Attention Bureau Chiefs: City Residents — Not Meeting Planners — Are Your Core Customers

Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destinations International
Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destinations International

More than 250 convention bureau CEOs were challenged to rethink their core missions last week during Destination International's CEO Summit in Asheville, N.C. With the theme of "Creative Change," the agenda urged leaders to embrace a broader goal, driving efforts to make their cities better places for residents to live.

Is it a tall order for members? We asked Don Welsh, DI's president and CEO, for his insights.

Part of DI's message is that DMOs should be playing a vital role in the betterment of their cities. Is that a new concept for members?
For some, not all. I like to reflect back on my days with Choose Chicago. Our mayor had a totally different perspective on what role tourism and meetings played. He saw it as a catalyst, really, to attract other businesses to Chicago, and therefore we became an ally with the business world. He also saw it as a great image-builder for the city. If you had an event or convention there, he saw it as a way to supplement the way people perceive the city of Chicago. So that, I think, was apparent in the way we all worked together. We've got to shift our thinking from what's taking place at the destination to what's driving it.

Jack Johnson, DI's chief advocacy officer, talked about the need for DMOs to see residents of their cities as their customers. Will that require a change in mindset?
That's a big shift for some cities. We've talked about the customer being the client, the meeting planner, business associates, suppliers, but actually it's the communities and the people who live there. So that is a big philosophical shift in terms of how you're thinking about who you're serving, and who, ultimately, are your stakeholders.

It makes sense that a city that is great for residents, with improvements like easier downtown transportation, will also be a better place for meetings.
Yes, it will be somewhere people want to come to. I also think we need to be broadening our focus beyond the downtown core. After one or two visits to a city, you've been downtown, and you want to explore other areas and neighborhoods. You want to get out and have a genuine experience.

DI just released the results of an industrywide diversity study. Any surprises?
Well, the good news is we now have information, and from that data, people can start making informed decisions. I don't think it's going to surprise anyone. I would say that you see women leaders comprising about 50 percent, but when you look at larger destinations with larger budgets, you see a dramatic decrease in female leadership.

It says a lot about these tier-one cities, with CVB budgets over $10 million. Why aren't women leading in these destinations? With recognition, this has got to change -- and that starts with the board of directors. When a CEO opportunity comes up, the board needs to mandate that candidates include women and minorities. We're seeing a little bit of progress.

Is the industry ready to think differently?
In some cases, it's a new generation of thinking. But you can't lose sight of the fundamentals. You've got to still have your bookings and you've got to show the ROI, but what we're talking about is going far beyond just the basics. And that's pretty neat.