to the community,” says DMAI.

When it comes to alliances, potential partners for the DMO run a wide gamut. These can include government agencies, chambers of commerce and economic development councils, as well as lodging and restaurant trade associations, and colleges and universities with hospitality and tourism management programs. Most DMOs do a good job of working with these traditional stakeholder groups as they share similar agendas and have numerous opportunities to interact. As such, they comprise the “low-hanging fruit” of alliance building.

To be truly effective on the community engagement front, “The DMO has to extend conversations about the destination well beyond traditional stakeholders to include the wider local community,” says DMAI. For example, engaging service organizations such as the Lions Club, Rotary and Soroptimists is a good way for the DMO to build community goodwill, recommends DMAI.

‘The DMO has to extend conversations about the destination well beyond traditional stakeholders to include the wider local community.’ –DMAI

In fact, these groups are known to provide significant reach into the broader community. Perhaps more important, members of service organizations tend also to be active in other groups serving their neighborhoods, such as town councils, business improvement districts and planning groups. These individuals are often looked to as “thought leaders” in their communities, and can be influential with elected and appointed officials at the local level.

For these reasons, incorporating service organizations into the DMO’s community engagement initiative — perhaps through a speakers bureau comprised of the executive leadership team, select junior staffers and interested members of the board — would be a worthwhile strategy.

Many service organizations meet weekly over lunch, and program chairs for the groups are always in search of speakers and interesting topics on which to educate their members. They provide another useful avenue for spreading the word about the benefits of the local tourism industry.

As you can see, the partnership options available to the enterprising DMO are numerous. “Strategic alliances — including those with non-industry community stakeholders — are a fundamental aspect of the way in which a DMO pursues its mission,” says DMAI.

‘…Community engagement must be ingrained into the culture of the organization and added to its core values…’

Such alliances are essential for communicating that investment in tourism brings great economic return to the community in terms of additional revenue and these stakeholders can be invaluable in communicating the economic benefit the DMO provides to the market.

“DMOs are expected to play a critical part in delivering a community-embraced tourism industry,” says DMAI.

Consequently, community engagement must be ingrained into the culture of the DMO and added to its core values, with a relevant performance metric that reflects the changing functions and responsibilities within the organization.

To this end, the DMO’s new and expanded role in the area of community engagement will require strong support from the board of directors, as well as the active and enthusiastic participation of each and every member of the organization’s executive leadership team — both front and back of the house.

Sources for this post:

booklook2Crawford, Brian, American Hotel & Lodging Association, luncheon address to the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association, June 12, 2014.

Destination Marketing Association International, Destination Next report (phase 1) July, 2014.

Destination Marketing Association International, Fundamentals of Destination Management and Marketing, chapter 12 (Alliances), American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute, 2005.

Related Posts:

Community Engagement Key For DMOs

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