Since joining Simpleview in 2020 as a senior advisor to the Future Tourism Group, David Peacock has hosted a podcast exploring some of the industry’s most pressing issues in candid conversations with industry leaders.
Placemaking. Sustainable tourism. Immersive virtual reality. The metaverse. Authentic development. Overtourism. The future of talent. Meaningful stakeholder engagement. Managing change. Managing crisis. After hosting nearly 60 episodes, we figured he’s learned a thing or two about what the future holds for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and what it will take for them to succeed in the ever-changing, ever-challenging tourism landscape.
Taken from your playbook, let’s start with — how are you? Where are you? What’s it like?
It's mid-winter 2022, almost all travel in the world has been seriously curtailed for two years now. People are worn out from the pandemic. For sure, North American tensions are high as the lifting of restrictions becomes polarized and politicized, but sitting here in Paris, Ontario, Canada, about an hour and a half west of Toronto, I'm feeling good about the future.
Credit: Photo by Haiming Xiao on Unsplash
There's a silver lining to the crisis in travel and tourism of the last 700 days, and it is this: the pressures that this industry was feeling prior to the pandemic to shift to a more holistic, inclusive, and regenerative model have come home to roost.
Stakeholder engagement, civic alignment, and sustainability are right now top of mind with almost every tourism executive in the world.
Based on that, I believe we're entering a decade of change and innovation in the industry that would have taken maybe three decades to manifest just a couple of years ago. It will be a decade of change and innovation that will unlock the real potential of tourism to make the world a better place, a decade of sharing cultures and people that contributes meaningfully to the social fabric of destinations that choose to play host to the world.
DMOs, if they step up to the challenge, have never been more important.
So all things considered, sitting here in Paris under three feet of snow on a Wednesday morning in February, I'm feeling pretty good about what happens next. I don’t mean it will be easy, but we're heading in the right direction.
As you launch into your third season hosting the Future of Tourism, what are two of your biggest learnings?
My two biggest learnings, hmm?
Well, first of all, I think about that quote by the science fiction writer, William Gibson, “The future is here; it's just not evenly distributed.”
For the better part of a decade, there has been great work going on around the world on future-proofing destinations, on making tourism more relevant to citizens, and on harnessing the power of travel to create opportunities for sustainable and regenerative development.
But these are the exceptions, not the rule. Prior to the pandemic, they were the outliers, the early adopters. We paid some attention to them, and they were inspirational, perhaps, but many of our organizations were not set up to address wholesale changes in role and function that these models required, so we lionized their work but ignored their practices.
The pandemic has changed all that. It has forced us to reassess, not just as an industry but also as citizens and cities and places. What is it that tourism does that's making this a better world? Why should we have tourism here? And that is the beginning of a new era of tourism that is more thoughtful, more intentional, and more relevant. We know that tourism done well can play a significant role in bringing people together to do the work we need to do to sustain our planet and our cultures.
We need to look at the work of those early adopters — the regenerative strategy of the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand; the eco-focus of PROMTUR Panama; the inclusive imperative of Visit Flanders; the human-focused marketing of Helsinki; the sustainability work of Victoria, British Columbia — to find the models and tools that are already out there and already working.
My second biggest learning, which surprises me but shouldn't, is the meteoric rise in the demand for authenticity.
Destinations can no longer have two identities: the one they have in “marketing” and the one they have in “place.” It is inauthentic when the two don't match.
Advertising guru David Ogilvy said this back in the 1950s (updated for today’s times), “The consumer is not an idiot; they’re your partner, wife, or husband.” In other words, consumers are smart. They make intelligent decisions and have no tolerance for inauthentic advertising or marketing. For example, ecotours must be restorative, places that claim themselves to be egalitarian and open must be just that, beautiful places must also be great places to live, or that’s just a veneer.
Much like reading the nutritional information and ingredients on food packaging that has become so prevalent over the last decade, the consumer now wants to know the ingredients of tourism and whether or not it's good for them and good for the place they are visiting.
I think this is a powerful motivator for destinations to be open, honest, and transparent. In some sense, it's been driven by the fact that digital disruption has made information so incredibly accessible. I think you're going to see people accessing that information more and more, and it will figure quite prominently into their decision-making when it comes to travel.
We’ve started to see more and more destinations turn their attention away from quantity of visitors to quality of visitors. What’s driving this, and how are you seeing destination marketing organizations (DMOs) navigate this tricky shift?
Let's unpack the term “quality of visitors” for a second.
When you break it right down, what we're talking about is an alignment between the visitor and the ethos, zeitgeist, values — whatever you want to call it — of the destination or experience.
As I mentioned, Panama recently relaunched its entire tourism strategy to achieve a fully restorative tourism industry within 20 years. To do that, it decided it could not simply institute a series of sustainable and regenerative practices (necessary but not sufficient), but it actually had to invest in finding visitors who shared those values who could come and be part of that process.
In the words of Woodrow Oldford at Promtur Panama, the DMO was looking for the “quality” visitor. That doesn't mean the richest visitor or the most granola visitor; it means visitors who buy into the vision of the destination that the people of the destination have of themselves. These visitors would help Panama on that journey and share its stories, challenges, and successes with the rest of the world.
