Strategy is not what you think it is

Frank Cuypers

18 April 2016

“For a destination marketing organization (DMO), strategy means formulating a vision for providing lasting, sustainable value for residents, visitors and companies. Strategy is the shortest road between your mission and your vision.”

We trust a driver who keeps his or her eyes on the road instead of on the dashboard. Tracking speed and mileage is sometimes important for safety, but it quickly becomes dangerous on a busy roadway. In the same way, focusing on the dashboard will not lead an organization to the destination they need to reach. Many DMOs tend to neglect true strategy by allowing metrics to lead the way instead of focusing on the vision before them.

Focusing on the dashboard will not lead an organization to the destination they need to reach.

Image credit: Nikos Koutoulas, Flickr


The famous business strategist and Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter says that strategy is defined by answering a few specific questions: “How are we going to be unique, how are we going to have an advantage, how are we going to sustain that advantage over time?”

More important, organizations need to distinguish between strategy and implementation. Increasing the number of hotel bookings by 2.5 per cent before the end of the year is not a strategy. Neither is extending the length of stay of international “cultural travellers,” or equipping all of a destination’s public areas with Wi-Fi networks. Creating plans to make your museums and visitor centres wheelchair accessible within the next year doesn’t count as strategy, nor does increasing fans, followers, clicks, return on investment (ROI) or ad value equivalency (AVE). These examples are all steps that may be necessary to help realize a strategy, but they cannot replace the strategy itself.

For a DMO, strategy means formulating a vision for providing lasting, sustainable value for residents, visitors and companies. Strategy is the shortest road between your mission and your vision. Simon Anholt has managed to summarize this for destinations in his book, Competitive Identity, wherein he examines why it’s important for destinations to invest in defining their unique qualities as part of their strategy.

There are three common reasons for lacking a clear strategy:

The false start: A lack of vision

It’s a mistake to focus on competitors and stakeholders instead of customers. Most DMOs create something like a “Multi-Year Tourism Plan” or a “City Marketing Road Map.” In reality, these often become a set of vague taglines without any direction, followed by a long list of operational actions forced to compromise between the wishes and aspirations of political forces: siloed management structures, partners, stakeholders and politicians.

The wrong road: Ignoring visitor needs

DMOs need a clear vision of the consumer’s needs and desires. For example, when an organization wants their product to attract “international cultural visitors,” they need to clearly define what those visitors require. Usually, marketers do not spend enough time on this. Directors and CEOs spend most of their time in meetings and don’t realize that this prevents them from building a vision. Without strategic choices from leadership, middle management will try to innovate in all possible ways within their departments, causing the organization to drift aimlessly. A lack of overarching perspective can cripple the destination’s growth and block the organization’s potential for change.

The wrong destination: When measurements become goals

This reason is the most alarming. A multi-stakeholder model creates pressure to report and show value through the data collected. Meanwhile, our digital world creates vast quantities of data. In times where “lean metrics” are important, DMOs suffer from having “heavy metrics.” DMOs can measure many things, but they need to understand which data is important and why. For example, some of the metrics that can affect decisions track visitor actions like clicks, views, leads and followers. Though if these aren’t prioritized properly, organizations risk turning these measurements into strategic goals. As Bernard Marr recently wrote, KPIs can become our poison.

When KPIs and measurements take the place of strategic vision, they can cover up poor results. We risk reacting to the dashboard instead of leading with a confident focus on the future. This lack of vision is a result of relying on standards we set up in the past, while a healthier navigation means leading with a strong vision instead.

To create a lasting competitive advantage in 2016, an organization needs to be one big, creative brain with open connections to the voices from the outside world; however, at many DMOs, a more inward focus has led to an overemphasis on speed and productivity. New techniques like total quality management (TQM), business process reengineering (BPR) and benchmarking have produced spectacular results for efficiency, but not for effectiveness. Most important, these changes have not provided added value for the residents and visitors because valuable strategies have been replaced by metrics.

While a proper dashboard will show you the results of your work, you will only succeed with a meaningful strategy that takes time to build. As Mark Pritchard, CMO of Procter & Gamble once said: “When you focus on profit solely, you will certainly make progress, but when you focus on purpose in order to make people’s live better – that ultimately leads to better profitability.”

Related reading: A destination marketer’s guide to strategic leadership


  1. Nicolaas Pereboom


    Late reply but found link to this article in more recent DT post. Some great observations on this article Frank on using focus on metrics to cover up poor results (to which I can add hiding that they actually do not have a vision or strategy in place ;).

    But do you have real-life examples where DMOs actually set up such great visions, missions and strategies which actually led to such lasting, sustainable value creation? And what do you understand under ‘value’ here?


    • frank cuypers

      Thank you Nicolaas. You are right: a big part of the problem lies with DMO’s themselves, which remain trapped in an outdated, narrow approach to value creation. But here is a thing: a lot of criticism on them is because often tax money is involved. This criticism itself focuses on optimizing short-term financial performance (the assumption is that civil servants are not good in it) and it overlooks the greatest unmet needs in the market as well as broader influences on long-term success. This criticism ignores the well-being of the residents, the depletion of natural resources vital to the travel experience, the viability of suppliers, and the economic distress of the communities for which they have to attract visitors. So, real value in destinations drives innovation in the global economy as it opens eyes to immense human needs that must be metnand the internal costs of social deficits—as well as the competitive advantages available from addressing them.
      As regards the other part of your question: this blog is full of good practices of DMO’s that are making that shift to a more strategic long term approach. From the way Destination BC leads his industry by learning them to create Remarkable Experiences, the way Galapagos engages itself in sustainability to the way Switzerland creates a framework for partnerships to optimize revenue.
      I hope this is an answer to your question. But you will agree: it’s the stuff that long and interesting discussions are made off….


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