INSIGHTS

defining a new normal in tourism

April 22, 2020 / Greg Oates (Author)

In March 2020, Ted Lee, interim President and CEO of Tourism Vancouver, asked these questions on LinkedIn:

“What is the ‘new normal’ for travel and tourism in a post Covid-19 world? Should we aim to return to where things were, where all known vulnerabilities and inefficiencies exist, or is there something better to be had? I think it should be the latter. The question is, what is that and how do we get there?”

There’s been a lot of discussion about the new normal in tourism (and every other industry) in recent weeks. There also seems to be growing fatigue around the phrase “new normal” itself, but we need to call it something.

Lee and I spoke about putting together a group of people to bring some focus and direction to the conversation. Last week, we convened a Zoom call with an interdisciplinary group of industry leaders to gauge interest around various themes relating to a potential new normal in tourism.

Our group included numerous destination organization CEOs (including Lee), travel industry executives from Fort Worth to Melbourne, and a number of high-level professionals in economic development and university tourism and hospitality schools.

My goal is really to leverage how tourism is the sharing economy of ideas, and how we as an industry can be more intentional around that to provide more opportunities for more people in more communities.

Here are some takeaways from the session. Our group is now discussing future calls to drill down into specific topics and define desired outcomes.

First, though, today is Earth Day. Before proceeding, watch this 85-second video that provides some perspective around the themes outlined below.

Community Resilience

There was general consensus among our group around anchoring the future direction of the travel industry in community resilience, but there’s also a need to define that more clearly.

Community resilience is aligned with the biggest theme in the travel industry during the last few years — the evolution from destination marketing to destination management, or some prefer, destination stewardship.

For destination marketing and management organizations (DMMO or DMO), it’s an expansion of roles from promoting communities to building communities.

Broadly, that means developing destinations in alignment with the best interests of the community. It’s about ensuring visitor spending benefits a wider breadth of residents with an overall destination management strategy based on elevating the economic, socio-cultural and environmental sustainability of the region.

Jeremy Sampson, CEO at The Travel Foundation, sums it up well:

“We need stronger destination management which serves, first and foremost, the needs of residents and enables real collaboration with companies and other stakeholders on a shared agenda. To do this will require significant behaviour changes. Stronger destination management will need a new mandate based on community engagement; new skills and data to understand tourism’s full impact; new tools to develop local SME capacities and inclusive procurement practices; new ideas and levers to manage how the visitor economy grows. And most importantly, new finance mechanisms will be required to protect destination assets and invest in new products as well as sustainable infrastructure.”

Many destinations have been doing this. During our group call, Paul Nursey, president and CEO of Greater Destination Victoria, discussed his organization’s collaboration with local partners to develop the IMPACT Sustainability Travel & Tourism Conference in 2018. It is the only dedicated conference focusing on sustainability in tourism and the alignments of that with local industry. He recommended our group review the 2018 and 2109 IMPACT Conference Proceedings Papers. The 2020 paper will be released soon.

Also, the City of Vancouver launched the Resilient Vancouver platform last year, described as: “A multi-year strategy aimed at enhancing the capacity of our neighbourhoods, our government and our infrastructure to serve our diverse communities today, and to withstand and recover from inevitable shocks and stresses, now and in the future.”

The City initiative includes a Resilient Vancouver Toolkit with insight such as how to form a Neighborhood Resilience Team. So, how can tourism leaders and stakeholders join that conversation at the community level to support the development of more resilient communities? First, we need some context.

According to the Canadian Community Economic Development Network, there are six pillars of community resilience:

  1. People: The power to envision the future of the community and build its resilience resides with community members.
  2. Systems Thinking: Systems thinking is essential for understanding the complex, interrelated crises now unfolding and what they mean for our similarly complex communities.
  3. Adaptability: A community that adapts to change is resilient. But because communities and the challenges we face are dynamic, adaptation is an ongoing process.
  4. Transformability: Some challenges are so big that it’s not possible for the community to simply adapt; fundamental, transformative changes may be necessary.
  5. Sustainability: Community resilience is not sustainable if it serves only us, and only now; it needs to work for other communities, future generations, and the ecosystems on which we all depend.
  6. Courage: As individuals and as a community, we need courage to confront challenging issues and take responsibility for our collective future.

Follow Up Questions for Group Discussion:

  • One of our group participants suggested that there wasn’t unanimity around the word “resilience,” so there needs to be a continued conversation around language. The suggestion was that resilience could easily be substituted for “equitable economic development” or “sustainability.”
  • How can local tourism strategy be aligned with local resilience strategy?
  • One of our group members asked, “For DMOs, the organization question remains key. The community can rally around goals but how does that live out? How do we focus on those goals and not just on the self-preservation of our organizations?”

