Updated: May 20, 2022
For years, a tourism destination's competitiveness has been shaped by its attributes. Destinations became known mainly for the primary attribute that defined the destination-- beaches in Hawaii, warm winter weather in Palm Springs, wine in Napa, gambling in Las Vegas, etc.
To compete more effectively, those destinations without a single focus to attract visitors improved their destinations' attributes to offer potential visitors. Things like bike trails, hiking trails, better shopping, and improved food offerings have become commonplace.
Today, we see an evolution from focusing on complex attributes to a different kind of soft attribute. Is your destination interesting? Is it authentic? Is it cool?
The traditionally defined attributes that destinations have used to compete with are increasingly giving way to answering one question: Is your destination cool and interesting?
Why is this the case?
If you do a quick check of any Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) website, most all the offerings are similar. Most have all the standard outdoor recreation, arts, culture, and special events that have become commonplace. The destinations have, mostly, reached competitive equilibrium. Yes, some have a structural advantage, like an airport, but for the most part, they offer similar attributes.
Another way to understand this is baseball. Over a decade ago, the Oakland A's introduced quantitative analysis to evaluate potential players to a level never done before. They used traditional measures, like batting average, but they invented a whole number of new measures. And it worked. The A's used this to their advantage for a time. However, what happened? Slowly, other teams began hiring math majors and economists to do a similar analysis. Today, every major-league baseball team has a fully stocked quantitative analysis department to evaluate talent.
The same is true with tourism destinations. Many have improved their offering and are like their competitors. Don't believe it? Just check their websites.
So, where is the next frontier of competitiveness for tourism destinations? Look to our baseball analogy again and, specifically, the Chicago Cubs. Their President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, who was one of the original users of quantitative data to evaluate talent, in a recent Fortune Manage article recognized the limitations of this approach by asking," If everyone is doing it, where is the advantage?"
Epstein directed his scouting department to look deeper into each player and look for softer, non-quantitative ways to evaluate players. His scouts are looking at whether a player can "get along." He is also looking to make the player's environment the best to make the Chicago vibe the best it can be so players can feel connected.
To be more competitive, destinations must go beyond "the list" of traditional complex attributes and answer one crucial question: Is my destination interesting?
Because people have more experience and technology at their fingertips, they know there are good restaurants in almost every destination; the same goes for lodging and recreation. They can get those anywhere. What is most important is, do they see your destination as exciting and authentic? That doesn't necessarily mean showing them restaurants locals eat at, but instead capturing the values and character of your community. If your destination is authentic and can communicate it, you need not differentiate your destination; It already is.
As visitors of all ages seek exciting experiences, the new formula for success will necessarily be adding more of what your destination already has. It will involve capturing, distilling, and communicating what is interesting about the values and character of your community, so visitors more easily connect with the people and places there. Today's visitors want memorable connections, not complex attributes. SMG Consulting research conducted in Lake Tahoe's South Shore identified that approximately 50% of surveyed indicated they were looking to better connect with friends or family while visiting. The destination was a backdrop so visitors could connect. It was a means to a more significant and more profound experience.
How to make it happen
Consider the following to finding your destination's interesting definers. Here are some essential tips:
1. Don't start your marketing efforts with visitors. Every marketing strategy in the world suggests you start finding out what potential visitors want and then giving it to them. We start with residents and find out their passions because if they have a passion for it, others will. We used this approach in Lake Tahoe to identify that road bikes were a passion for locals. From that awareness, the DMO developed a full-scale approach that has led to the destination hosting the Amgen Tour of California three times, coupled with the destination now being seen as a legitimate place for road biking. Develop a resident passion-based approach to your strategy.
2. Define the values and character of your destination. Many DMO's have created endless vision statements or mission statements, but how many can give you a succinct description of their community values and character? If you don't understand these elements, how can you communicate them? Know your community values and character.
3. Harness local creativity and not just the obvious stuff. This is the essence of making your destination attractive. It's the artists and writers, and innovators in your community that are just as interesting as many of the places in your destination.
4. Communicate the values and character of the destination as honestly as you can through all the platforms and channels you have.
The future of destination competition is not just about traditional attributes but about nontraditional ones. The challenge for destinations is to be just as effective at promoting the latter as they are with the former.
About the Author
As a strategist, Carl designs breakthrough insights, sustainable strategies, and plans that help leaders lead and get the change and results needed to be more effective. As the President and Chief Strategist of SMG Consulting, Carl has developed new destination tourism strategy approaches that tap into its creativity as a unique competitive asset. He also develops effective change strategies that link a DMO's capabilities to the ever-changing market environment. Carl is a trusted advisor to CEOs and senior executives throughout the industry.
Carl is also a writer who has written extensively on business and strategy issues for the tourism industry. A frequent guest speaker and panelist at industry conferences, Carl serves on two different State Tourism Committees, including Vist California's Research and ROI. Committee and the Travel Nevada's Tourism Marketing Committee. Carl is also a partner in the OHV Partners Consulting Group, and he is a strategist in the Insights Collective, a national tourism think tank.
Carl currently serves as the President of Tahoe Resources Conservation District and served as a key member of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) pathway planning group that developed the twenty-year Lake Tahoe Basin regional plan.
Carl obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from California State University at Northridge. He received his master's degree in Business Administration (MBA) from San Francisco State University Graduate School of Business. He also completed a certificate program at Cornell University in Organizational Change Leadership and a certificate program in strategic thinking from Dartmouth College.
He enjoys riding his BMW motorcycle on two-lane roads throughout the west, trap shooting, river rafting, and downhill and cross country skiing.