Learning from resident sentiment studies at OSU’s Sustainable Tourism Lab

Todd Montgomery
Jamie Sterling

25 June 2024

“The goal, really, of sustainable tourism is to protect the destination for the next hundred, 200 years, so that residents and visitors can enjoy it the same way that we experience it now or maybe even better than we experience it now.” — Todd Montgomery

How do locals really feel about Bend’s fast-growing popularity as an outdoor adventure destination? Oregon State University’s Sustainable Tourism Lab is trying to answer that question. 

The Lab’s director, Todd Montgomery, studies resident sentiment research to learn whether locals think the benefits of tourism outweigh the costs to their communities. Todd sees the Lab as a bridge between theoretical research and practical solutions that guide destination planning. The goal of this work? To protect destinations for future generations.

Todd and his team have worked with over a hundred destinations to carry out their benchmark survey, and the findings have come with a few surprises. The research has shown that destinations tend to face many challenges in common. Issues surrounding traffic and vacation rentals, for example, are pain points in many places. 

The flipside is that communities vary dramatically in how they would like to see tourism tax revenue used. When given the choice between spending that revenue on environmental, community, or economic issues, Todd says that 60 percent of Bend residents chose the environment. Respondents in larger urban areas tended to choose community issues. Improving economic outcomes, the typical purpose of leveraging taxes from visitors, tended to get less support within the destinations surveyed.

For destinations working on sustainability and resiliency, one key takeaway from the research is that there is no template for taking action. The solutions that work for Bend aren’t necessarily transferable to other communities. “Those solutions have to be organic,” says Todd. “They have to come from the community, and they’re all going to be different based on what the community wants,” as well as what policies are in place and what the local environment requires. 

Todd Montgomery joins us on this episode of Travel Beyond. You’ll learn:

  • Takeaways from a resident sentiment study by OSU’s Sustainable Tourism Lab.
  • How the resident sentiment research can be applied to solutions in Bend and other destinations.
  • Key obstacles to effectively researching how residents feel.
  • Advice for how destination management organizations (DMOs) can connect with academics.

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Show notes

Bend Sustainability Fund – A project by Visit Bend that reinvests the short-term lodging tax revenue paid by visitors into sustainable experiences for the community.

Mount Bachelor – The largest ski and snowboard resort in the northwest United States, located in Bend, Oregon. 

Oregon State University Sustainable Tourism Lab – A research hub that provides data and services to help tourism organizations balance visitor and community needs.

Visit Bend – The destination management and marketing organization for Bend, Oregon. 

Episode transcript

David Archer: Hello and welcome to Travel Beyond, where we partner with leading destinations to bring you inspiring solutions to the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet. I’m David Archer from Destination Think, recording from Daajing Giids, British Columbia, a village in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And I’m Sara Raymond de Booy, Associate Creative Director at Destination Think. I’m recording from Seattle, Washington on Coast Salish land, specifically that of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot people. 

On this show, we look at the role of travel and highlight destinations that are global leaders. We talk to the changemakers who are addressin g regenerative travel through action in their communities, often from the bottom up.

David Archer: And we’re actively looking for the best examples of efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems, so get in touch with us if you have a story to share. You can find Destination Think on LinkedIn, or you can email me directly at david at destinationthink. com. 

Well, last week we kicked off this season in Bend, Oregon with Serena Gordon, the former Sustainability Director at Visit Bend. We learned about the Bend Sustainability Fund and how important it is to make residents aware of the benefits they’re getting from reinvesting tourism dollars into the community. 

But how does a tourism destination know what residents want? And I guess the simple answer is just to ask them, and ideally with help from some dedicated researchers. And to do that, Visit Bend and many other destinations are asking the Sustainable Tourism Lab at Oregon State University. The lab studies resident sentiment to learn essentially whether residents think the benefits of tourism outweigh the costs to their community. 

Sara, you and I have both managed online communities and various communications for dozens of DMOs, and we relied on the information those destinations provided us on top of our own research. And I couldn’t help but think how useful resident sentiment research was in those scenarios where we had it. It’s so helpful to better understand how locals view tourism in each place. What do you think?

Sara Raymond de Booy: Yes, it was very, very helpful when we had that. And I know otherwise there was usually a, quite a steep learning curve where, what would you say within the first two months or so you’d find that, uh, issue accidentally and, um, cause quite a stir. 

That’s always a possibility.

Yes, part of the, learning of any new client is figuring out what that issue is. And on the plus side, when you accidentally strike that nerve, you kind of learn who the more talkative people in your community are in the online community. So you do still learn stuff. 

But yeah, research about resident sentiment has always been so helpful in figuring out how to approach things in a nuanced way when talking about tourism, especially in a community where locals are very vocal as well.

David Archer: Yeah, and it helps us figure out what locals are passionate about in each place too, which is equally important. If you can have the local community participating in your conversations, that’s the, that’s an ideal situation.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Yeah, especially when, when it would work in a perfect situation where visitors would be asking questions on certain posts and the locals would come in with their advice and their tips, and as long as they’re not sharing information that’s factually incorrect, it’s just facilitating a natural conversation and we could kind of take a backseat.

