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Don't Look Back

A little voice inside my head said, "don't look back;

you can never look back."

Don Henley, The Boys of Summer

Issue # 7

To listen to the podcast click here (972 Words/6 Minutes)

DMOs have reached an interesting crossroads in the evolution of their organizational history. This point in time has been brewing for a long time, but it's come to a head with COVID-19. Between the 2008 recession and 2019, DMOs rode a global wave of increased tourism and resulting travel spending, and some may have taken a bit more credit than they should have. In California, for example, between 2010 and 2019, travel spending grew from $98.7B to $144.9B, an increase of 46%. Incredible growth, to be sure, mirroring a trend seen across the country. During that heady time, the tourism industry, DMOs, and their ad agencies charged ahead with promotions, while growing revenues and tax collections made the industry and governmental finance directors happy. To be sure, there were voices of concern. Too many people were visiting, the local environment was getting impacted, residents felt overrun. In many destinations, those concerns were papered over with celebrations of increased visitor volumes, growing revenues, and the belief that DMOs were rocking their job of promoting the destination. And they were. It was a great time for sure to be a CEO or a Chief Marketing Officer of a DMO.

Things change. One of the outcomes of COVID was how it amplified both the strengths and weaknesses of destinations and DMOs. Suddenly, challenges that were either emerging or under the surface pre-COVID were front and center. Overtourism, an issue before COVID, intensified and spread to more places. Where destinations were hesitant to address it, residents pushed back with force and political savvy as they saw their towns and communities crowded with traffic and too many people. Adding to this mix of unrest, many in the hospitality labor force sidelined by the COVID shut down reassessed their lives. Tired of low wages, lack of benefits, and unpredictable job circumstances, many chose not to come back and found other work. Professionals freed from offices snapped up housing in the nation's most desirable places, intensifying the affordable housing crisis. With rents and home prices soaring, many communities can't support hourly wages high enough for hospitality workers, let alone teachers and police officers, to live locally. In more urban destinations, the disappearance of key travel segments, international travel, meetings, and conventions sapped the energy from downtowns and left convention centers in partial shutdown. It's no wonder many DMO executives yearn for a revival of pre-COVID times. These conditions have placed us at a crossroads of going back or finding a new way.

Going back is so tempting. In 2019, the role of the DMO was less ambiguous, and leadership could focus on what they are best at, promoting a destination.

From my perspective, that would be a mistake. DMOs need to embrace change and take risks to reimagine their purpose to be relevant in these altered times. Given new market dynamics, seeking the status quo or looking backward is to risk irrelevance. The challenge for DMOs is simple to say but so hard to do, to really change. We all know how hard changes are at a personal level.

In so many destinations, it will take a true commitment from the top to the bottom of a DMO organization to convince their community that the DMO is in step with local priorities. To make this strategic and organizational shift, DMOs will need to embrace change transparently and unambiguously, not with a half step, not with a sort of going in a different direction, but to make a full-scale commitment.

In his book "Art of War," Sun Tzu taught armies to burn their boats and destroy the bridges behind them as they advanced into new territory. He argued that soldiers without the option of taking flight are more likely to prevail over their objective.

While I'm not suggesting that DMO's burn the bridges and destroy their boats, what I am suggesting and what I think Sun Tzu was intimating was the power of a full-scale commitment. In these times, a half-hearted approach puts organizational relevance at risk. Among these risks is that municipal or other local governments will step in where DMOs fear to tread. DMOs can find wins, not by leading the charge on solving thorny issues like affordable housing for hospitality workers, but by being at the table to help make the changes its community desires. The perception that DMOs are stuck in the past is the wrong place for a DMO to be in this changing environment. A better place would be for a DMO to be seen as committed to change, finding its new role, and making that announcement to the community unambiguously and definitively. The wise words of Don Henley ring true, don't look back; you can never look back.

(With thanks CR)


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