Advocacy Summit: Where we have been and where we're going

By: Andreas Weissenborn, Destinations International

This autumn marks our fifth annual Destinations International Advocacy Summit and we’re celebrating our "wood" anniversary with it. Much like the characteristics of its namesake such as being an essential fuel for energy, a building block for tools, or even a weapon to thwart your opposition, advocacy is the defining new characteristic every destination organization should add to their repertoire. Advocacy is your effort to articulate your worth, defend your brand,f and justify investments in your organization for destination promotion. For us, advocacy is simply for everyone, and we have built this summit over the last five years with that mantra intact. Let’s examine some of the key moments of this event and how we plan to continue moving forward with intent.

Wood anniversary infographic

All roads to this summit began in 2017, when the first business plan for that year and the first chief advocacy officer, Jack Johnson, laid out what advocacy could be for the organization. Below is a small excerpt from the 2017 Business Plan for Destinations International:

"Host an Advocacy & Research Summit designed to advance the field of DMO advocacy and to provide members with the expertise they need to succeed in public affairs management, lobbying, grassroots advocacy, crisis communication, research and related areas."

Tonally, this event had to strike a different chord than our organization’s existing summit schedule, which historically had existed in some form or another for over 20 years. Not only was this the first new event under the new administration of Don Welsh, but honestly a new event in a post-logical world where our sector began fighting back against issues and labels of corporate welfare, unwelcoming legislation, and defunding efforts. For a single day’s worth of content split over two days, it’s fun to look back at the early schedule and see terms and descriptions that are commonplace now, but back then were so novel in the backdrop of the other events we hosted.

Advocacy Summit 2017 agenda
Our 2017 programming with signature late starts and quirky reception

From there, we grew and grew with our 2nd incarnation happening in Philadelphia in 2018 with both a larger audience and larger content. This is the event where we hit our stride and where many of us realized, we were engulfed in the same storm, but perhaps in different ships, and the summit provided a means to connect us all. One of my favorite encapsulations of this came from Bennish Brown, CEO from Visit Augusta and his reasoning for being there.

Philadelphia showed us that not only was the appetite there, but the members were hungry for more and in essence became our biggest advocates of why destination organizations should attend this Summit.

Advocacy Summit 2018 photo of Jack Johnson on stage
Jack Johnson on stage at 2018 Advocacy Summit in Philadelphia

The following two years (2019 & 2020) are equally important for the continuation of the Advocacy Summit, but for slightly different reasons. If 2017 was the fuel for the fire, and 2018 was the tools we crafted, then 2019 & 2020 became the foundation and building blocks for every iteration of this Summit hence forth. Let us explain.

2019

The 2019 Advocacy Summit in Madison, WI was the largest in-person representation of advocates in our sector that I have been a part of. The event itself was larger in format and included the addition of CDME classes being offered before it. This was a natural pairing given the content that was explored in both. The Summit also represented the largest amount of in person CEOs and C-Suites at both the destination organization and the partner level, all in the same shared space to learn and grow. It remains a highlight for many of us. It was an example of why events like this matter, when we exist together in the room to converse on our issues and find ways to tackle them.

Crowd photo at 2019 Advocacy Summit
2019 Advocacy Summit in Madison, WI - outdoor temp 0°F

2020

After a tremendous 2019 that also included stellar events at CEO Summit and Annual Convention, we ended the year knowing that not only was the Advocacy Summit idea a hit, but we had tools and means to deliver the largest Advocacy Summit yet to come. The 2020 event was scheduled to take place in Sacramento, CA, and was meant to be our in-person mecca for all advocates in our industry, a can’t-miss-clear-all-my-other-obligations type of event for us. Unfortunately, the pandemic had different plans for us all.  

Many of you share the same story as us - in 2020 the world changed and we had to pivot. Our next event would not be in person but instead virtual. 2020 Advocacy Summit was really an event around crafting a quality story, in both pacing and content. We realized how Zoom fatigued we had all become and competition for attention at your home office would mean a new pacing to how we delivered our event to you. Through all its hardships, the pandemic gave us an opportunity to challenge us to deliver fewer better things in this difficult time. For that, sessions were shortened, 5-minute expert testimonials were spread throughout, but quality was sustained throughout. Externally our theme for this event was ‘seizing the opportunity’ but with us having to go through a similar pivot to what our sector did, I have aptly called that Summit ‘catharsis.’

Advocacy Summit 2020 HQ
2020 Advocacy Summit HQ

2021

With four Advocacy Summits under our belt and a pandemic still very much with us, we once again return to the mantra of how we started, that advocacy is for everyone and to move forward is to move our sector forward with intent & purpose. When you join us in Houston for this year’s Summit, you will find a mix of sharp and tactical content that resembles what we delivered in 2019, but with a mix of catharsis by joining your peers in some of the hardest times our sector has ever faced. Simply put, this is where you need to be in the autumn to best support your community and destination organization, the sum of all the work in being a community shared value. We are looking forward to delivering the very best of what advocacy can teach you about being a steward of your community and we hope to see you there in Houston, October 26th-28th, 2021.

About the Author

Andreas WeissenbornVice President of Research and AdvocacyDestinations International

About the Author

Introduced to the industry by a random internship application to Visit Baltimore, Andreas began an unexpected career that left him with a continued passion towards tourism. He leads the research and advocacy efforts of the entire organization with an eye towards developing data-driven tools to help destinations around the world tell their story.

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