Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Is This ‘The End Boom, Boom, Boom’? - Part 2 of 2

I wrote yesterday about lessons learned and a situation I faced running the destination marketing organization for Anchorage, Alaska.  This, as Paul Harvey would say, is “the rest of the story.”

They went to the press with a story, just not the real story.

Unfortunately, those attempting the coup chose a straw issue that was very easy to refute, but it was clear the conspirators all had one thing in common, reliance on and allegiance to tourism originating out of Seattle and heavily invested in Southeast Alaska.

This calculation relied on gridlocking a generations-long web of economic and personal relationships.  It also played to a deep insecurity, particularly in small towns in Southeast Alaska that Anchorage, with half the state’s population, wanted it all.

The board to which I answered unanimously held fast.  The complainants followed through and publicly dropped their membership, but they miscalculated the reaction.

News editorials saw through it as did our Anchorage membership along with nearly every elected official including those in high office.

While from opposing political parties and ideologies, both the mayor and the long-time former mayor who was an officer on our board at the time especially understood.

Even several CEOs of Seattle interests saw through the vendetta and backed away. Meanwhile, many of us worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help those involved save face, but to no avail.

Within a few months or so, those involved in the coup were being transferred or had faded behind the scenes. However, Alaska tourism relationships, stretched thin, would never quite be the same again.345882026_03d978c5ba_b

Nor would Alaska tourism.

I pressed on for another year after that, going on my ninth there and one of our most productive given the distraction.

But I also knew from experience that once again I had been unavoidably “splattered with blood.”

Completing startups is incredibly stressful, especially those that shift paradigms.  Not yet 40, I had already spent two-thirds of my life forging intense change.

I felt exhausted, teetering on burn out, but more than that I suddenly felt a flood of repressed anger.  Even after venting to friends, anger “colonizes the emotional life” and clouds one’s judgment.

As Dr. Robert Karen would pen a dozen years later in a small but powerful book entitled, The Forgiving Self, unresolved anger:

“…is like a cancer, sapping our vitality, aggravating our feelings of shame, weighing us down with depression, and secreting a steady stream of bitterness throughout our being.”

I needed a pause for reflection and rejuvenation.  I realize now I also needed to find a way to forgive and hope to be forgiven, especially forgiving myself.

The DMO board and Anchorage community were extremely disappointed when I told them I was moving on - first to help the mayor jumpstart the foundation of and a governing board for a traditional supply-side economic development corporation, then - to take a hiatus from DMO work.

At a farewell dinner thrown by several hundred community leaders, I encouraged them to think only of what we had achieved together by being strategic and data-driven.

I thanked them for forgiving me my mistakes and asked them to forgive others, but it would be another 16 months before I would truly forgive, especially myself.

For two decades after I left, Alaskans would write or call to check in.  A long-time newspaper editor there would regularly post updates on my whereabouts. It’s that kind of place.

A little over a year after I left Alaska and was fully rejuvenated, I landed in Durham, North Carolina to participate in my fifth DMO or economic development start up if you count the one I did in college at BYU.

This time, the challenge included reclaiming Durham’s story, assets and identity from Raleigh, a separate but then over-reaching metro on the other side of the co-owned airport.

Having by then just turned age 40, I knew full well what the drill would be.

That certainly didn’t make it any less intense.  Within a few years, Raleigh interests were repeatedly calling for me to be fired and openly lobbying for Durham’s DMO to be disbanded, often strapping a sycophant to the front bumper.

It only fueled resilience and hardened support, but I had also learned to look past such threats to try and see opposing points of view while still coming to admire those who couldn’t yet do that in return.

And, as so often happens in life, this story circles back around. Eventually one of the participants in the Alaska coup attempt relocated to North Carolina.

Friendship and mutual respect renewed once he let slip details as to who was behind it.

I wasn’t surprised to learn the ring leader was Seattle-based with long ties to Southeast Alaska but it didn’t matter.  I had long ago forgiven - as well as come to grips with the fact - that there was so much I could have done differently, too.

Soon another friend who had lived in Southeast Alaska during that time took charge of a DMO across the state, but we never spoke about what happened other than in coded references and jokes about the job hazards that came with our chosen profession.

