For years, a tourism destination's competitiveness has been shaped by the hard assets and attributes of the destination. Destinations became mainly known for the primary attribute that defined the destination-- beaches in Hawaii, warm winter weather in Palm Springs, wine in Napa, gambling in Las Vegas, etc.
To compete more effectively, those destinations without a single focus to attract visitors improved their destinations' attributes to offer potential visitors. Things like bike trails, hiking trails, better shopping, and improved food offerings have become commonplace.
Today, we see an evolution away from focusing on hard attributes to a different type of soft attribute. Is your destination interesting? Is it authentic? Is it cool?
The traditionally defined attributes that destinations have used to compete with are increasingly giving way to answering one question: Is your interesting?
Why is this the case?
If you do a quick check of any Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) website, most all the offerings are similar. Most have all the standard outdoor recreation, arts, and culture special events that have become commonplace. The destinations have, mostly, reached competitive equilibrium. Yes, some have a structural advantage, like an airport, but for the most part, they offer similar attributes.
Another way to understand this is baseball. Almost twenty years ago, the Oakland A's introduced quantitative analysis to evaluate potential players to a level never done before. They used traditional measures, like batting average, but additionally, they invented a number of new measures. And it worked. The A's used this to their advantage for a time. However, what happened? Slowly, other teams began hiring math majors and economists to do a similar analysis. Today, every major-league baseball team has a fully stocked quantitative analysis department to evaluate talent. The same is true with tourism destinations. Many have improved their offering and are like their competitors. Don't believe it? Just check their websites.
So, where is the next frontier of competitiveness for tourism destinations? Look to our baseball analogy again, specifically, the Chicago Cubs. Their former President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, one of the original users of quantitative data to evaluate talent, recognized the limitations of this approach by asking," If everyone is doing it, where is the advantage?"
Epstein directed his scouting department to look deeper into each player and look for softer, non-quantitative ways to evaluate players. His scouts are looking at whether a player can "get along." He also looked to make the player's environment the best to make a great Chicago vibe so players can feel connected.
In this pandemic environment, to be more competitive, destinations must go beyond "the list" of traditional physical attributes and answer one crucial question: Is my destination interesting?
Because people have more experience and technology at their fingertips, they know there are good restaurants in every destination; the same goes for lodging and recreation. They can get those anywhere. What is most important is: do they see your destination as interesting and authentic? That doesn't mean show the restaurants locals eat at, but rather capture the values and character of your community. If your destination can communicate its authenticity, you need not differentiate your destination; it already is.
As visitors of all ages seek interesting experiences, the formula for success is not adding more of what your destination already has. It will involve capturing, distilling, and communicating what is interesting about the values and character of your community, so visitors more easily connect with the people and places there. Today's visitors want memorable connections, not hard attributes. They are looking for destinations implementing stewardship and sustainability programs. SMG research conducted in Lake Tahoe's South Shore identified that approximately 50% of those surveyed indicated they looked to better connect with friends or family while visiting. The destination was a backdrop so visitors could connect. It was a means to a greater and deeper experience.
How to make it happen
Consider this approach to finding your destination's interesting definers. Here are some basic tips:
1. Don't start your marketing efforts with visitors. Every marketing strategy in the world suggests you find out what potential visitors want and then give it to them. Consider starting with residents and find out their passions, because if they have a passion for it, so will others. It's also important to understand what residents dislike about tourism. Many destinations have seen residents push back on the traffic, crowding, and congestion they experience. They often find wages lagging and affordable housing hard to come by.
This approach was used in Lake Tahoe to identify that road bikes were a passion for locals. From that awareness, the DMO developed a full-scale approach that has led to hosting the Amgen Tour of California several times (both men's and women's). The destination is now being seen as a legitimate place for road biking. Develop a local resident passion-based approach to your strategy.
2. Define the values and character of your destination. Many DMO's have created endless vision statements or mission statements, but how many can give a succinct description of their community values and character? If you don't understand these elements, how can you communicate them? Know your community values and character.
3. Harness local creativity and not just the obvious stuff. It is the essence of making your destination interesting. It's the artists, writers, and innovators in your community that are just as interesting as many of the places in your destination.
4. Communicate the values and character of the destination honestly through the platforms and channels you have.
In this post-pandemic environment, the future of destination competition is not just about traditional attributes but about nontraditional ones. The challenge for destinations is to be just as effective at promoting the latter as they are with the former.