Sunday, May 08, 2016

Lessons From An Era’s Promise Unfulfilled

The rumble of our more than thirty year old inboard when it fires to life in our runabout most weekends is a reminder of my own passing into “vintage” years.

Not only because starting up at all, regardless of how well maintained, should never be taken for granted after all these years, but because the powerful 4-cylinder's technology actually dates to the early 1970s.

Coincidentally, that was when I was first cutting my teeth on what became a lifelong career in community destination marketing.

The early 1970s was an era, such as now, filled with transformational promise in that field.

So during frequent guest lectures for today’s college students in destination marketing I encourage them to look back at what they can learn.

In fact, the lessons I hope they will glean might help them understand why so many destination marketing organizations (DMOs) today still function much as they did in the late 1960s/early 1970s albeit under a thin veneer of “digital window dressing.”

Let me touch very briefly on two huge paradigm shifts that gave so much promise and opportunity to DMO execs as the 1970s opened up.

One involved the emergence of a new technology for marketing intelligence and the other dealt with the near simultaneous rise of a range of nationwide sense of place policies.

In the late 1960s while unwrapping for airlines why some people were resistant to flying, Dr. Stanley Plog developed a data model for understanding, segmenting and then appealing to travelers based on the type of leisure destinations that fit their travel interests.1985-century-boats-mustang-jjxxlx

This had the effect of making accessible the vastly greater tourism potential beyond the 10% or so related to conventions and meetings that had been the limited focus of nearly every destination for the previous seven decades.

At virtually the same time, a range of national sense-of-place policies were rapidly beginning to transform communities.

In the wake of 1960s battles that brought disrepute to urban renewal/destruction to make way for mega-facilities such as convention centers, a slate of new policies greeted the 1970s.

Instead, they were intended to make communities more appealing by fostering historic preservation, waterway restoration, natural area protection, cultural endowment and highway beautification by eliminating sign and billboard blight.

Strategic thinkers christened the 1970s as an era when destination marketing, too, would broaden its approach.  Across the land many DMOs even added “and visitor” to their organizational names in anticipation, as did the professional association in 1974.

So what happened?  Why did most stop with just a change in nomenclature?

Why did so few 1970s era DMO execs grasp or embrace these lucrative shifts even as strategic foresights came to fruition?

Or for that matter, why did so few of those who they mentored in subsequent decades ever seem to move beyond the same 1960s style destination marketing?

Don’t get me wrong. There have been some significant strides in destination marketing since that time and there have always been best practitioners and strategic thought leaders.

Even the vast majority who have remained 1960s retro at their core typically try some new elements when they come along.

What is noteworthy, however, is that many often mistake a strategic change as something tactical, e.g. the Internet, and a tactical change as a strategy, e.g. social media and these elements always remain peripheral to a 1960s era core. 

We know now that as strategists projected in the early 1970s, by the early 1990s leisure travel overall eclipsed business travel (including conventions,) which both tipped into gradual, though turbulent, decline in the late 1980s.

Last month it was announced that even among the 9 or 10% of person-trips taken by Americans via commercial airlines, leisure trips have now eclipsed business/convention trips as the pre-eminent reason for US air travel.

And still, generation after generation among DMO execs remain stuck in the late 1960s throwing up look alike mega-facilities, then paying subsidies to get enough groups to fill them.

All of this while then proclaiming, seeming without any sense of irony as one did recently, that this dwindling segment is somehow “the heart of any major city.”

This sense of denial, too, dates to the 1960s.  When the first feasibility studies were conducted as prerequisites for public mega-facilities in the latter 1950s, they came back negative.

Proponents (not all of whom were DMOs) quickly learned the tactic of shopping for studies until they got what they wanted and then stoked hyperbole as justification.

Thus one I suspect was born the “the heart of any major city.”

But this introspection is not about shaming my generation of DMO execs or as you will read sparing myself.

There are several lessons for today’s DMO aspirants to take away from an examination of the failed hopes of the early 1970s if they are to ever hope to help destinations emerge from this quicksand in the future and go on to fulfill the promises of their own era:

First, it may be helpful to understand that in the field of destination marketing, we’re all shaped to a some extent, by the destinations we each have the honor to serve.

This includes the time period when we serve them and especially the foresight of each boards that governs the DMO during those particular spans.

A few people are quick to credit me with fulfilling the promise of that 1970s era but as I will explain, it is far more complicated than that.

Much of any credit goes not only to the nature of the three destinations I led but the unique time frames and especially the unusually farsighted and fearless boards who governed those DMOs during those spans.

I led the first during the 1970s.  I was a voracious reader and had the benefit of some strategic mentors, but it was all just starting to sink in when I moved on.  Within a few years that DMO was and remains, in essence, a 1960s model.

Together with the board, I definitely took the second destination to a fulfillment of the 1970s era promise over stiff opposition from 1960s stalwarts.  Once I moved on though, and the board rotated, it all but reverted to a 1960s model.

It is probably from my third and final destination that any reputation for fulfilling that 1970s era promise is more deserved, but there were always a handful trying to pull us back to the 1960s.

Long after I’ve retired, the destination perseveres but regression is always a threat I’m sure.

So as far as my own record goes, batting .300 is pretty good if I were hitting fastballs or 3-pointers, I guess, but just so so measured against the promise of we felt inspired to accomplish when I started my DMO career in the 1970s. 

Frankly, had I not been the beneficiary of being in these three places when I was, given my nature, it is doubtful I would have been drawn to make destination marketing a career.

Another take-away from examining why more DMO execs didn’t rise to the promise of that 1970s era is that there is an incredible inertia that traps tourism in general in its 1960s past.

In part, this inertia is fostered by at least four conditions:

  1. A “circle the wagons” mentality when it comes to change, reflection on the past or even introspection such as this.
  2. A powerful industrial complex of entrenched interest groups, feasibility consultants, developers and old-school elected officials.
  3. An impatience with discussing concepts, ideas and anything controversial which stymies strategic thinking.
  4. A stubbornness or failure to grasp the importance of improvements to nomenclature, e.g. referring to tourism as an industry instead of a sector (which is a combination of many industries such as lodging, transportation, foodservice, entertainment etc.)

There are many other strategic lessons to be learned by looking back at that earlier 1970s era not the least of which is the importance of seeking out those DMO execs today whose DNA traces back to 1970s era execs that somehow, someway, were able to realize some of its promise.

Destination marketing, at its very essence, is about differentiation and that includes, among others, strategic differentiation, marketing differentiation and destination differentiation.

But it all begins with a broader understanding of the arc of where destination marketing has been, where it could have and should have been as well as where it should go in the future to remain relevant.

Few of us in that 1970s era could piece together a picture of the sweeping changes that were underway like we can by looking back in hindsight.

Even strategic thinkers at the time were not connecting the dots for us and maybe that is one of the lessons for students to take away that will help them pull so many DMOs out of the 1960s quicksand and leapfrog to this era’s transformational promise.

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