Over my more than two decades on the job in Durham before concluding my four-decade career five years ago, I probably made just as many mistakes as I had elsewhere, some the same, just maybe not as stupid.

Whenever I clashed with interests not Durham’s it merely seemed to raise my stock.  It’s just that kind of place.

I had not only learned from Spokane and Anchorage, but found Durham even more gritty in my defense. Someone defending me once told someone complaining about me, “he may be an a**hole but he is our a**hole.”

I suspected a few for whom I had long been an irritant might have gloated when I retired but they didn’t.

That didn’t stop a Durham sycophant or two from taking a cheap shot but the only rumor I ever heard involved the ever worsening “essential tremor” in my hands, there from childhood.

Instead several people, thinking it was a degenerative cousin such as Parkinson’s, whispered to friends of mine, “Is this it?,” meaning The End and thus the title of this essay, a hit song by the The Doors when I was in college made even more memorable as the intro during my time in Anchorage for a movie classic.

It wasn’t, but it was time to move on toward an entirely new stage of life.

Looking back I have no regrets.  But I can more easily spot what I could have done differently or better.  This is human.

Due to the power of forgiveness as well my brain’s innate ability within a short time to shed rather than obsessing over bad experiences I can relay them to help someone learn from my mistakes.

As I hope any of my former antagonists are,  I am entirely at peace.

No longer a “hired gun,” but each day still pursuing change.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Finding Myself Still Alive At 30 - Part 1 of 2

When I landed in Anchorage, Alaska thirty-six years ago this summer, I knew what I was in for.  I also knew the reason I had been recruited to complete its fledgling DMO startup.

Still facing my 30th birthday, I had cut my teeth as a DMO exec in Spokane, where business executives had tasked me with separating that startup from the Chamber of Commerce then under a very powerful executive who took it personally and made it personal.

I jumped at the opportunity when Anchorage made the offer for many reasons.

As a good friend put it once regarding something similar that happened to him - once a struggle like that is concluded it is very complicated for anyone in the room who has “blood splattered all over them.”

Possibly this is also what led a later successor to apparently whitewash the history of that organization leaving himself at the center or possibly I failed to leave a folklorist in place (smile.)

But I had already exceeded the average tenure nationwide for DMO execs surprised to find myself still alive at 30 five years seemed like an eternity.

Anchorage found me appealing that due to my Expo ‘74 experience I had a grasp of the far greater potential of tourism beyond just conventions, rare at the time for peers in that profession.

The governing board in Anchorage also knew I had proven to have grit and they tasked me with something even more difficult.  They wanted me to pursue Anchorage’s full share of tourism economy.345897070_aabb0989de_b_thumb1

That meant gently weaning it out from under the control of then interlocking tourism interests in Seattle and Southeast Alaska but without taking anything away from what had long been the Alaska tourism “establishment.”

As we left the room after our first meeting, I remember telling a member of our governing board who happened to head a major Seattle-based Alaska-focused tour company (who became a good friend,) that to achieve that end, it would take between two and five years, but I might not survive that long.

The easy part was exceeding Anchorage’s fair market share for regional and national conventions.  But even adding in state meetings that segment would be but a small fraction of Anchorage’s visitor potential.

Even back then, the convention and meetings segment was showing some signs of losing steam, what we know today was in fact a long, slow decline as a proportion of overall travel.

The real potential for visitation to Anchorage would be doing something Alaska had never done.

We strategized that the real potential was going after travelers who, with only a few days to visit, wanted to experience the full breadth of what Alaska had to offer without spending two or three weeks jumping all over the state as had been customary.

This was an untapped segment focused on minimizing costs and logistics in what would be the equivalent of a long weekend’s stay but it meant breaking with the tradition.

Instead of the way each community had traditionally been identified or tourism with a particular feature to maximize tourist frequent movement and stay, we would reveal to this untapped segment that all of these could be done in day trips around Anchorage.

Analysis showed if carefully communicated to target markets, this new segment would be value-added to Alaska, and Anchorage could still serve its assigned role as an overnight stop for escorted tours or as a jump-off point for expensive fishing and hunting lodges.