Language Challenges

A key theme throughout our discussion revolved around language. It’s as if there’s significant collective agreement among many progressive members in our industry about what any kind of new normal should encompass, but we keep tripping over words and phrases to define that vision of the future.

Is “resilience” a word and theme that industry, government, organizations and residents can all understand and rally around now? And what about in the coming months? Does a new normal require new language? Will Covid-19 increase adoption around certain language, such as community resilience, sustainability and sustainable tourism, circular and regenerative economies, responsible and ethical travelers, etc.?

The Wonderful Copenhagen organization put out some excellent research last year about “The Mindful Visitor” — another new term. It’s worth reading to learn how the organization is evolving how they speak to high-value visitors.

Also, the travel industry in recent years has shifted how it talks about itself.

The usage of “visitor industry” and the “visitor economy” are now mainstream from an industry B2B standpoint. The feeling is that visitor economy speaks to the full breadth of how travel supports jobs, delivers bed tax funds to destinations, and drives direct, indirect and induced spending in the local economy.

One of the academic advisors in our group, however, suggested that “visitor economy” doesn’t fully encompass all of the hidden costs associated with travel, beyond the tourism ecosystem. That speaks to themes put forth in “Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism,” stating:

“[There is an] invisible set of local budgetary obligations placing destinations in a position of financing additional required infrastructure for energy, waste, wastewater and the protection of natural and cultural resources, without recompense from the tourism economy. These costs lower the economic benefits of tourism and are not recognized in international and local economic impact analyses.”

Discussion:

  • Will a new normal require new language?
  • Everyone in our group agreed that we need to keep language as simple as possible to define a new normal, but how do we do so to address the complexity of issues?
  • How can we make the sustainability theme more engaging for more people? One challenge is the lack of quality video in this space that’s on the same level with other travel industry content.
  • How well does “visitor economy” resonate with residents? As the travel industry shifts toward engaging community leaders and residents more intentionally to co-develop destinations, what language works best there? Will residents and non-industry people gravitate toward “visitor economy?”

Macro Sustainability, Scalability & Systems

It is inherent within the theme of sustainability that scale is everything. The value of economic, socio-cultural and environmental standards is directly proportionate to how much those standards are adopted, how the positive impacts resulting from them are measured, and how much solutions are shared to drive adoption.

For example, Doug Smith, Director of Sustainability for the City of Vancouver, told me earlier this year:

“Being the greenest city in the world won’t mean much if we can’t scale it globally. We need to influence other decision-makers around the world, and the way you do that is by showing people what we’ve achieved. That’s where I buy into working with Tourism Vancouver so we can find more ways to reach more people.”

A challenge there is the sheer scope of different organizations that have developed sustainability indicators and measurements for various segments of the industry. If those don’t speak to each other, and can’t be interchanged, how can we have transparent international standards?

Furthermore, we as an industry need to expand how we speak about the future of tourism from a micro to macro sustainability imperative. We have to ask how we can influence public policy and the corporate culture within the travel industry’s power structure. Today, so much of the conversation is micro, such as hotels doing away with plastic straws.

Defining a new normal for tourism needs to begin with an honest, transparent assessment of the power structure behind the travel industry. It’s not government, community or tourism leaders. It’s the big asset owners, business alliances and boards of directors who wield influence over everything. In order to pivot corporate culture, while still being pro-responsible growth, we must show that the greatest investment growth opportunities looking ahead revolve around the rise of the global resilience movement.

Discussion:

  • One of our group members, who’s an academic researcher and instructor, emphasized that “sustainability is about systems” that need to address the entirety of our environmental and social ecosystems as an interconnected whole. The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals are perhaps the best example of that in action, but how many tourism organizations have been investing resources in aligning their strategy around those?
  • How do we shift corporate culture among our industry’s major stakeholders? How do we show the investment ROI in sustainable destination development strategy?

Aligning Tourism, Community & Economic Development

During the last decade, the global travel industry has increasingly focused on how tourism leaders are collaborating more strategically with mayors and city/town councils, private sector economic development agencies, and civic organizations with a deep appreciation of the major issues in their specific communities.

This will be a critical theme in defining the new normal in tourism and hospitality.

A few members in our group suggested that workforce development is a natural bridge between the public and private sectors. One travel industry executive stated, “Workforce development is a big topic in the U.S., focusing on creating alternative pathways to jobs for kids who are not college bound.”