David Archer: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And zooming back out, Bend is an interesting place for this research lab to be located. Our guest today talks about how destinations tend to go through a life cycle that includes a rise, a period of maturity, and then a decline. And this is something that we’ve talked about on the blog. 

To me, Bend seems to be still on the rise. It is growing quite a bit, but maybe it doesn’t need to fall if it can understand what the community needs over the long term. What do you think contributes to a destination’s decline?

Sara Raymond de Booy: Well, I’m no researcher at the OSU in Bend, so might not be the best authority on that, but just a few ideas if I was to guess. You know, one of the things that it could come from is when a place can’t keep up maybe with the experience it provided, whether that’s because it gets too crowded and the images don’t match the reality, maybe it becomes too much like a Disneyland and loses its local character a bit.

Or maybe the community changes for a variety of reasons. Maybe that’s economic-based and, um, you know, things can’t keep up with how they used to be, or perhaps something more intentional, maybe purposefully changing from a tourism-based economy over to tech or something. 

I’ve also been wondering a lot if over-saturation of a place and online content could ever lead to a decline, because it might kind of make it seem like it goes out of style or that xit’s a passe place to visit or would that never happen? Would it just make a place more crowded and a new just open it up to new markets? I don’t know.

David Archer: Yeah, that’s an interesting one. Can a destination go out of style? I think it can go out of style with a certain set of people, possibly. But if you think about the world’s maybe most famous destinations, or the western world’s, like New York City or Paris, places that have extremely high levels of visitation.

You could say that, I mean, no one is unaware of New York City. And people keep going there, so, I don’t know. Um, what would make something go out of style, do you think?

Sara Raymond de Booy: I wonder if it’s, you know, you see so many really popular places that just come at you on Instagram. Wherever you look, someone’s in Tulum or a place like that. And you kind of start to wonder, okay, like if I go there, am I going there just to copy somebody else or am I going there because I really want to go there?

David Archer: Right.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Yeah, am I going there to get the same image or am I actually finding something unique? And then it’s, you know, maybe you want to go to that part of Mexico, for example, to find a cool, unique experience. But are you going to go to Tulum or are you going to find the next up and coming place next to Tulum where you can still benefit from the same weather and the same culture and, and all that?

Um, and would that affect Tulum or would Tulum just get a whole wave of the same people and then builds up the places around it? I don’t know.

David Archer: This is kind of like the conversation about, like, people who love indie movies versus people who love blockbusters. Right? Like, if you’re the type of person that, does the research to find, like, the best horror movies of 1995 or something. You might go searching those places out. 

I suppose we could speculate about the rise and fall of different destinations, but let’s learn a little bit about Bend specifically and some of the research coming out.

Our guest today is Todd Montgomery, the director of the OSU Sustainable Tourism Lab. Todd is enthusiastic about bridging the gap between theoretical research, like place life cycles, and practical solutions, like resident sentiment studies that guide destination planning or communication. 

Similar to Copenhagen’s former mayor, Jens Kramer Mikkelsen, Todd says places can’t copy one another. The solutions have to come from the community level, but of course, they can learn from one another, be inspired by each other, because the challenges are so similar. Todd’s program is studying more than 100 destinations, so let’s see what he’s learned. 

Here’s Todd Montgomery speaking with our colleague from Arcade Motion, Josie Van Der Velden.

Todd Montgomery: Todd Montgomery, I’m the Robin and Curt Baney Endowed Professor at Oregon State, uh, and I’m based on the OSU Cascades Bend Campus.

Josie Van Der Velden: How long have you lived here in Bend?

Todd Montgomery: We’re about 11 years now. We were overseas, and we had our second child and needed to get a little bit closer to grandma and grandpa. And we’re looking for a ski town with access to the mountain, so Bend fit that perfect.

Josie Van Der Velden: Yeah, it feels like you checked all the boxes.

Todd Montgomery: We did. We did. And it worked. 

Josie Van Der Velden: Yeah. What makes Bend different to other places in the U.S. do you think?

Todd Montgomery: I’ll just go from my experience of why I – we moved here, is first we had heard, you know, you just hear things like, there’s this great place, it’s called Bend. I’m Originally from Kansas City. Flatlander. Love to ski. Mount Bachelor is a fantastic resort, and it’s a huge, it’s a massive, a lot of skiable terrain, easily accessible. So that was a big part of it. 

The, I don’t want to use diversity, because we are incredibly white here, but the sort of progressiveness and that, that kind of open thinking was something that attracted, attracted us, particularly coming from overseas, right, because that’s who we hung out with.

Um, and then we wanted it accessible to the coast, right? So within two hours, you can get to the Oregon coast and it’s, you know, you need your rain jacket and you need your boots, but it’s, you know, if you catch it on the right day, it’s beautiful, right? It’s, it’s as good as any place in the world. 

So I think that those parts, and also just kind of that smaller community vibe was something I had grown up with. My wife had grown up in smaller communities as well.

Josie Van Der Velden: Yeah, it’s got kind of that gateway feeling. Like you can come here and you can get anywhere to, you know, big cities or coasts or mountains or deserts or.