The strategy also included tapping into visitation from Asia and Europe, working to develop stopover visits from air passengers refueling during flights over the pole and opening up winter tourism.

We also sought to persuade cruise companies to add itineraries that came all the way from Seattle and Vancouver into the Port of Anchorage without sacrificing their traditional itineraries limited to Southeast Alaska.

The reason I told our governing board I probably wouldn’t last very long is that back then Alaska tourism was very incestuous and heavily under the influence if not the thumb in some ways of a few Seattle-based businesses.

Alaska tourism had always been primarily about Southeast Alaska because this historically originated with cruise excursions to Glacier Bay organized by naturalist John Muir in the late 1800s.

We knew that when Anchorage ventured outside its designated role as an overnight, it might set off alarms in other parts of the state which would cause some to appeal for protection to powerful allies further south.

We had to try even more than Anchorage already had to simultaneously fulfill our role in traditional Alaska tourism promotion while repeatedly making the case that what we were doing differently was a win/win for Alaska.

Many understood, but suspicions of Anchorage motives ran deep, some with good reason, thus the pejorative at the time that its best attribute was that it was 10 minutes from Alaska (insinuating it wasn’t really Alaska.) 

To build good will, I spent a lot of time on projects that, while they didn’t benefit Anchorage that much, they did other parts of the state.

I tried to make friends and alliances all over Alaska and took time to call and meet with them frequently to allay any concerns burning up the grapevine.

But I also made more than my share of mistakes, many of them really stupid.

“Suffering fools gladly” is not my default, and I made a mortal enemy one day when I told a senior Alaska tourism operative in front of his friends that I didn’t appreciate his off-color jokes, especially those denigrating people of color.

Telling or listening to these jokes back then was a sign of fraternity, at least for the “good ‘ole boys.”  Regardless of how offensive it was, I could have handled that much more smoothly and without humiliating him.

Twice the age I was then, I know now that people can often read what I’m thinking on my face anyway.

But it also didn’t take long for us to begin tapping into Anchorage’s fair share of tourism which we confirmed with research.  The findings contradicted long established “conventional wisdom,” unavoidably stepping on some toes.

The more we tapped into a fuller share of visitor-centric economic and cultural development, the more the Anchorage community wanted us to do even more.

It was difficult not to cross the line, even in a state as gracious and accepting as Alaska.

So sure enough, in my fifth year, right on schedule, cabals of Alaska and Seattle interests began cornering me in private to press for us to step back.  Way back.

Often they would drop the name of a local constituent intimating it was someone over which they felt they had influence or insinuating the threat of losing lucrative contracts.

In hindsight, I should have raised an alarm more vigorously with my board as a whole, but instead, my low key summaries were designed to reassure them I had it under control.

That was a mistake.  Never underestimated the power of gridlock on personal relationships as a trump logic and metrics.

I went to great lengths each time one of these sessions took place, to review the data and how what we were doing was both/and, and not a threat to Alaska’s traditional tourism infrastructure.

But it was compliance not reassurance they wanted.  It only further alienated me from them.  Fueled by success and feeling threatened, looking back I’m sure my intensity and frustration came across with more than a little hubris.

Within little more than a year, a handful formally threatened my board with resignations of membership support (a small part of our funding) if I wasn’t fired and a course change made.

If not they would smear us in the news media.

To be continued…

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Pivotal Bitterroot Event That Still Shapes America

Today I’m headed up to Appalachian State University (ASU) nestled near North Carolina’s border with Virginia on the western slopes of its namesake range.

Durham, where I live, lies in the foothills of the Appalachians which gives way to the Eastern Coastal Plain just east of Raleigh.  Whoever wrote on Wikipedia that Durham is flat doesn’t walk much.

In just a quarter of our two and a half mile walks each morning, we climb up and down the equivalent of nearly a 15 story building.  I kid my friends down in Raleigh that based on what the legislature is doing there, Durham will be beachfront in a couple of hundred years (smile.)

Invariably, I gravitate to Southern Rock during this twice yearly three hour drive (with stops) up and over the Eastern Continental Divide to ASU where rivers run west toward the Mississippi.