There’s always the conversation that travel industry jobs are often low-paying jobs, so they’re not always a priority for elected officials. The other side of that argument emphasizes that the tourism and hospitality sector provide a disproportionate percentage of jobs for non-college educated citizens, and in many countries, women as well.

But there’s another way to look at that. How many people put themselves through college while working in hotels, restaurants, etc.? Therefore, the travel industry can do a better job promoting the value it provides as a platform for personal and professional development, specifically aimed at both the public sector and residents.

Discussion:

  • One person in our group suggested we need to move beyond the delineation between visitor and locals, because both spend money in many of the same businesses.
  • Presently, during the worst of Covid-19, tourism organizations are focusing on business continuity for small local businesses, such as promoting area restaurants offering takeout/delivery, hotels offering travel vouchers, and how the local creative economy is coming together to support artists and makers. Will that change how the travel industry engages both visitors and locals coming out of the recovery?

Climate Change is a Social Challenge

The two fundamental global shifts in the last two decades are:

  1. The rise of mainstream awareness around climate change, resource mismanagement and environmental degradation, and the impact those have on our communities
  2. The rise of digital media and its impact on geo-political discourse to influence perception and behavior

Research suggests they’re inter-related because climate change is a social challenge as much as environmental. Meaning, we have tools and strategies to mitigate climate change, but we lack the social cohesion to use those tools and strategies at scale.

Therefore, as with any social challenge, we can leverage digital media to develop new narratives to build greater social cohesion around how we address climate change. Greta Thunberg, for example, hasn’t said anything new. The staggering global movement around her is based on how she communicates her message so effectively, how that has influenced global media, and how it has galvanized millions of young people.

Destination organizations can own that. They can pivot how they think of climate change as a social challenge, and adapt their messaging accordingly.

Discussion:

  • If we look at climate change as a social challenge, how can the global travel industry leverage its networks and media channels to shift traveler perspectives and behaviors?
  • What are the new stories for the new normal?
  • How come there are no high-production videos related to sustainable tourism and community resiliency, beyond the luxury eco-tourism market?

Future Leaders

The travel industry needs to provide a bigger platform for younger generations to provide greater input into the future of what we do, why we do it, and how we can do it better. Looking back over the last century, it’s an understatement to say our past leaders in the public and private sectors have created a lot of serious problems relating to equitable economic opportunity, social inclusion, and environment stewardship, just for starters.

Our next generation of leaders are going to have to try and fix that.

Presently, there’s a big chasm between the travel industry and our tourism and hospitality education system. Tourism organizations, at least in North America, rarely engage universities consistently for insight into destination development and management strategy.

We need to bridge that and bring fresh voices to any conversation about a new normal in tourism. That’s because we will need new tools and skills to align tourism development and community resilience strategy based on empirical measurements, which our industry isn’t presently equipped to manage. That is where university-level researchers will be required to provide leadership and direction.

Discussion:

  • The university-level academic instructors in our group stated that sustainability and resilience are bigger priorities for younger generations in tourism and hospitality schools. That’s an important distinction for how our industry attracts and retains students, but it’s also critical to keep our industry relevant.
  • One of our group members posed this question: “How do we retain our identity, as it relates to the visitor economy and our funding required for destination marketing and stewardship, while moving toward agents of local economic development?” That’s not a new question, but it’s getting a lot more attention in our new normal.

Next Steps

Here are some ideas for future calls, dialing into some of the individual themes highlighted above:

  • How will we define community resilience as the foundation for a new normal in tourism that will resonate with all audiences?
  • What are the primary purposes for destination marketing and management organizations, now and next year?
  • How do we navigate seemingly intractable differences in the language we use to define an optimal future?
  • How do we align community, tourism and economic development to engage the public sector more effectively?
  • How do we shift from a micro to macro sustainability lens to influence public policy and pivot corporate culture? How to we speak to boards of directors in the future?
  • Where do we even begin to deconstruct funding models and rebuild around a new normal? What are the new priorities for new structures relating to funding, governance, policy, etc.?
  • How do we connect the future of destination development and the U.N.’s 17 SDGs?
  • Where are the opportunities to bridge the gap between industry and academia to develop the new systems we’ll need to inform destination stewardship in the future?
  • What have I missed? Are there other macro themes, or nuances around them, that we need to discuss?

We can build on this list as our group and mission evolve.

Greg Oates is Senior Vice President of Innovation at MMGY NextFactor. He works with cities to develop destination management plans that align tourism, community and economic development strategy. Greg also produces Destination International’s DestinationNEXT Futures Study, providing the travel industry’s most high-level overview of shifts driving the global visitor economy.

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