Todd Montgomery: For sure. For sure. Yeah, the topography of Oregon is crazy, right? From desert to almost a rainforest to the coast. It’s so neat.

Josie Van Der Velden: Yeah. So you’re from Kansas City, you lived overseas, now you’ve been here, you’re in this other phase of life with the kids and everything, how do you think Bend has changed you?

Todd Montgomery: Well, my first thought when I arrived, I had never seen so many automobiles with so much outdoor equipment on the automobile. I actually didn’t know that was a thing, right? I didn’t think you could fit bikes and skis on a small, you know, vehicle. So that was the first thing. And I, I remember making fun of it. 

And now I’m, I’m that guy, right? I’ve got the box on top. We’ve got the skis in there. I’ve been looking at this sort of trailer hitch thing to get some other stuff… so it’s changed me from how I view outdoor products on the car. And that’s a really big thing. 

Other than that, I think it accomplished the goals of being in a community that’s small, that cares about the community, that wants to try to do things a little bit differently.

And I think that openness was just something we were searching for. And I think, I think we found it. And I think that has just continued to support us. And then also just the kids growing up in a, a great place next to the outdoors with so many opportunities. I mean, we’re just as lucky as, as anybody could be there.

And I think anybody living in Bend would feel the same way.

Josie Van Der Velden: Absolutely. So obviously Bend has this really strong connection to the environment and the natural world. Shifting gears into the topic of sustainable tourism, we’ve heard that term a lot, obviously. What does sustainable tourism mean to you?

Todd Montgomery: Yeah. Well, I think, I mean, you hit it right on, right? It means a lot of things to a lot of people and it’s sort of been, you know, I don’t know, I don’t want to say manipulated, but sort of serve different groups, different purposes. For me, it just means finding balance. And, you know, with our lab and the stuff that we do, we are the mission and the goal.

And I think the goal really of sustainable tourism is to protect the destination for the next 100, 200 years. So that residents and visitors can enjoy that the same way that we experience it now, or maybe even better than we experience it now. And so that kind of broad definition has to be applied a lot differently to different destinations.

And for us, that means finding that balance, and that means finding a balance on carrying capacity. How many tourists can we support, provide that great experience, and also provide residents a great experience? So it’s sort of this high-level term and you gotta have to kind of fit it to where the place and what those needs of that place are.

Josie Van Der Velden: In your opinion and kind of in your work? What are some of those essential principles or systems that a destination can implement and put in place to enhance sustainability through tourism?

Todd Montgomery: It’s probably stated too often, but there just has to be the leadership to say, hey, this is important, and what’s happening currently is unsustainable. Tourism has been unsustainable for a long time. And I don’t mean that just from an environmental community perspective. I mean from a financial perspective, it’s been unsustainable.

There’ll be a destination, they’ll come and rise and mature and then drop off. And so Bend is unique in that, once again, we have this sort of progressive view, wanting the community to be better. We’re bought into it. This is important to us. But then it takes the leaders and the policy holders as well to say, hey, this may not be in our short term interest, but this is in our long term interest, and we’re going to take some steps to do that. 

And politicians are politicians, right? They’re going to look towards the next, next election, but there’s enough of the community to be like, all right, let’s try to take these steps now and, you know, there’s no playbook right now for sustainable tourism. We’re all trying to figure it out. But just having that, courage. Political courage in some cases, but also just willing to take risks that, that may not work out.

Josie Van Der Velden: How do you feel like the activity at Visit Bend ladders up to that?

Todd Montgomery: Well, I mean, if you look at pre-COVID, so 2018 and before, visit Bend was an economic development agency. Almost all of its budget went to marketing the destination, bringing more people in, and I think there were some things that Visit Bend had thought about, they knew change was needed, but, I think covid really showed what that change might need to look like.

And then, of course, there is now the community pressure for this change. And so Visit Bend decided, then, you know, I give Keveney, the CEO, a lot of credit for this to say, all right, we’re willing to go out on a limb here, and we’re willing to try a few things differently because the community needs it you know, it aligns with their values, and it’s just, maybe in one small way we could provide some assistance to other destinations and, and maybe help develop that playbook a little bit better.

Josie Van Der Velden: One piece of the Visit Bend strategy that we’re aware of is that sustainability fund. Do you feel like the sustainability fund has been changing how tourism is viewed in the community?

Todd Montgomery: That’s one of those things that we really monitor and look at, resident sentiment. And so we have a panel. And so we can go back to people and see how their views have changed over multiple years.

And so one of the things we look at is, what’s changing those views? And we specifically go back and ask them. And a lot of that has been just the anxiety of covid has been better. People feel a little bit better about inviting people in the community. And then some of that, we’re just starting to see hints of they’re starting to realize how these funds are being used. And one of the things that we talk about at Visit Bend and on the board and all these things about is dual use facilities.

And that goes back to that mission. A great place for visitors and for residents. And so, when we are able to apply these funds, they’re all, one of the criteria is, are residents gonna benefit as well? Right. 

And so I think of like a bike park as, as a great example. A lot of people bike. There’s some great bike courses on the east side, but they weren’t tournament grade, so we couldn’t really invite and host tournaments.