It is a fusion of rock, country and blues, with gospel and jazz that falls under the genre of Americana or “roots” music. East of Blue Ridge, think Marshall Tucker Band and Allman Brothers.

Knowing I am the only son of an only son descending from generations of Idaho ranchers with roots back to before it became a territory may hint at the country music in my genes.

But the truly common thread through my seemingly eclectic taste in music is “roots” music.

On arrival, I’ll be speaking for two hours about strategic thinking and insight to seniors completing a “capstone” course in the ASU business school, with majors evenly divided into accounting, management, marketing and hospitality.

Road construction will prevent a jog in my route along a portion of the Pisgah National Forest set aside in 1912 three years before it was given that name and just two years after a horrible calamity ignited public opinion.

When I arrived here in 1989, less than 30% of its trees dated to that time because industrialists had logged it so heavily before the 1891 act creating forest preserves was finally adjusted to allow set asides in the east.

By then they were forests in name only on lands nobody wanted.  In photographs taken two decades later to document construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the devastation is still apparent.

Forestry education first took root further south along these ranges in North Carolina, but conservation didn’t.

President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who got his start working on the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, made Conservation a national overarching strategy.

But strategic preservation of forests is an idea that took shape in 1876, a year before the dawn of the “Gilded Age” and four years after Yellowstone was created as the first national park during a fifty year period dating from the Civil War when Republicans were in control.

Things weren’t gilded for 9-in-10 Americans getting by on less than $1,200 a year and most had a sense that deforestation beyond clearings required to make a home didn’t make sense.

John Muir echoed this sentiment that year with one of his first op-ed newspaper essays entitled “God’s First Temples: How Shall We Preserve Our Forests” but scientists were also worried and sounded alarms to Congress based on a paper by Dr. Franklin Hough.

On the Duty of Governments in the Preservation of Forests,” outlined a case for government action based on a study of the fate of countries that ignored the overuse of forests.

Three years later, a month after dispatch riders reached my ancestor’s Idaho settlement and telegraphed word of Custer’s Last Stand, Congress finally responded.

Hough was embedded as a government researcher where he would conduct five more years of forest and timbering analysis.  It would take another another ten years before the forest preserve act would be enacted.

President Benjamin Harrison, the great-grandson of one of the signers to the Declaration of Independence, showed his independence from powerful special interests in his party by setting aside the first 12 million acres of national forest, including a portion of Yellowstone Park.

The same year, John Muir and some friends formed the Sierra Club, modeled after the Appalachian Mountain Club which in 1876 had been formed in the northern reaches of the range I will cross today by vacationers seeking to preserve forests.

The time of Harrison’s bold move was also when Gifford Pinchot went to work for a branch of the Vanderbilt's at their vacation estate in the North Carolina mountains tasked with rehabilitating deforested land following earlier advice from Fredrick Law Olmstead.

Teddy Roosevelt was serving as Governor but a naturalist by inclination he had already cut his teeth on conservation as a New York State Assembly member during the mid-1880s debating the Adirondacks as a forest preserve.

Today’s trip across the Blue Ridge is a warm-up for a cross-country trip I will soon take with Mugs, my English Bulldog.  The route each year is different, with one segment always in common.

After collecting my grandsons and daughter we all head up into the Bitterroot Mountains, an iconic northern Idaho range that suddenly cuts east behind our ancestral ranchland to touch the Tetons.

Regardless of where we cut through these forests, I can’t help but think about the fact that 104 years ago next month, it would have been a scene similar to the aftermath of an Atomic bomb blast.

In 1910, 3,000 fires combined into one and burned 3 million acres, an area the size of Connecticut including a fifth of the entire forest area of northern Idaho.

In the aftermath, the image shown in this essay was taken along Idaho’s St. Joe River, depicting the devastation across the state’s panhandle leading to the destruction of several towns and killing nearly 90 people.

Led by a Republican Idaho senator, Congress had been trying to decapitate the fledgling National Forest Service by starving it of funding.

This forced Rangers to pay for their own supplies including firefighters out of their own paychecks.  Adding insult, special interests and their Republican allies blamed these public servants for the devastation, a tactic often deployed today when funding cuts results in dysfunction.

