Director of Partnership, Explore St. Louis

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Over the years, stakeholder or partner engagement has become less of a priority and more of an assumption. Claiming that everything we as destination marketing organizations (DMOs) enact is for the benefit of our destination and, thereby, our stakeholders is an easy cop-out. Major vendors and organizations in our industry quickly offer fewer products or content on the subject. Some cite an increasing trend in non-dues paying models as if stakeholder or partner engagement comes down to how much money they are paying. Ha!  

The greatest lesson of this came since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when most destinations of all sizes and all partnership models saw considerable decreases in their partnership ranks. Even many community and government officials questioned the local DMO’s importance and need for funding. The pandemic gave many of us a renewed sense of purpose and plenty of goals for a lofty future that resembles the stats of 2019. 

But the game has changed, and before we reach renewed success, I think it’s time we get back to the basics. For myself, this comes down to five recommendations to position positive & productive stakeholder engagement:

#1 Strategize and Act Intentionally 

If you take nothing else from this article, please note that successful stakeholder engagement involves intentional action and proper strategy. Despite pandemic-related staffing cuts, most have partnership, engagement or advocacy departments, or use some sort of marketing/action plan or annual report to map out their plan for the year ahead. However, how these documents are created and applied is your first line of success. 

At the start of every fiscal year, I make myself a partnership action plan. I even block out time to remove myself from the office and take in tea, lunch, dinner, or a cocktail (after hours only) to brainstorm. In my last job, the city center of Downtown Elmhurst and 151 Restaurant became my favorite spots to do that work. 

Now in St. Louis, I let my mind wander in Forest Park and reward myself with a cocktail from Bridge Tap House or Blood & Sand. In fact, I have only shared my action plan the first year I was here in St. Louis, right before COVID-19 ripped it to shreds. However, I continue to repeat the process every year to strategize as a department of one man and 915 partners. As I go through the year and speak to our leadership, recruit new partners, and work with my fellow departments, it is still a guide and personal check on my actions and progress. 

Do I accomplish everything I wanted or set for myself? HELL NO! And if anyone claims they get everything on their plan done or have 100% partner retention and satisfaction, they probably also have the secret to the fountain of youth. 

Often in partnership or stakeholder management, we get so caught up in politics and reputation management. We prioritize being leaders in our community and friends to the industry, but at the same time, your organization has important business to get done. Managing expectations for your stakeholders, facilitating their participation, or securing revenue from their dues is a key part of that business. Once that strategy is created and communicated, it is time to execute!

#2 Always Communicate Value

Believe it or not, my goal as Partnership Director is not to personally be loved by every single one of my partner organizations and businesses. My goal is for everyone to be aware of the work Explore St. Louis does and how it adds value to their business and our destination. And while many will agree with that statement, it becomes extremely difficult in execution. A growing trend in our industry is for organizations to move to a non-dues-paying model for partnership. Many departments shift their identity to community engagement, advocacy, or more. 

As I pointed out in a panel discussion with David Peacock at Simpleview Summit 2022, we must constantly present how we add value to our stakeholders regardless of charging a dollar amount for partnership dues. Destination organizations are the only major entity in the travel or hospitality world in which charging you directly for our services is NOT the main objective. Yet, like hotels, airlines, restaurants, and others, we have bills and employees to pay! 

In typical sales departments, you are drilled about how to make a proper pitch — how to present your property, venue, or destination, and create this argument or image in their mind about why they should choose you. Only then, once you have won them over with this, do you then quote prices or discuss the gritty logistics to secure their business. We need to reinforce this on the partnership and stakeholder levels as well. Drill and have mock conversations about why anyone would want to work with your organization. Add new developments, marketing campaigns, big wins from sales, and recent partner testimonials all at your disposal and work through it regularly. 

Whether formal or not, your communications should always communicate value or, as many will ask, “What’s in it for me?” If you can’t answer this question to your stakeholder, maybe you should reconsider the action or who you are communicating with. We may often come up with a great idea, but I have to play devil’s advocate and ask tough questions or state that while we consider it important, our partners would not care. This is when that collaboration with other departments becomes essential in finding out how we can because when you’re swamped in the middle of the day with work and a new business calls wanting information about your organization, it should be second nature. 

#3 Transparency is a Huge Benefit

One of the biggest trends among destinations, businesses, or just about any organization you can think of these days is transparency. Your stakeholders want to know or feel like they are getting the truth and, more importantly, have access to it. This can become difficult for many of us who are quasi- or full-governmental organizations. 