And now all of a sudden, you’ve got a facility that, 80 percent of the time, locals get to take advantage of. And you all probably know from sports, right? Once you have the facility, the athletes come very quickly afterwards. And so we’ve got, you know, some really great athletes enjoying this. And then, in the off season, you know, the fall and the early spring, when we need, when businesses need that tourism, we can host tournaments. It’s really great. Right.

So there’s just a really nice balance where, you know, residents get the primary benefit, but we can find that, that nice sweet spot where both groups flourish and can benefit.

Josie Van Der Velden: That’s a really great example of one of the initiatives that has received the grant and has had a pretty tangible impact on that resident sentiment. Is there any other examples that come to mind?

Todd Montgomery: Part of it is that, if you ask the average person, what is a DMO? No idea. If you ask the person, is there a tourism tax? Like, is there a way that we tax tourism? No idea. And if you then go a little bit further and say, all right, there is a tourism tax, you know, tourists do pay money to visit here. Do you know how that money is, is being used? Almost no idea. 

And it’s because the policy is kind of complicated the way it’s written. But it’s also just one of those things that the average community member doesn’t know. So now when they see these projects and they see “funded by the Bend Sustainability Fund” and some of these sites, whether it’s a trail head or the bike park or, there’s a couple of cool trails around Mount Bachelor that they’re working on, they start to see that tourism revenue, these flows, these tax flows, are actually being utilized. They’re being spent within the community, and it’s not just purely an economic development. I think the average person just views more heads in beds, right? And now they’re starting to see that there’s actually a strategy to find that balance. 

Josie Van Der Velden: Yeah, that’s so key. What do you hope the fund will support in the future?

Todd Montgomery: One of the things I’ll give Visit Bend a lot of credit for is, they look at, they support and seek out folks that have good ideas around the fund. And so it’s not just, hey, here’s this open list of funds, apply. So they’re really working with a lot of groups, and Serena has just done a fabulous job of not only administering it, but just working with these groups and seeking out ideas.

I think we’re going to see more and more projects that aren’t just environmental. I think we’re going to see a lot more community-based projects. I think we’ll see a lot more intentions around the dual use facilities. And we also are now hearing from groups that we’ve never heard from that are saying, oh, you, that, that’s how these funds could be used? Because they’re seeing these examples that they’ve never seen before. 

Josie Van Der Velden: Kind of shifting into the OSU Sustainable Tourism Lab. Can you tell us a little bit about the lab and how it came to be?

Todd Montgomery: We had done some pilot work. I spent a lot of years in Micronesia. Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Guam, all these areas. And still had a lot of connections. And so we had a class, and I had some students, you know, and we knew resident sentiment was starting to boil up in different parts.

I said, well, I know the visitors association there quite well. Let’s just do a pilot survey. Let’s just see what residents think. And we did it, and then we started talking about the work, the reporting, and there was just a lot of interest. And Visit Bend heard about the work and engaged us and said, let’s not just do this, but let’s do this in a systematic way where it’s not just a sample for one year and then we leave. Let’s look at this for over the next five years. 

So they gave us some startup funds for the lab to start this. And then the lab as a whole is any application to improve sustainability and tourism. So our two projects are this resident sentiment, community sentiment, where we’re looking at how you can measure and quantify carrying capacity of a destination.

But we’re also doing things around post-consumer food waste. And we’re partnering with our engineering department where we look at how much of a plate of food that you finished. And how much of that went, went to the trashcan and how much of that went inside you. And so the reason why I mentioned that second part is we’ve received some funding from some healthcare agencies, because if we can, from a technology standpoint, it’s the same thing, whether it’s being thrown away or eaten, it’s still being quantified. And now we can see what the nutrient intake is and things like that. So we’re doing things around that. 

And then a third project is, and this really, as a result of the resident sentiment work, is policy, particularly economic policy, like how tourism is taxed? What’s the optimal level around that? And what are some kind of interesting policy and engagement opportunities for other destinations that we can either learn from or improve, because, you know, there’s a big shift going on around sustainable tourism, but what the policy and the processes are not exactly enabling destination management right now.

Josie Van Der Velden: Cool. It seems like a really wonderful intersection of, like, your past lives and your current role, and the place you live.

 Can you share some insights into the lab’s overarching objectives?

Todd Montgomery: Yeah, the mission is crystal clear. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked for a lot of companies where there was just this awesome mission statement, and then anytime there was a tough decision, nobody referred to the mission statement, right? So we wanted to make sure that this was legit, right? That this mission actually mattered and something that we could go back to.

And so the mission of the lab is to protect destinations for future generations of residents and visitors. And what that means is, 100, 200 years from now, we want that, that destination to have a similar experience. And kind of going on your comment of past lives in previous work, you know, I saw that life cycle of those destinations.

Some kind of that turn and burn. Everybody was excited about all the opportunities for that destination. There was some, something awesome about it, whether it was a beach or coral or dive or mountain range, something usually the environment provided. And then to go back to that five, 10 years down the road, and then to see that being degraded, right?

And so, you know, to really work with destinations saying, hey, you’re on, you’ve got this life cycle. We know that, but how do we actually build this out to where it’s sustainable from that community environment, but also that financial perspective, cause that all, that’s all aligned.

