Making the hard decisions: what destinations need to be thinking about right now

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin
Empty city with bicycle
Photo by Boris Dunand on Unsplash

The economic forecasts are dire… worldwide recession, expanding government debt, plummeting GDP, rising unemployment.  And for the tourism sector VisitBritain’s latest forecasts for 2020 predict a loss of £41.8bn across all types of tourism from a 63% decline in international visitor spend, 32% decline in domestic overnight spend and 21% in day trip spend.

2020 will be hard and 2021 not much better.  Despite a much trumpeted latent demand to travel, caution is high and confidence is low – and likely to remain so well into 2021 at the earliest.  Nobody expects the tourism sector can come through this unscathed and major change in the business landscape and nature of the tourism offer can pretty much be guaranteed.  Businesses and organisations which sit back, hope that things will return to normal and then continue doing what they have always done are simply not going to survive.

As if all of this wasn’t challenging enough for destinations, additional pressures will arise from the acceleration of longer term ‘macro trends’ including:

Tackling climate change – Acceleration of the push to reduce carbon emissions and supporting the natural environment and biodiversity

Increasing Application of Digital Technologies – Speeding up of acceptance and use of digital across all aspects of life – business, social, personal

Reconfiguring Public Space –Responding to new demands for urban space – car free, space for business, decline of high street retail

Experience Economy – Intensification of trend towards accumulation of memories not possessions

So what is a DMO to do in response to all this? What should it be focusing on among the myriad of demands on its time and resources?  Given the nature of this existential crisis the fundamental question is what does a destination want tourism for?  Jobs? Successful businesses sector? Vibrant places? Happy residents? Visitor spend?

In broad terms strategic choices lie in one of three areas:

  1. Businesses – helping businesses survive the crisis, supporting innovation, new experience development, creating stronger business networks and local supply chains
  2. Places – use of public space and natural environment, community-led approaches, job opportunities for local people
  3. Visitors – tailored marketing, creative and innovative to cut through a noisy marketplace highly focused targeting, all based on in-depth knowledge and understanding of priority segments

It’s easy to say ‘all of the above’ but daring to make as narrow a choice as possible will make it easier to develop an approach to supporting tourism and increase the likelihood of actually making an impact.  And counter intuitively such an approach will contribute to the other priories too.

For example if jobs are the key strategic priority then the recovery plan will be on labour market interventions – working with educational establishments, working with job centres, apprenticeship schemes, job subsidies, training programmes, retraining programmes, sponsored placements etc.  Naturally it requires businesses to be there to employ people but such a focus will ensure that businesses can benefit from a first class, trained workforce at a reduced cost which in turn will help their bottom line as well as delivering excellent service and experiences to visitors.  And residents will be happy because they – or their friends or family members – will have a job.

Alternatively if the priority is maximising visitor spend then an absolute market focus will be essential.  Research and insight into who will be travelling soonest, what they will be looking for, how well the destination can deliver now or could be made to, how  to reach visitors and convince them to come, what reassurance do they need  etc.  Then design a hard-hitting marketing campaign targeting those best prospect visitors, working with businesses and organisations that are capable of delivering the right experience.  Naturally this approach will in turn support jobs and the vibrancy of a place, but a single strategic focus will help to make the case and target the effort.

You get the picture.  Strategic choice matters because it simplifies the recovery plan, the communication and the ‘ask’ of government for resources and support.  It also makes the role of the DMO clearer, guides its decision making and allows it to say yes or no to the demands upon it.  Sadly there is too often reluctance within DMOs to take the hard decisions.  For destinations to come through this crisis successfully it’s DMO must be prepared to step up to that leadership role.  To clearly and consistently guide the way to a different future.  To stop trying to do everything.  And harsh though it sounds – back the likely winners and ignore those that are unable or unwilling to change.

So are you brave enough to do what it takes to adapt to change?  And if you are, then what is the right strategic choice for your destination?


At Blue Sail we have years of experience of helping places and attractions develop and market their destination.  We’ve been analysing the current crisis carefully, thinking about the implications, gathering market insights and assessing responses.  If we can help you make the right strategic choice for your destination and develop a recovery plan based on that choice, then please do get in touch.