The goal, however, should be not simply complying with information requests but supplying resources and information to your stakeholders that can paint a decent picture of the organizational goals, efforts, and operations. Many accomplish this with rigorous board meetings and an annual report. Many sales departments put out monthly or quarterly reports on bookings. Marketing and Visitor Services can share visitor survey results and how that shapes what markets they promote in their broadcast campaign. 

As a salesman and partnership director, I believe transparency is a never-ending goal that can always be pushed further. 

One of the huge benefits of St. Louis’s transition to Simpleview in 2021 was the use of its partner extranet. Not only did we have a new home for hotel leads, but we could post many of the essential reports we generated as well as some of the new ones we were using with Simpleview. Partners now have a 24/7 resource center from us that is more accessible than ever. 

Even better, the benefits summary now gives partners a snapshot to answer the age-old question, “What have you done for me lately?” My recommendation to my coworkers after seven years of using Simpleview is to make sure to have that benefit summary handy when meeting with our partners. Hotels may easily say we do not send enough leads for room blocks, yet half of the requests are unseen or unanswered. Other entities will claim we don’t do enough to promote the arts yet have ignored the social media and video content posted every week. Some claim you give them no opportunity to promote their business, but you now have a record of many emails, offer requests, and your event submissions all in one system. 

This is still the information age, and people want access to this information even if they don’t fully understand the technology behind it. This is a great way to easily add benefits to engagement or partnership with your organization and, yes, VALUE to your stakeholders if you have not done so already. 

#4 Innovation Isn’t The Enemy, it’s Essential 

One of the biggest enemies to our industry and certainly to client or stakeholder engagement is to get trapped in the two-word twilight zone called the “status quo.” I cannot tell you how much I dread that phrase or its many devilishly spawned children's phrases. Too often, DMO employees take action, plan events, campaigns, and even more simply because it is “the way we have always done it.” 

Now, some of these things are essential and should be preserved, like visitor guides, annual meetings, and client appreciation events. However, I believe innovation should be a regular part of the conversation. Does every idea need to be the next greatest thing to hit your DMO? Absolutely not. But the approach should be in two phases: 

  1.  Why is this action important to occur regularly or every year? 
  2.  How can I improve upon this to better achieve our goal? 

Our marketing team in St. Louis has achieved outstanding recognition for our celebrity “In The Know” campaign. Yet when the pandemic hit, we figured out ways to remix the content, make it fresh, and spread the word digitally that almost gave it a whole new look to an even bigger audience that had a keen desire for travel. In fact, our team recently received the award for "Campaign of the Year" at the Missouri Governor's Conference on Tourism from the content remix that was delivered in a new, strategic way. 

When I arrived in St. Louis in December 2019, my first introduction was the annual partnership holiday party. It was a great event, but I quickly learned that not much about it had changed in the last few years. Many partners walked into the ballroom, knowing exactly what to expect. So when I got the chance to bring it back last year, we made some significant changes. We overhauled the menu, added some lighting features, created a new activation with the local food bank, and more. Many of our partners were delighted at the changes. 

So many of our stakeholders have us on autopilot. Even our emails or newsletters don’t reach them like they used to. Take the time to evaluate your communications. When and how are you sending them? Do the emails have a personal touch, or do they read like another mass communication cluttering their inbox? Innovation allows even the most trivial or mundane interactions with stakeholders to become exciting and at least attract their attention in a new way. This will be essential in maintaining long partnerships with businesses or organizations that don’t directly interact with your organization all the time, as hotels and attractions will. 

#5 Consistency is Key! 

Consistency can be one of the simplest things to write about but the easiest for us to screw up. Outreach and recruitment of stakeholders are essential, but consistency in executing strategic action, regularly communicating your value, pro-active transparency, and utilizing innovation is the key to your success. The greatest of us will continue to find this elusive. Nevertheless, stakeholders will most often respond to the regular cadence of your efforts building their trust with every consistent step like a strong foundation or a sturdy brick wall. 

Like the rest of our industry, DMOs find themselves understaffed, with a single person or department taking on the responsibility of three or more. The ability to be consistent in your efforts should be a major factor to consider in taking action. I have some of the most innovative colleagues I have ever worked with at Explore St. Louis and even more creatives in the partnership space than I could have imagined. But I often find these amazing ideas and efforts ineffective to duplicate for myself due to a lack of resources. I know our partners will appreciate having resources, opportunities, and even events that can be relied on and deliver on those expectations, and it will continue to be one of my top goals in this position. 

My hope is that by reading this, those involved in stakeholder engagement officially and especially unofficially will be re-inspired to take some new approaches or strengthen them to continue their journey. Our industry and destinations need support now more than ever — this is the time to plant these seeds with our stakeholders to reap the benefits well into a future that can involve rich relationships and elevated engagement for all.