Josie Van Der Velden: What are, on the resident sentiment side of things, what are some of the key findings or trends that you’ve discovered?

Todd Montgomery: Yeah. I would say at a high level, the first thing is, is the problems that destinations face tend to be global, whether it’s traffic or vacation rentals or whatever, those sort of pain points. We work with a hundred plus destinations. They’re running our benchmark survey. We’re working with a lot of different partners and it’s just crystal clear.

Right. I could bring up a word cloud of the cost of tourism and yeah, there may be some differences, but for the most part, no matter where we go, they’re, they’re pretty universal. But what we’ve found is that there is no template, a solution that you could take from Bend and plop it in to another community.

Those solutions have to be organic. They have to come from the community. And they’re all gonna be different based on what the community wants, what some of the policies are in place, what the environment provides and everything. That at a high level is one of the biggest things.

The other thing is, we ask a lot of questions around where the community would like tax dollars used. And we don’t necessarily define it for them. We give them those three kind of pillars of sustainable tourism around, you know, economic, community, environment. Where would you like that?

And I kind of thought that would be relatively the same. And we’re seeing a lot of differences in that. Bend, for example, you ask that question, 60 percent of folks are going to say they want that money used for environmental purposes, environmental preservation, typically. If they are more of an urban area, they’re going to be thinking more about the community.

And what’s interesting about that is you ask the question, what does that actually mean? A lot of times they’re not actually sure. Like, how could tourism tax revenue be used to support the community? And then the economic piece which tends to not get that much support, but we know that’s a little bit that’s going to ebb and flow with economic conditions on the ground.

But I think the big thing is, is if you ask about the benefits of tourism, most people think of it as an economic, it’s jobs, it’s revenue, it’s businesses, and maybe it’s a little bit of amenities. So we found that. We also find that the older you are, more likelihood that you don’t have a favorable opinion of tourism. The longer you’ve resided in that community, same thing. Not typically as excited about tourism. 

And then the last piece are kind of around all of that is where they are in that life cycle. You know, if they’re early on, we work a lot of communities that are, just kind of starting to feel out what tourism could look like, how it can benefit them. They’re going to have a completely different set of priorities and playbook versus somebody that is maybe a mature or declining destination. And sentiment is fairly concrete at this stage. It’s hard to move. Zoning’s been done, policies have been done, green spaces have been utilized. It’s very difficult once you get on that decline to, to bring it back.

And so that’s sort of the thing that I’m kind of most excited about is how do you really rejuvenate these communities that have made that investment and just, for whatever reason, the policies and the practice just didn’t work out. And now they want to try to revitalize them.

Josie Van Der Velden: Yeah. So you mentioned you have this information and you’re like, okay, like, what does that mean? Or how does this apply? As someone who in your own career, you’re, you have kind of one foot in academia, one foot in industry. How do you bridge that gap between theoretical research and the practical implementation?

Todd Montgomery: Oh that. That’s it. Like, that’s why I love what I’m doing right now is because, you know, I don’t consider myself academic. I’ve been in it for 11 years, but I just know that when the practitioner, industry, DMOs, they don’t read the literature reviews that are, full of math and equations and statistical methods. They might read the abstract. 

And then you have industry over here that’s typically paying a lot of attention to sort of mainstream media. And so I think that’s really the gap that we’re trying to fill is you have, I mean, there’s some fantastic research being done. How do you bring that in and apply it?

And so as it relates to the lab, and this is why I feel like we’re just so incredibly lucky, is that we can apply that theory, apply the lessons learned from other researchers, and then we can go to a place like Visit Bend and say, all right, here’s what the theory says.

50/50 whether this theory would actually work in practice, but let’s see what we can take from it and let’s try to apply it in the real world. And so in some ways, even though we’re the lab, I kind of feel like Visit Bend is the lab because we have the opportunity to try things. And they’re, they’re just fantastic at what they do. They have a passion for it and they want to try, they want to be at the tip of the spear. They want to try these things. And so as long as we can provide that validation for that and support them, and then also a feedback loop to say, hey, we invested in this project. How do people think about it? Right. So that it’s just incredibly cool to be able to have that gap. And, just too often, the, the gap is too wide. And I think that’s one of the reasons why sustainable tourism has taken so long to really be embraced.

I think everybody kind of knows what they should be doing just in their gut, but how do you actually do it? And there’s a lot that could be learned from theory and academic and some of this research that we do. And there’s also a lot to be learned when you apply it on the ground. What was maybe too theoretical and what was actually something that, you know, the rubber hit the road.

Josie Van Der Velden: You know, we were speaking earlier about the policies that ultimately govern DMOs and the unlocking of funds for different projects and different initiatives. Do you find, like, there is a bit of a formula? You can’t, you know, you come to a DMO with theoretical research. 

It sounds like the relationship between the lab and Visit Bend is really key here. There’s trust. Like, what is that formula to be able to try something new and get the DMO on – on board?

Todd Montgomery: There was a trend before covid around – something wasn’t working right with tourism, we’re not exactly sure what it is. And then covid, it really brought it to bear. And destination management and the communities they support really came forward and say, hey, we want to do something with this.