As a final insult they even stiffed those who were grievously injured but not killed their medical costs and then denied a proper burial for the nearly 90 who died.

A recent book about the event is The Big Burn, written by journalist Timothy Egan, but it’s more than a riveting account of the massive fire. (For any non-readers who made it this far or those who want to see images click here for a documentary.)

Egan’s book weaves accounts of the event with its impact on the American public and a turning point in public policy. As he documents, “conservation was no longer an abstract debate.”

Outraged, Americans turned against the Republican Party and its special interest wing, many leaving for the Democratic Party which found its voice for social justice.

The forest I see carpeting the Bitterroots today began to come back three decades later later after persistent nurturing and experimentation by the Forest Service.

But the impact was still clearly visible in my early years.

Forest products today are turning more and more to commercially grown forests, leaving National Forests for recreation and tourism.

But urban and roadside forests which are even more crucial to tourism, especially in states such as North Carolina, are now under threat of desecration from a different set of special interests

These include insatiable clear-cutting-enabled Billboard companies and developers who are too lazy too lazy to get off their mechanized assets to bother with sustainability.

It isn’t clear when enough will be enough and the American public will rise up again.

Friday, July 18, 2014

When Cultural Facilities Become Means Not Ends

In the mid-1970s as a newly minted community marketing exec for Spokane, Washington, one of the first people to drop by my office was an ad rep named John Kelly.

We couldn’t afford what John was offering, but in the process he gave me a peek at his parent company’s new research: one of the first, if not the very first, in-depth breakdown of the entire marketplace of conventions and meetings.

The next year John joined Alaska Airlines but our paths would cross several more times.  He was head of marketing there when I was running Anchorage, my second DMO.  Shortly after I was recruited to Durham he became head of Horizon Airline and then head of Alaska Airlines.

But the day of our first meeting sticks in my mind because the sixteen subsequent reports commissioned by M & C Magazine that I utilized before I retired from that profession, were something for which I found an alternative use.

Even more important than rationalizing how to reach convention decision makers,  I somehow saw them as a way to zero in on metrics that would help us calibrate market share not only for Spokane, but for the two other community DMOs I ran during my career.

Market share is a way to set realistic goals and allocation of resources based not only on generating demand but calibrated to changes in supply.  It is also a means by which a community can assist developers and avoid the churn that comes with overbuilding.

It also helps a community avoid over-reliance on any one market segment of visitors.

As John and I talked that day, Spokane was spending $2 million to convert what had been the state pavilion during the just-concluded World’s Fair into its intended after-use as a convention center, for which it had been carefully designed.

It was also from these reports and warnings from the sentinel heads of a few major hotel chains, that a few DMO execs began to detect in the early 1980’s that the meetings market was losing steam.

But for fits and starts, it has declined now to about 10% of overall visitors potential.

A consultant isn’t needed to compute a community’s fair market share or potential. Roughly it goes as follows:

Take the gross number of meetings and attendees nationwide.  Separate corporate and small association/government meetings from the 1% that are major conventions.  Separate the groups that rotate across the nation from groups that stay within a region or state.

Take size breakdowns and calibrate them for the roughly half or more that are day trippers from those who use hotels e.g., 57% market-wide and match it against overall community capacity.

Discount for the proportion that meet in a community’s peak season for transient business or leisure leaving the percentage that meet in a given community’s “needs” seasons.

Narrow down potential by those rotating to any given region during a given year, e.g. 23% in the South Atlantic.  Separate the proportion that use convention centers e.g. 30%, from those that use hotels, broken down by downtown, suburban and airport etc.

The result will help calibrate reliable goals for that segment of visitors as well as inform any discussion about facility needs.

In the 1890s when destination marketing organizations first evolved to shape community identities as a means to leverage visitors, conventions were not only a purpose for which people traveled but the easiest to pursue.

Back then few hotels had meeting space and most meeting facilities were privately owned.  In the 1910s, cities began building public civic centers and auditoriums.

They were first a qualify of life amenity for residents and second a way to potentially appeal to conventions as value added.

Thus they were called civic centers.  That may be the last era in which convention centers truly made sense.

