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Why Do a Lot of Tourism Strategic Plans Fall Short?

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Why Do a Lot of Tourism Strategic Plans Fall Short?


Carl Ribaudo, President, and Chief Strategist SMG Consulting

Why do plans fail? It’s a great question. There are daily failures in the public and private sectors, but how often do we think about and consider the ramifications of those failures? Why do some tourism strategic plans come up short of their goals? As someone who has been involved in over seventy tourism strategic plans and has reviewed dozens and dozens of plans over the years, I have been fascinated by why so many fall short, especially from the perspective of the destination management organization itself (DMO). According to Inc Magazine, strategic plans fail to achieve their optimum results 70% of the time. One assumes the success rate in the tourism industry is no better. Is strategic planning an art? A science? Or both?

Historically, strategic planning has its roots in military strategy. The concept of strategic planning can be traced back to ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu's book "The Art of War," written over 2,500 years ago. Today, strategic planning is a widely used endeavor in business and non-profit organizations for setting goals and allocating resources to achieve long-term success. And this is true for the tourism industry as well.

But why do these efforts fail? Here are some observations for your consideration.

· Developing overly complicated plans. Too many planning consultants value volume and complexity over simplicity.

· Not understanding the impact of changing environments – internal and external -- on the organization or the destination. One of the biggest misreads is the lack of understanding of how a changing environment translates into new realities for an organization or destination.

· Partial or minimal commitment by senior management and all staff. When the senior manager doesn't back a new strategy, it’s dead in the water. And without this commitment to implementation and measuring the results consistently, plans typically fall short.

· Not having the right people involved. Many strategic plans favor a top-down approach, even when senior managers and consultants think they are getting good input. As the revolutionary Che Guevara once said, “Revolutions start at the bottom.” That’s also where a good strategy comes from.

· Simply mothballing the plan. There are two kinds of executives, box checkers and mark makers. Some tourism executives just check a box to complete the strategic plan, and then it goes on a shelf.

· Unrealistic goals. There is nothing more defeating than a strategic plan that is completely unattainable.

· Chaotic organizational culture. Organizational culture is the soft tissue of an organization that can guide it in a positive or negative direction. Developing and implementing a strategic plan is challenging if the organizational culture isn't designed for creativity, innovation, and acceptance of change.

In assessing these reasons (and I am sure others) for falling short, my view is that the number one reason for failure is that executives and managers embark on a strategic plan disconnected from a coherent overarching strategy.

Tasks, activities, and budget allocations often characterize strategic tourism planning. You know the process. Define the goal, implement the action steps, and measure the results. Why do executives like strategic planning? For one, it is familiar. Strategic planning has more to do with your organization's resources and how you spend them. Do you build a new website, hire a new person, develop an ad campaign, etc.? So strategic planning becomes a list of your organization's expenditures rather than an organizational vision strategy to win on the competitive playing field. Planning is familiar and comfortable because:

  • It focuses on the cost side

  • You control the costs (to some degree)

  • You are your customer. You are spending resources for your programs

  • You determine the level of investment

Planning and developing tactics are more comfortable because you can control it, so you tend to do it more. In this light, strategic planning can best be characterized as activities the organization says it will do. The results of these kinds of activities don't have an overriding strategic vision driving them; they are just tasks to be implemented.

From a strategy perspective, you are saying, "Here is what we believe will happen, but we can't prove it in advance." From a CEO's perspective, it is much easier to say we will build a new website or bring in another special event than will we have customers. Ask almost any CEO to describe their DMOs strategy and see if they talk about new programs and initiatives or if they can describe how they are changing the competitive playing field.

DMOs tend to benchmark and copy each other, often hiring the same ad agencies, consultants, etc., each thinking they will get something unique, but often they get just a template approach. Many websites and tourism programs look similar and have a familiar feel. How different would it feel to know you have a clear competitive advantage through deciding where and how to play based on targeting your key customers? But know that if you only plan, at least one of your competitors is looking to win.

In contrast, strategy is characterized as an integrative set of choices that positions your organization on a playfield where you can win. A thoughtful strategy seeks to change the playing field to your advantage.

· A strategic vision determines what game your organization is playing before you get on the playing field.

· A strategic vision has a narrative that defines your organization and distinguishes you from your competition.

· The strategic vision must be coherent, doable, translatable to action, understood by all involved, including your customer, implementable by your staff, and measurable with timelines and deadlines.

My colleague Brian London, Managing Director of the Insight Collective tourism think tank, has reviewed over a hundred DMO strategic plans. In his view, there is a recognition that certain DMOs are looking to shift to redefine their role as more of a community champion, using tourism to deliver benefits to residents and for DMOs to place their needs uppermost.

This shift will require a change in process from a more traditional “deliberate” top-down planning approach to a more inclusive strategic vision, as management scholar Henry Mintzberg calls an “emergent” approach. Deliberate strategic planning is a more traditional approach to strategy development. It involves a structured and systematic process of

identifying an organization's long-term goals and objectives and then developing a detailed plan to achieve them. It is typically a top-down approach involving a small group of senior leaders setting the direction for the organization and then cascading the strategy down through it. This process has been in vogue for DMOs for decades.

In contrast, emergent strategic planning is a flexible approach to strategy development responsive to changing circumstances and opportunities. Unlike traditional, top-down planning processes, emergent planning recognizes that the future is uncertain and that strategies must be adaptable and flexible to succeed. It is characterized by a collaborative, inclusive approach that involves input from stakeholders throughout the organization, external partners, and customers. By embracing flexibility and agility, emergent planning allows organizations to respond quickly to new opportunities and challenges and stay ahead of the curve in a dynamic business environment. Instead of a traditional 5 or 10-year strategic plan, this focuses on continual reevaluation and adaptation in response to various market changes.

Making strategy work can be a bit messy and full of angst. Strategy is a journey; you can only prove your strategy will work if you respond to customers and the marketplace. One never knows for sure, but there are several key ingredients to making your strategy work. The first is leadership which requires all those involved with the organization, both internally and externally, to be integral partners in developing the vision of an organization's strategy. The second element is the ability to adapt, measure and adapt continuously. As your strategy gets implemented, it must adapt as market conditions change. If the original assumptions of your strategy are not meeting your goals, tweak them. A culture within your organization that allows for and commits to both is essential.

In the end, there is a simple elegance to strategy. Where does your organization choose to play, how is it choosing to win, what are your organization's capabilities, and do you have the management systems to see it through? Truly, making your organization's strategy requires senior executives to think differently.

Given the rate of strategic plan failure, thinking differently could be a big opportunity.

Take another path.

For more information, contact Carl Ribaudo at

Strategy and Creativity Matter

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