If we were doing this work pre-covid, it would be a lot harder. There is a lot of folks and a lot of destinations that know they want to do this. But going back to that earlier comment, there’s no playbook. How do you actually do it? And then how do you, if you really want to do it, what are the kind of those research and best cases and theories that could be applied, but how do we actually do it in practice?

And I. You know, DMO, The big thing after COVID, everybody switched from destination marketing to destination management, right? Great step, great first step, but that’s in name only. How do you take that next step? And what we’re finding is destinations that have a lot of sincerity, really want to do this, but don’t have policies that enable them.

And we look up, we actually are doing a project around tax, tourism tax code. And if you look in there, first thing we found is there’s no consistency. If you go even within Oregon. A lot of similar communities, the way the tax code’s written around tourism tax and how that money specifically can be allocated, it’s – across the board – in some cases it defers to the city council. Some defer to the DMO. Some don’t defer at all, and it’s just sort of this thing that you pull out of the air. So enabling the policy for destination managers to actually allocate these funds that aren’t like economic driver only, that marketing only, is really the first step.

But, you know, what we were talking about and I think is just so critical in our industry is, if we can give examples of success, if we can point to places, you know, many of what Destination Think, these kind of innovative progressive groups, destinations are trying to do, if we can point to them and say, Hey, we had these barriers and here’s how we did it. That becomes quite powerful. That precedent is so important in terms of initiating change.

And then in the community side, when they start seeing a sincerity in the engagement, you know, that’s a big deal. That moves the needle on community. I think our work, particularly came through in our focus groups, is they felt like they were just being talked to. Or talked at, maybe, is a better way to put it.

And when they realize that, you know, hey, first of all, our community is not so different than others in terms of the problems that we’re facing. But we really want to get this done. You know, let’s figure this out. All of a sudden, their voice matters. Like, when we first started doing our surveys, it was like pulling teeth.

And now we have people, like, contacting us, saying, hey, when’s your survey coming out again? I want to make sure. I’ve got some ideas. I want to make sure that they’re noted. That just, you know, that’s just a really fulfilling thing. Particularly when we do a lot of in-person surveying, and they see us, and before they’re like, what are you doing here? What, what is this? And now they see us and they come in, hey, we took it last year. We really appreciate, we’ve got some ideas. Can we talk to you? And of course that’s exactly what we want.

Josie Van Der Velden: Yeah, for sure. Beyond Visit Bend and this idea of destinations that are being examples for others to follow, are there any other destinations that have been really benefiting from the research that the lab is doing? And what changes has it led to within the destination? 

Todd Montgomery: Yeah. Most of the destinations we’re working with are usually in that early stages of sustainability. And so once again, they’re kind of looking to where they want to go. McMinnville is a really interesting town in Oregon. It’s part of wine country, very quaint, very community focused. We’ve engaged with them a lot, research on their behalf. 

And one of the things that really is become interesting out of that for them is that, it’s a small town. So every meeting, whether it directly involves tourism or not, they’re at the table, right? And they’re giving that perspective, and they’re providing the data that we have.

The other piece is the benchmarking. It’s one thing to say the positive versus negative of tourism is 55 percent for Bend. It’s another thing to say for destinations in your competitor set. So other mountain towns with a similar thing are also are at 60 percent positive negative. So the benchmarking data has been pretty powerful to give them a chance to engage the policymakers and say, here’s where we are.

And here’s these other destinations that you know well of. This is why we need to do that. So giving that, that ability to, to really have those conversations based on data and that, you know, we all want this. This worked for them. Maybe we should bring them in. 

And so it’s kind of, one of the nice things is to create a nice little community.

And so when we have ideas or we have new research going out. Like I was just talking about carrying capacity and maybe a way that we could kind of measure that. Here’s 30 destinations I can send an email to and say, hey, we’re thinking about this. Give us your thoughts. Would you be willing to participate? Would you be willing to give us some contacts and things like that? 

We’re also engaged in Costa Rica. We just took several students down there. And you know, they’re dealing with some tough stuff, right? Particularly foreign land ownership, where foreigners come in and buy the land, and, you know, once they do, that land and is gone from the, from the community and vacation rentals and things like that.

We’re working with a local Universidad Nacional down there. It’s a great university, you know, trying to support the community. And, you know, that’s been a really fun way to kind of take this, I mean, just pristine area, beautiful area with a whole other set of problems. And then say, hey, I know the U.S. is totally different, or what’s happening in Canada is totally different, but here’s how we’re approaching it. And now they’re really starting some pretty interesting projects around that. There’s discussions of a Southern airport in Costa Rica, which would totally transform Costa Rica. And you could argue, maybe not in a good way for the community. And now there are some pretty serious conversations, uh, around that at the political level. 

At Northern Arizona University, they work with the Navajo Nation. Uh, that’s the biggest Tribe in the U.S. And, you know, they’re primarily on the economic side, economic development, trying to give reasons for the community members on the reservation to stay on the reservation.

So that’s a fun project to say, all right, let’s learn from everything that’s been done, in some cases, not so well, but let’s try to make it better. So it’s these kind of these information sharing, benchmarking data, best practices. It, you know, it’s just sort of this process that just builds and builds and builds.

