“I am forever impressed and amazed at how resilient the tourism industry has been.”
Peaks and valleys are part of the tourism business. And as a true destination marketing and tourism veteran, Shawna Lang has helped to guide communities and destinations through several significant moments. With Tourism Whistler in British Columbia, Canada, she was involved in the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. A decade later, she learned about resilience while helping the Sea to Sky Gondola leadership team steer the attraction through several crises in a row while keeping the interests of residents at heart.
Now based in Squamish, B.C., Shawna joined Destination Think in 2021 as Director of Client Experience. She brings her destination marketing acumen, passion for travel, and all-around enthusiasm to her DMO client teams. Here, she shares some of what she’s learned along her journey.
Katie Shriner, Marketing Manager at Destination Think: Tell us a little about your professional experience.
Shawna Lang, Director of Client Experience at Destination Think: I have been in the tourism industry for many years. I now simply say 20+ years, as any more makes me sound old! I have worked in the industry since before the internet, before e-commerce was an idea, and long before the word overtourism was coined. I have had so many great experiences travelling the world to promote Whistler, which was my home at the time and my favourite place.
Before Destination Think, you worked at Squamish’s Sea to Sky Gondola during a difficult time. What was that like?
When I joined, the gondola was closed due to vandalism. I helped manage its reopening after an eight-month closure, only to close again one month later due to COVID-19 protocols. We closed yet again due to another vandalism in September 2020, followed by another reopening. My 18 months there included three reopenings! We got very good at it.
During the COVID reopening, I was part of the leadership team as we made decisions about how best to offer an exceptional, safe guest experience considering the protocols in place. My role during the second vandalism was, most urgently, to manage media requests, including on-site visits, and to keep public-facing information organized. I also had a hands-on role. While standing next to the Sea to Sky Highway wearing my high-visibility vest, I told each and every individual who tried to visit that we had been vandalized again. Those were some emotional conversations. On top of all that, I was responsible for managing communication and providing emotional support to my guest services team.
What did you learn from the experience?
Hard times can bring out amazing teamwork and creativity. The vandalism was really hard on long-term staff, and the closures forced us all to pause. I was impressed with the resilience of the whole team. It was incredible that we retained all staff through the crises, and that’s thanks in large part to the Sea to Sky Gondola ownership group, who empowered us to press on and keep using what we knew best to make a difference in the community. The gondola was built for the people of Squamish, and as visitation has grown, one question locals have is, does this gondola still belong to us? We decided to do a lot of community engagement while closed.
“It is critical to have residents engage positively with the tourism industry.”
What did that community engagement look like?
Our staff applied their tourism-related abilities in new ways. Some volunteered at the local food bank, for example. Kitchen staff taught culinary skills at the shelter, skills that are not only important for survival, but potentially for future employment. We organized a Santa Claus parade in town and I got to lead that by driving our gondola as the lead float. There were programs for schools too. We gave teachers bags of brownies for Valentine’s Day and provided recipes and cooking instruction for students over Zoom. We led virtual storytimes and also an activity where children could leave messages for the gondola, which were displayed on the property. We also measured resident sentiment through a survey.
All this community engagement ended up as the core of my master’s thesis, which I’ve just completed. It is critical to have residents engage positively with the tourism industry. Travel brings people, cultures, and societies together. There is no better platform for learning than travel. Visitors and residents have a lot to share with one another.
Can you tell us about your time at Tourism Whistler?
During my 14 years at Tourism Whistler, one of my responsibilities was working with our tour operator partners from all over the world to execute joint marketing campaigns. The operators would use our Whistler messaging in their calls to action.
A lot of our work involved connecting people across the Whistler tourism community and collaborating with other destinations. We would work with provincial or national destination partners, as well as others like Vancouver and Victoria, BC, to stretch our marketing dollars. Locally, we worked toward a long-term strategy of growing the length of stay. This involved connecting leaders across different segments of the travel industry, like hotels and ski operators, building year-round partnerships, and adopting new sales channels that evolved with technology.
Amid all this, my favourite accomplishments were in introducing Whistler to new markets, most notably China, Mexico, Brazil, and India. Each market was unique in its potential and in the way it conducted tourism business.
Why did you join Destination Think? What are you looking forward to while working with us?
I had known of Destination Think from hearing team members speak at trade shows. Following the company’s blog and social media always kept me engaged in trends and opportunities in the industry. Then, in September 2019, I started my Masters of Arts in Tourism Management at Royal Roads University and followed the company with a closer eye. I referenced content from the blogs for various papers (proper credit and citation always included!).
I am most looking forward to contributing to and learning from destinations all over the world. My past experience has taken place here in B.C., where there are great tourism mentors and leadership. I want to use what I’ve learned here to make an impact in other places too.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I am forever impressed and amazed at how resilient the tourism industry has been for the past two years through significant challenges related to COVID-19. It makes me so proud and confident in my decision to dedicate my career and education to this dynamic industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.