By the 1920s and 1930s mass leisure travel gave cities far greater and broader potential for visitation but many communities and their DMOs remained fixated on conventions, as many do today.

They imagined that segment as an ever expanding lake of potential, never making adjustments for the fact that even when and if that were true, the number of cities competing was growing far faster.

They also failed to account for the explosive growth and popularity of major convention hotels as an alternative or that improvements in transportation meant that attendance at conventions gradually began to skew based on the region and state in which they were meeting.

Failing to grasp that the genius of visitor-related economic development is that it is meant to be “demand-driven,” ironically, many cities and their DMOs have fixated on the supply side of facilities instead, emulating old-school, Industrial smoke-stack chasers.

The unfortunate result has been erosion of the sense of place and community distinctiveness that DMO’s are sworn to defend, making their communities less and less differentiating and less and less appealing or worthy of affection.

Following World War II, officeholders, downtown developers and their allies cities stopped viewing convention centers, stadiums and performing arts facilities for their inherent potential and began to coopt them as a means for the public sector to prop up private property values.

After researching nearly nine decades of documents in scores of cities, in a new book public policy expert, Dr. Heywood Sanders has followed up his controversial  2005 study for the Brookings Institution with a much more in-depth analysis of these phenomena and the history behind convention centers.

For neighborhood activists, officeholders, policy makers and expecially DMO executives, Sander’s book belongs on the shelf of required reading of this nature such as Dr. Mark Rosentraub’s Major League Losers and the follow up Major League Winners.

And out next year, Building Cultural Facilities in U.S. Communities by Drs. Joanna Woronkowicz and  Norman Bradburn, an elaboration on the study Set In Stone they authored along with five other researchers for The University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center.

Convention Center Follies is a page-turner for anyone who has witnessed or be party to the backroom processes and copy-cat techniques so often used to rationalize these facilities along with stadiums, ballparks and performing arts centers.

Some in my former profession along with feasibility consultants are quick to quibble with details of these studies but a few are having a  critical-thinking epiphany.

First, if they are half right, the problem is just as big.  Second, it DMOs and consultants want clearer information, they need to become less defensive and far more reflective and critical themselves.

The communities I served may have dodged the bullet but that doesn’t mean they have been immune to the group think that has led to so many billions of dollars of public facilities being spent less effectively than it could have.

During my career, I witnessed first hand many of the things Sanders reveals, both as other communities followed this path but to a lesser degree in my own communities as well.

The formula hasn’t varied for almost 90 years.

Hatch the plan in private.  Find a way around voter approval.  Shop for data to support proposals rather than build proposals based on data.  Avoid factoring in macro overbuilding or long term trends.

Let the ends justify the means.  Never go back and recalibrate expectations based on performance or admit things that didn’t work. Hope memory fades before the even bigger down stream costs come.

As business professor friend of mine has written.  Communities are in denial that initial constructions costs are only a tiny fraction of the ultimate cost of facilities.  Officeholders rotate off, developers flip, community memories fade.

Seldom does the outcome endure.

Sanders reminds us that in 1956 when Booz and Allen conducted the first independent feasibility assessment of a convention center in the nation, it concluded the new facility was not feasible.

Developers and officeholders insisted that the head of the DMO in that community, probably with a gun to his or her head, insisted that it crunch numbers more favorable.

Today, it happens in reverse but that is probably when the ugly business of consultant shopping was born.

As feasibility consulting rapidly grew lucrative, many acknowledged that the accuracy of the reports was made irrelevant because community’s had already made up their minds by that time they were engaged.

If a DMO’s research was felt too conservative or one consultant’s numbers didn’t work, another would hastily be contracted as happened more than once during my career.

In 1984, when a new convention center was built in Anchorage as part of Project 80s (along with a sports arena and a performing arts center) the total amount of convention center space nationwide was closing in on 32 million square feet.

By the time my career ended two and a half decades later, that amount more than doubled during a time when it was clear that demand was in a long, slow decline, especially as a proportion of overall travel.

A look at the data shows the same thing has happened with sports facilities and performing arts theaters, far outstripping demand.

Cultural facilities are important, especially when they are carefully evolved as part of a diverse ecosystem designed to differentiate communities and foster unique sense of place but built in response to demand, not as a means to create it.