And once again, I talk about Visit Bend a lot and they know about the sustainability fund. They know about the cultural fund. They know the kind of the risks. So being able to point to that has really helped move the needle.

Josie Van Der Velden: So thinking of challenges, you just mentioned some things that have been done or haven’t been done quite as good as we wish. In the research, what are some of those, the biggest challenges that have been highlighted that, like, have been the hardest ones to tackle in reality? 

Todd Montgomery: Number one, just I think getting the community aligned to embrace it and say, this is, this is where we are, and this is where we want to go. And that then ties into the second biggest challenge. 

 There’s a lot of pressure for that short term. Hey, if we build this hotel on this. Or if we add this golf course and this is, hard, tangible revenue that’s coming in our community, versus is that the right place? Is that, does that fit into what the destination should be? Could part of that community be used for something else that would have more or greater benefit, maybe less community or less environmental impact.

So there’s all these things that are just, as humans, it’s tough, right? Because you have this sort of short term view. And that’s where I think it’s so critical, the destination management group. 

And I think probably kind of maybe the third point of all that is, as a community, whose role is it to make sure that destination is as good as it can be? Long term, 100 years from now, whose role is that? If you look around that, the community, whether it’s city council or, or mayor or whatever, nobody really fits that role. And then you have a DMO on five year contracts with the city. So yeah they’re, they’re looking long term, but they also have this short term financial pressure to secure funding and continue the mission. 

So I think, it’s high level, but who plays that role and who has the policy, the resources through the tax policy, and really are empowered to make and to make decisions that maybe in the short term are not as popular as they could be, but are in the long term interest of the destination.

And that is a massive challenge, right? I mean, you have to get a lot of people aligned. So that’s just a massive structural challenge. And you have to get, you have to get so many people aligned. And then you have to be so smart about how you do that.

But that is the crux of sustainable tourism, right? If you don’t get the long term vision right, then it’s not going to work, right? You’re just going to continue to just play these short term cycles. 

So it’s a massive problem, but here’s why I’m optimistic. And I always want to make, cause I can be, I can go off this negative dark path, but here’s why I’m optimistic, is that it’s in everybody’s interest to get this right. And from, and I know people can say, all right, the environment I get, the community, I get why it’s in their interest, but it’s also in the economic interest. 

And so if you are a hotel owner and you’ve invested in this community, You want to continue to get return on that investment on that asset. And if that destination burns out, that investment is gone.

So this is why I’m actually really optimistic around, not just around sustainable tourism, but around how we can find a solution to this because everything’s aligned. We just got to get we got to get the data to give us the right right approach, knowing that every destination is a little different.

And then we’ve got that kind of that political will to say, all right, This is what we need. 

Josie Van Der Velden: So we were just talking about kind of the challenges that are harder to tackle and what maybe are some of the roadblocks to progress. Do you feel like the lab, in a sense, is kind of trying to like, hack the formula? Like, you’re sort of trying to figure out, like, we know we need research, we need hard data to bring to the table to be able to speak to policy that will unlock funds. What is that data? How much do you bring, who do you talk to when do you bring it to them? What examples, like, is that, is it sort of a, a bit of a hack that you’re working on? 

Todd Montgomery: I, I think that’s a fair thing to say. One of the biggest challenges, if you look at community, anything related to tourism around survey work, data collection, is, for a lot of times, it is focused on supporting a current initiative by the stakeholders. 

So if you see most resident sentiment surveys, it is, they send it to the distribution list of the Visitors Association. They send it to their friends. It’s not representative of, of the community. There’s a lot of people that are left out of the conversation. I, that’s a long winded way to say that the thing that we’re trying, the hardest thing to do is to provide objective information to this.

And it’s a bit to overcome because, we’ll bring some, in some cases, some pretty tough information. News about maybe what the community thinks or whatever. And I hear this often, that’s not what I’m hearing, right? And one of the things we’ve, it’s so fundamental, so simple, but so important, is just making sure it’s statistically representative of the community.

And so, for example, we did a survey in Bend. Bend is a fairly white place. There’s only about 6 percent of the Hispanic, of Hispanic population here. Our sample had 2%. So we went back and re-engaged to make sure we had the, got that other 4%, so it was representative. Workers don’t tend to have a voice in the broader tourism thing.

So the hack is just simply bringing a representative view of the community at all levels. Because right now, most DMOs, it’s who screams the loudest. On either side, I would add. And who really has the influence. And when it comes to tourism, a lot of times it’s, it’s real estate, it’s landowners it’s people that have been in the community the longest. And so how do you then, how do you bridge that gap? 

This is not reinventing, this is not inventing the wheel. This has been done before, but it hasn’t really been done that well in tourism. When we started engaging with the community around tourism, they thought we were just there to market why tourism was so great.

And if you look at most presentations around tourism, it’s all blue skies, right? We’re bringing X amount of dollars, this many percentage jobs, but they never talk about the costs of tourism. And I think that’s what’s changed since COVID, is that people have really realized that, hey, there are costs, and we’ve got to address these costs. And we’re only going to be successful in the long term if we come up with strategies around that.

