Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) aren’t always known for making brave decisions.

Leaders need to know how best to position their organization for the future, while marketing teams need direction on where to invest and how to measure success. And often, members of a DMO’s marketing implementation team can discover ways to innovate. By demonstrating the value of new opportunities, they slowly chip away at their organization’s resistance to change. But the team struggles to produce lasting change due to stakeholder pressure, traditional organizational structures, old means of measurement, beliefs about return on investment (ROI), or a culture that simply doesn’t encourage innovation.

William Price, South African Tourism’s former global manager of digital believes that it’s essential for DMOs to be brave, learn how to make mistakes and foster innovation through creativity and risk-taking. Inspired by this forward-thinking approach, we asked two of Destination Think’s senior strategic consultants, Frank Cuypers and Aaron Nissen, to weigh in on questions related to this idea: why is it so important for DMOs to take risks? And how can leadership foster innovation?

Avoid focusing on fear

“DMOs often have a focus on fear,” says Cuypers, a place marketing expert and associate professor of marketing at the University of Antwerp. “They have a fear of not getting grants from policymakers, a fear of not being relevant anymore, a fear of the perception of stakeholders and partners, [and] a fear of change. This type of organizational culture has a strong focus on doing things right. That implies a concern for rules, policies and procedures over people, which means they will recruit people based on [the organization’s] own skills, qualifications and proven performances.

“This type of organization is sometimes good with reporting, stakeholder management and lobbying, but isn’t always well-equipped to perform in a highly dynamic environment like tourism marketing.

Invest in the right people

“DMOs should have a focus on people. This results in an organization that has a focus on doing the right things. And that requires a laser focus on your consumers.

“It also implies that that you see your own staff as ‘internal clients’ as if they’re the inside of the outside. You’ll then recruit people based on their attitude, behavior and their ability to improve, as well as [their] skills and qualifications. This type of organization favours project management and is ideal to become a ‘network organization’. DMOs should be network organizations that coordinate, rather than execute.”

So how can leadership foster these changes?

Celso FLORES Flickr

Image credit: Celso Flores, Flickr

Creating a common identity

Cuypers says organizations “need a real understanding of what they stand for, which is often embodied in a mantra or a motto.” They need their own rituals to build a common identity, and a well-understood sense of “the informal rules and expectations so that employees understand what is expected of them.” And he says, finally, “leadership needs to believe that what employees do is important and that it’s important to share information and ideas. Scandinavian DMOs are the most advanced at this. At Visit Sørlandet in Norway, every staff member under CEO Heidi Sørvig follows a leadership course. The consequence? Everybody can lead, and everybody understands the role of the leader.”

Aaron Nissen, a former director of e-Strategies for Travel Alberta, agrees.

“Failing relates to our own ego. We don’t want to fail because we want to look good to our stakeholders and team. This can be difficult to get over. But we need to understand that success comes from seeing failure as a tool. Then we can incubate and foster a culture that is curious and willing to make mistakes and learn from them.”

He also agrees with William Price’s belief that to improve, a DMO should iterate, test and measure.

Test in order to adapt and learn

“Marketers are historically based on ‘creative’ and not based on data. So we are naturally skewed more to intuition and creative ideas versus data and numbers. Digital marketers, however, are more like programmers who look at data to continually optimize solutions. This means testing, and testing in order to adapt and learn.

“Marketers have also been trained that big numbers equal success. Big numbers, big PR, big, big, big. This mindset hinders us from trying new things out and adapting them, especially small tests. We’ve developed a culture that is afraid of mistakes.

“Looking for a place to start? Start small. Talk to your web team. Or even the social media team. They probably do all sorts of little tests. Spend some time to understand the value of their efforts, and give them credit for the work they do.

Fostering innovation is a lot like video games, says Nissen. “Take Mario Brothers, for example. The levels are very predictable with experience. But in order to advance at the game, you need to fail over and over again. This lets you learn and remember what mistakes to avoid, and that is eventually how you pass the level or save the princess. That’s the attitude we need to embrace for our marketing channels.”

Related reading on a destination’s identity: Change management at the DMO: Why destinations need to be proactive

Featured image credit: Justin De La Ornellas, Flickr


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