As Rosentraub cautions, cities need to do a whole lot more planning and a lot less hoping.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The True Usefulness of A Common DMO Ethical Code

In my opinion, one of the worst decisions made in the 100-year history of the governing board for the 100-year-old association for professionals in my former career of community destination marketing (DMO) occurred just a decade ago.

Quietly deep-sixed was a common code of ethics that every member DMO’s staff had been required to sign each year.  Ironically, it was the adoption of a code of ethics more than 90 years ago that helped spur formation of the organization and draw membership.

I still wasn’t aware when I served on that board a few years later or with incredulity I would have the code of conduct back up for reconsideration.

In Durham, my last DMO before retiring, we not only continued the practice but had a consultant update and expand it to a “best practice,” expanding the name to read Code of Ethics & Conduct.

Not only was this much improved version readopted by our governing board in Durham, but reading and signing the code was made mandatory for each board member as well.

Of course, DMOs individually must still show evidence of a code of ethics to be Internationally accredited.  But the DMAI board that deep sixed having one in common among members missed the point of why it had been so useful.

Its wasn’t about enforcement.  Should anything get appealed all the way to that level, someone is clearly over the line.  The real value of having one in common was as a communications tool among individual community DMOs when competitors crossed the line.

Sadly, I was forced to use it that way once to inspire a counterpart to stand up to unethical behavior among his staff and stakeholders that was undermining my community.

DMOs operate in the “commons,” and abiding by a common code of conduct permits them to be extraordinarily competitive while at the same time being cooperative, often lost on private sector executives or even local officials prone to be cutthroat.

It is not without reason that the general public is so uncertain of the ethical standards of officeholders, business executives and community boosters.

On another occasion, I used DMAI’s now defunct common code of ethics as the reason not to comply with a request from another community’s stakeholders that would have undermined it.

In this way, codes work best not as a means to resolve disputes once out in the open or as some kind of self-righteous one-upsmanship.  By then it is usually too late for someone to modify behavior without losing face and way too much energy goes in to proving who is right.

As an friend of mine in high office once remarked, “there is only room for one person at a time to stand on principle.”

Common codes of ethics and conduct work best as a gentle nudge when someone appears conflicted or passive about crossing the line such as I did in a very uncomfortable first meeting with a relocating hotel executive in the 1980s.

Chillingly, he unsuccessfully offered me a bribe if I would pave the way for him to jump onto a governing board, which was self-appointed.

Ironically, researchers have found that signing a code of conduct is no guarantee, nor is transparency, about avoiding conflicts of interest.

To bolster them, research has found that putting the signature line at the top of the document helps, but so does having people ask publicly for forgiveness.  Both are moral cues.

But too often those prone to stray merely find these enablers.

Unfortunately, within their communities, DMOs are still the exception  among business-related community organizations when it comes to codes of conduct, where among strategic partners they would come in even more handy.

When the association for DMOs adopted a code of ethics in 1923, members were routinely buying conventions (paying bribes or subsidies,) and selling facilities that didn’t exist or that they knew wouldn’t be ready.  “Anything goes” had been the model.

DMOs were first organized in the wake of the sense-of-place movement fueled during the Progressive Era, and an exhibit of the ideal city created by Fredrick Law Olmsted and a partner for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

By the 1920s, civic boosterism was in its heyday and mass leisure tourism by roadway was emerging, giving communities far greater potential than just the 10% or so that has always been represented by conventions.

But shady convention practices were only one way community destination marketing was being ethically abused.

Many who were marketing places as a commodity began to erode the very identities they had created by falling in with billboards and other forms of desecration and blight.

This was also when destination marketers fell under the charm of downtown developers and allies who, rather than funding stadiums, convention centers and cultural facilities themselves, began to push communities to fund them publicly instead.

While tourism was given as motive, as it is far too often today, researchers have uncovered that the real reason was to shore up and increase private property values.

Rather than focus on uniqueness, destination marketers falling under this spell became enablers of homogenization.

DMO’s would be well advised to reinstitute a common ethical standard but this time, part of the conduct should be a return to the primary role of safeguarding the distinctiveness of their communities.