Josie Van Der Velden: For sure. Kind of looking at like, practical advice. If someone at a DMO is looking to tap into the academic resources in their community, what would you say are, like, the first two or three steps that they should really take in order to begin? 

Todd Montgomery: I think the first thing is most tourist destinations have some type of either community college or state institution or university that they can go to. That’s number one. And number two is they may think that they’re burdening ’em, but they’re not. Most professors, and I know most students. want to engage on this stuff. 

So I think it’s first just finding out, is, is there somebody locally, or in this case may not even be like within the community, but in, in the region that we could contact. The second piece is you may not find that they’re doing actual work in this specific area. It might be more, a lot of times it’s economic policy that kind of relates to it. But there’s a lot of groups. Like, we work with right now about seven different universities. And a lot of that work is outside of Oregon or in case Montana or whoever we’re working with. So there’s other institutions that do this work that you could reach out to and that would love to be involved.

But I would say the number one thing, and of course I’m totally biased because we spend a lot of time on resident sentiment, is if, if you don’t have a gauge of what the community wants or needs, then you’re really flying blind in terms of sustainable tourism. And you’ve got to resist the natural temptation to do your own survey to your stakeholders.

You need to make sure it’s representative. And then the last piece is, if you’re going to do this and you’re going to actually take actions based on the data. Then you’ve got to have some mechanism to know whether you’re impacting sentiment in a positive way. So that means that it’s got to be systematic. It’s got to be not just a one off for example. It’s got to go on. 

Most universities, most colleges, most community colleges, there, there is a mechanism for them to do that. And there’s enough, whether we’re partnering with them or not, most universities would be happy to share, you know, best practices, benchmarks, surveys, work, so they don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel every single place.

Josie Van Der Velden: That’s really good advice. Over the next handful of years, how do you think the sustainability work that’s being done at Visit Bend is going to help shape the place into the place that you envisioned or otherwise? 

Todd Montgomery: It’s almost a snowballing effect because – I go back to Serena’s work with sustainability fund. These projects, you know, you fund them, there’s a lag, right, of development, usually a year or two to complete, and then a little bit more time for people to learn about that place and what was being done. You know, that was two, three years ago that started. So all these projects are starting to come online.

And so when people start to actually experience and see that and see the positive impacts, and then, once again, understanding the role that the DMO played in that – really, really critical, right?

DMO helped fund this. This wasn’t an, an outside entity. This was something that they, historically has been a purely tourism entity has embraced and tried to do for the community. That’s powerful. That’s huge. And especially as more and more of these projects happen. 

And so with our role is, every year, we’re, actually twice a year, we look at sentiment, we look at changing priorities, because there’s a lot of factors, inflation, economic, I mean there’s so many things that are affecting how people view the community. Forest fires are making a huge impact in Bend. August used to be the biggest peak season for tourists, and right now, four out of the last six years, it’s been smoky, and people haven’t come.

So, I mean, we’re all trying to figure this out a little bit, and I think the lab can provide that information, and provide, hopefully, a different perspective because, I like to throw academics under the bus, but a lot of times we just think, right? We’re in our office and we’re thinking and, people with day jobs, they don’t have time for that, right?

They’ve got these pressures that they’ve got to work on and, and goals that they need to do. And, and that’s really the benefit of being in a lab to be able to play with ideas, to put a little bit of funding towards different ideas to see, yeah, this works or this doesn’t. And be able to have that role and that capacity to do that and to be able to look past, you know, two or three years and hopefully then provide information into that.

I mean, I think this tax policy stuff, you know, I think that has potential to really kind of readdress how some of these policies and how to get that M to being management and then fund and give resources to actually do management of destination. So I think we can play that role. And like I said, we’re just, we’re just thrilled to death that we get to play that role.

Josie Van Der Velden: All right, Todd, that’s all our questions. Is there anything that we didn’t cover on that you wanted to share or 

Todd Montgomery: I think I said everything I know. I don’t think I know anything more. I mean, I think if I had something smart to say, but nothing smart comes to my brain. So I think I said it all. 

Josie Van Der Velden: Well, you said a lot of really smart things, so you’ve hit filled your quota for today.

Todd Montgomery: Yeah, no, thanks.

Josie Van Der Velden: Awesome. Thank you so much. That was really, really insightful and exciting. It’s a lot 

Todd Montgomery: Yeah, now it’ll be 

Josie Van Der Velden: It’s a lot of cool stuff. Yeah, I’ll be interested to see how it all comes together.

David Archer: This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think, and you just heard Josie Van Der Velden speaking with Todd Montgomery of OSU’s Sustainable Tourism Lab. For more resources and show notes, visit the blog at DestinationThink.com. This episode was produced and has theme music composed by me, David Archer.

My co host is Sara Raymond de Booy. Lindsay Payne provided production support. If you like what you hear, please take a moment to give us a five star rating on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to help more people find our show. We would like to thank Visit Bend for sponsoring this season of Travel Beyond. 

Next time, we’ll hear from the leader of a local watchdog organization that ensures the land in Bend is being treated responsibly.

See you then!


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