Those of us in the destination marketing world understand tourism’s impact on local communities, but residents are only sometimes aware of how much they benefit from a strong tourism economy. It keeps their favorite restaurants open, their downtowns lively, and their neighbors employed.
Many destination marketing organizations (DMOs) offer tourism ambassador programs, whether it’s a homegrown program or through the Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) program, which provides a core curriculum and certification. Besides gaining new tourism advocates, DMOs that offer tourism ambassador programs are cultivating a welcoming group of locals to interact with visitors.
We interviewed Annie J. Kelley, communications manager at Calhoun County Visitors Bureau, and Armando Seledon, associate director of member engagement at Visit San Antonio, about their ambassador programs. Both DMOs participate in the Certified Tourism Ambassador program, which is administered at the local level.
Tell us about your tourism ambassador program & how people find it to join.
Word-of-mouth is a strong component of the program. Participants who have enjoyed the class or found it useful will pass along the word. The visitor bureau also makes connections in the community, reaching out to new people primarily through our Chamber of Commerce partners. We also offer classes for organizations that want employees certified, like the library and the realtors association.
Our Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) program is one that we launched in 2012. We have just over 1,000 CTAs currently in San Antonio. We host mixers quarterly as well as CTA power hours which are more behind-the-scenes and VIP experiences for our CTAs.
Who’s the typical ambassador demographically & has that changed over time?
There isn’t really a typical ambassador other than a person whose job connects them with people. Even from the beginning, it was more than people in hospitality. We had hotel and restaurant employees but also educators, nonprofit leaders, local government staff, law enforcement, realtors, and healthcare workers.
For ambassadors to get re-certified each year, they are required to earn points. Points can be earned by visiting attractions, stores, and restaurants or attending networking events. This encourages ambassadors to be a tourist in their own town and keep learning about the community.
I would not say there is a typical demographic for a CTA. Historically, it has been the people passionate about San Antonio as a whole. We do have a large contingency of retired and professional tour guide individuals in the program that help on a volunteer basis in various areas of the city. But we are seeing more and more hotel and hospitality companies sending their entire staff to become certified, from front desk agents to maintenance to housekeeping, servers, and bartenders.
What are the benefits to your DMO & to the community of having tourism ambassadors?
As a DMO, we know that tourism affects everyone in the community — the more people traveling here means more money being spent and more investments being made. We want people to have a positive experience while they are here.
CTAs learn about the importance of positive messaging. A CTA knows about fun things to do, good places to eat, and reasons to be excited about what’s going on around them.
We pride ourselves in having a stellar experience when visitors visit San Antonio, and we appreciate the opportunity to train CTAs to give the best possible customer service and knowledge of the city to anyone who asks them. Having a CTA program allows us to train as many hospitality workers ready with the tools and experiences to service all the guests they come in contact with. We are stronger in numbers.
Is there anything unique or special about your ambassador program compared to others you know about?
Our program coordinator has been a guest teacher at the local community college. The sports management class had her come in for a few days to go through the CTA program and certify students.
We have a unique opportunity to sell our city — it’s an easy sell, I might add — but we try and engage all of our CTAs with unique out-of-the-box experiences so they can, in turn, share their personal experiences with visitors. So the locally owned small business that may not have the large marketing dollars to reach a traveler is now top of mind on a recommendation list for guests to experience.
What advice do you have for DMOs looking to start an ambassador program?
Discussion can be an important part of the class. It’s an opportunity for people to share what they like to do in the community. Not only does it give other CTAs ideas, but you can learn from it, too. Keep the discussion going beyond the class.
And don’t limit yourself to only hotel staff or restaurant staff. Teachers, business owners, volunteers – we all need resources to learn more about our community.
It is very rewarding once the program starts to gain momentum and people start getting excited about taking the class. It is nice to have a group of people willing and wanting to be a positive influence in their communities. Anyone can learn to love where they live.
Put in the work to get buy-in from local tourism and hospitality organizations and your city about the success of the program. Partnering with a local college or university that has a hospitality program is a great start to get the designation as a part of their curriculum. Also, getting your major entities like the convention center or any other large facilities to make the certification a priority for staff to take will help the success of the program.