When Don Welsh took over as CEO of Destinations International in April 2016, the association for destination marketing organizations (aka convention and visitor bureaus) was looking inward to redefine how it would serve its constituency. In the years since, outward influences have come to the fore, in forms such as discriminatory legislation (see the North Carolina and Texas bathroom bills of 2016-17) and severe budget cuts (will Visit Florida survive the state's efforts to defund it?).
Welsh's charge now is to help DMOs through these rough waters, as well as lead the group's members as they look beyond visitors to begin serving their regions' citizens. M&C sat down with Welsh to discuss these issues and the evolving role of DMOs.
Whom does a DMO serve?
Until recently I would have said a DMO serves the hospitality and tourism community, their key stakeholders, the elected leaders in their community and, of course, the meetings industry, representing the brand of their destination.
While all that is still true, today I think destinations need to elevate their message to one of community engagement, to serve the citizens in the destination. When a convention comes in, how does that tie to the ideology of the host city? How does that potentially provide other opportunities for the community?
I learned a lot from working with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for five years [where Welsh was CEO of Choose Chicago prior to joining DI]. He clearly understood the value of conventions for Chicago, and when the city hosted a group like the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, he'd ask, how can we get them to set up a research lab in town, leave a permanent footprint in the city?
Destinations International has just released its study on the so-called weaponization of travel. What does that expression mean to you?
The calls for a boycott over the North Carolina bathroom bill of 2016 come to mind. Even after they partially rescinded it, that bill had such longterm ramifications for the tourism industry in the state. That was reputational damage, financial damage, loss of jobs... They're making great inroads on the damage that was done, but it can still leave the impression in someone's mind that they're not welcomed there. It will take decades to fully fix the state's image.
What have you heard from bureaus in states that have tried to roll back abortion rights?
It's too early to tell in places like Alabama and Louisiana, but I think what North Carolina went through would make a good case study for any state leaders grappling with the issue. What we're trying to do as an organization is to help destinations get ahead of the curve by monitoring social media and taking the pulse of the tourism and business industries, so our members aren't always forced into reactive mode.
State legislators need to ask what such laws are going to do to the welcoming environment of their communities, whether it's a convention or someone considering going there for leisure. What, for example, will the impact be in regard to film companies saying they might not want to make movies there, or sporting events, conventions and such?
The most unfortunate development in my view is that California is boycotting nine or 10 states that have passed anti-abortion measures. California is telling its state employees that if they go against the ban, their expenses will not be refunded. That's another example of how things filter down in weaponization. Ultimately, we don't believe in boycotts in any way, shape or form. [For more on this subject, turn to "Why Boycotting Destinations Can Be Bad for Meetings,".]
What's your take on another topic that's been in the news lately -- the funding of DMOs?
We are compiling a robust database so we can provide a DMO with information like funding statistics for their top five competitive cities. Thus they will have empirical data to bring to key stakeholders and say, here's who our competition is, and their budgets are 20 or 30 percent higher than ours, and these are the things in which we can't compete unless we have the funds. That's why we have our EIC -- the Event Impact Calculator. Today, a DMO has to be able to provide stakeholders with data on the return on investment in the agency.
And the pressure is on. Look what happened in New Orleans, where the new mayor, LaToya Cantrell, won a battle after a nasty public debate to reappropriate some funds earmarked for the Morial Convention Center to use for infrastructure purposes. I applaud Stephen Perry [president and CEO of New Orleans & Company, the city's DMO] for working with the mayor to help his agency retain what funding it did.
There are plenty of other mayors and leaders across the country who have major needs and are looking to move funds around. It could be for police, fire safety, things that are very important, but we think that to make more-or-less arbitrary decisions that affect destination marketing as mandated by law is clearly not a direction that we support.
Visit Florida is another example. They just successfully fought off being completely eradicated.
Yes, but it was disappointing in that if you look at the ROI of what tourism represents to Florida -- billions of dollars of revenue and hundreds of thousands of jobs -- to see the DMO's funding go from $72 million to around $50 million, well, that's a compromise, and I guess it's certainly better than the agency being completely eliminated.
Now they have to be hyper-focused on justifying and validating why that $50 million will be the best $50 million the state ever spent.
And how do you parse the dissolution of the Mexico Tourism Board earlier this year?
Well, Mexico's new president, Andres Manual Lopez Obrador, came to office trying to determine areas that he thought could be reformed or restructured, and one of those was tourism. I think one or two of the global offices have survived, and I believe he's trying to determine how the money that would normally be used to fund tourism could be better spent on infrastructure needs.
If there's a silver lining here, it's that now the country is being somewhat forced to look outward and explore best practices around the world, and how individual destinations within Mexico -- cities like Mexico City, Cancún and Guadalajara, and states like Jalisco and Quintana Roo -- can effectively collaborate on marketing efforts, working with trade shows like ours and other endeavors.
So what can DMOs do to make constituents feel more like stakeholders in the process
For one thing, DMOs have to help shift the mindset of CEOs so they come to see that our efforts help forge a sound economic engine in their communities, and that it goes beyond just booking and servicing meetings.
Today a lot of great destinations are beginning to do that, giving their cities' industries and other resources more of a stake in attracting tourism and meetings business.