Some 1.4 billion people crossed international borders in 2018 for vacations, work, family visits, and other reasons, according to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Considering global tourism arrivals weren’t expected to break 1.4 billion travelers until 2020, it’s clear that realities such as overtourism are challenging destinations like never before. But travelers usually go where they’re told to go, and for too long destination marketers have marketed their locales without considering what happens when tourism marketing works too well and things like noise, cost of living, and traffic wreak havoc on locals.
Destination management has entered the vocabulary of some destination marketing organizations in recent years as destinations realize the hamster wheel that is growing visitor arrivals year after year isn’t sustainable for their communities.
What is Destination Management?
Destination management means marketers are tasked with attracting talent for top industries in the destination, supporting economic development programs, and helping maintain a good quality of life for locals, in addition to flashy campaigns that make a trip seem irresistible to travelers.
Rather than fixating on boosting visitor numbers each year, some destinations like Sonoma County, California are focusing on attracting the right kind of travelers for their destinations.
Sonoma County Commits to Sustainable Tourism
Sonoma County Tourism, the region’s tourism board, recently announced a sustainable tourism program to promote the area for travelers who seek experiences that align with the values around stewardship and responsible travel.
“It’s natural for [Sonoma County Tourism] to become destination managers and destinations stewards,” said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. “We need to figure out what’s in the best interest of this county and our natural resources.”
Tourists load food boxes at the Redwood Empire Food Bank. Photo by Will Bucquoy and Sonoma County Tourism.
Last year’s wildfires that ravaged California’s wine country made the need for management more apparent in Sonoma County as the effects of climate change were felt.
Vecchio said that the decision to add destination management to her organization’s scope is also a nod to the region’s winegrowers.
“Sonoma County winegrowers really led the charge on sustainability and want to be world’s most sustainable growing region,” said Vecchio. “Most of the growers are certified sustainable. Just last Thursday they made a commitment to protecting vineyards from climate change.”
Sonoma County currently gets an average of 10.8 million day and overnight visitors per year. Vecchio said one of the program’s initial goals is to get one-tenth of all visitors, or about one million, interested in sustainable tourism.
Vecchio believes that the goal is achievable so long as tourism officials ask travelers nicely.
“We’ve crafted the eight-component Travel Kindly pledge,” she said. “The pledge tries to take a positive approach to this such as ‘stay on designated roads, go beyond, think local, volunteer or support a non-profit, and plan ahead.’”
“We hope people will use social media to use this as a badge of honor, that they respect this area,” she said. “I think people will respect a particular type of behavior if you ask for it. People want to know what you need from them to be responsible travelers.”
Sonoma County’s new Travel Kindly pledge.
The Rise of Destination Management
Overtourism, the reality of a destination’s infrastructure not able to support the level of visitation it receives, is only one factor that led to the destination management mindset.
Overtourism isn’t the biggest challenge Sonoma County is facing, although the destination is working to prevent crowds, said Vecchio. “We don’t experience a lot of overtourism in the wineries unless there’s a big event,” she said. “Overtourism really happens at the coast in our region.”
The 2008-2009 global financial crisis was also a key driver. As communities looked to budget cuts to stay afloat, tourism marketing programs were the first to get the axe in some parts of the world.
Some elected officials have been quick to propose tourism marketing funding cuts because destination marketing hasn’t historically been a shared community value, said Jack Johnson, Chief Advocacy Officer and foundation Executive Director at Destinations International. Johnson spoke about the importance of destination management at the organization’s 2019 Annual Convention in St. Louis, Missouri in July.
Locals often don’t view tourism marketing as an essential community need as they do fire, police, and water treatment services, said Johnson.
“I must acknowledge that [destination marketers] are not a shared community value,” said Johnson at the convention. “That is why people and officials feel free to attack us."
“It is not [destination marketers’] mission to put heads in beds. Everything that allows your community to compete is important.”
- Jack Johnson, Chief Advocacy Offier, Destinations International
How Destination Marketers Can Take on Management
Johnson added that your residents are your customers and if destination marketers feel like they work for any other group, they’re not doing their jobs.
Did you ever think to ask local residents what they think is important to promote? (Take a look at how Visit Savannah used polls in Instagram Stories to do this!)
Destinations International advises destinations to talk to residents and stakeholders using language that’s simple and emotional. Find a mission statement that’s simple, and repeat it again and again.
Then provide context for your work. Many residents may read a headline such as “X Destination Sets Record With Y Number of Visitors,” and not understand how that benefits them.
What problem or need are more visitors solving for the community? Many residents likely feel they don’t need more visitors, and it’s your job to show them how tourism can positively impact their lives.
Johnson said so many people are skeptical of tourism boards because they don’t know what these organizations do. Listen to residents and be transparent to help pull back the curtain and demonstrate your role in the community and why you’re a public good.
Destination Management is Not One Size Fits All
Destination management and stewardship isn’t a blanket approach that will work everywhere.
Sonoma County had a clear objective: our organization must do more to protect the natural environment we’re promoting and our community deserves that from us, said Vecchio.
Lisbon is a great example of how to wear both marketing and management hats. Smart Open Lisbon, a startup accelerator program launched in 2017 that Turismo de Portugal, the country’s national destination marketing organization, partnered with to work towards solutions to issues facing the local tourism industry.
The program asks startups to improve how residents and tourists share transportation options and make buildings more environmentally friendly. Lisbon has become a more popular destination during the past decade and officials saw an opportunity to use tourism revenues to help bolster an economy that suffered following the global financial crisis.
Taking a leadership role, as Lisbon has done, helps bring the community to the table to get everyone on the same page about your tourism mission statement and master plan.
Destinations could also take Lisbon’s cue and look to startup talent and ideas from other industries to help them develop a management platform that’s a true community effort.
The more industries and partners you have involved, the more people you have spreading your message.