The two other examples we talk about all the time during the pandemic are Venice and Barcelona. These two magnificent city destinations have experienced overtourism to the nth degree for the last decade. In the absence of the visitor, they were able to look at themselves and reflect on what and who they were as cities and cultures.
My friend, Eric Reguly, is the business affairs correspondent for The Globe and Mail, stationed in Rome. He shared this with me: absent of overtourism, Rome is twice as magnificent. In essence, Rome, Barcelona, and Venice get to see themselves as cities again, as functioning places where citizens live and work. That renewed vision is compelling, and it only makes sense that as they rebuild, they try to recapture some of their original essences and mitigate against the erosion that unchecked tourism can cause in a destination.
For sure, there are DMOs around the world who are already doing this. Still, most DMOs are at a pivotal point in their existence: they can step up and become champions of sustainable, authentic, and regenerative destination development, or they can continue to try and hoe the row of a marketing and advertising organization, pure and simple … but that's no longer sufficient.
The DMO can be an incredible force for good in the destination if it just steps up. If it doesn't, it faces irrelevance because somebody else, some other group, some people who care will step up. It's uncomfortable, outside our usual purview — but, again, there are destination organizations and destinations around the world who are already doing this. Look left, look right, find some inspiration. It is doable.
Imagine a future where the destination organization is one of the most relevant and regenerative forces in the places we live and visit.
As destinations seek to develop new models, what tools do they need? What are the most exciting tools you’ve seen successfully used in recent destination development efforts?
It's kind of funny. Rolling into the pandemic, I would say pretty much 80 percent of the innovation focus in tourism dealt with digital disruption: digital marketing, social media, ticketing systems, e-commerce, etc.
For the most part (and I know I'm generalizing here, but work with me for a minute), most destination organizations in the world were a decade and perhaps more behind the digital curve. Sure, there were the leaders, the big machines that had embraced digital and were, like other industries, steadily and effectively moving towards a digital future. However, most DMOs were still heavily focused on a push-based marketing model. Their role and function existed somewhere on a continuum of content curation, creation, and dissemination, with a preponderant focus on their own channels.
In a modern digital world, I think it is fair to say the brand of a destination should be cited as the sum total of shared stories and experiences about a given destination or experience. That brand exists on so many different channels now: the intentional marketing of the DMO, the social postings of everyone who's ever been in that destination, the stories in the news about that destination, the Google, Instagram, and Tripadvisor channels of the business and visitors of that destination, the history of that destination told and recorded, and on and on.
The destination’s brand grows and grows based on the content that is out there, and that content can never be streamed through one channel anymore. The genie is just out of the bottle on that one. The consumer decides the channels they use to access the stories of a destination — not the DMO, not the city government, not the businesses.
So, progressive destinations (the minority) spent the better part of a decade creating distributed marketing models. These models used the myriad digital paths to tell authentic stories via relevant channels. But to do that, they had to engage people and communities so those stories were authentic and indeed relevant. That was the work of the past decade, or at least that was the leading work of the last decade, and most DMOs were playing catch up to that right up until the pandemic happened.
You rightly point out that DMOs need to develop new models, and I believe those new models have everything to do with redefining the role and function of the destination organization based on creating sustainable networks of destination partners who enable the telling of authentic stories that resonate with the traveler and the citizen alike.
I will guarantee you this, based on my own work of the past decade, when you engage communities and find their authentic stories and work with them to amplify those stories, you will inevitably end up in the role and function of destination development steward. It is a great place to be, highly relevant and always exciting. DMOs that become linchpins in developing and sharing what their destination offers will always find themselves in a position of relevance and growth.
Ten years from now, how do you see DMOs having evolved — in other words, what does the DMO of the future look like?
The DMO of the future, the really successful DMO, is a catalytic force in their destination. They are partnership-driven, they play a balanced role of encouraging and enabling destination development, they have pivoted their funding to make co-investments in making the destination highly shareable and highly shared, and everyone knows and values their role and function. It sounds difficult, but it isn’t. Start working with partners, and your organizational structure and budgets will adjust accordingly. We proved this at RTO4 in Ontario, Canada, over the last decade: the best destinations are the result of engaged stakeholders who take an active role in shaping their collective tourism future.
When you align with stakeholders, civic entities, and partners across the destination and agree on the DNA — the real compelling story of that destination — then really, there are only three things left to do: animation, storytelling, and hygiene. All of them are very powerful, all of them are very nuanced, but in essence, just three things. You can enable, you can fix, and you can share.
The destination organization of the future will foster intentional networks of citizens and stakeholders to empower the telling, sharing, and creation of authentic stories and experiences.
Marketing in its purest sense isn’t about advertising. It’s about goods and services that don’t come back for people that do. It’s about product development and refinement, it's about narrative, it’s about shaping demand, and, ultimately, it's about sharing. We can do that — heck, we already do that!
And here is the good news: the budgets that we already have as organizations are sufficient to get started. We just need to use them more wisely and leverage co-investments with our partners and stakeholders.
As my friend Guy Bigwood at the Global Destination Sustainability Movement says, “A little less talk, a little more action.”