By Andreas Weissenborn, Destinations International and Jay Kinghorn, Zartico
AW: This past month in Little Rock, AR for the 2023 Advocacy Summit, we released our latest industry brief, A Destination Promotion Community Index.
Our industry brief represents over 18 months of work across focus groups and industry events around the concept of proving how destination promotion articulates value in three areas:
- What does a destination organization do?
- How well did the destination do it?
- Are the residents of the community better off?
A core outcome of this fieldwork is that it’s time to change when we talk about ROI and what constitutes ROI.
Whether for a board meeting, city council, or annual report, ROI is not an argument for supporting destination promotion. It is a measurement of whether you are efficient in promoting your destination once the decision to support destination promotion has already been made. From there, it also provides a timeline of when a destination should produce ROI and measurements — that is only after the specific needs of the community have been answered by the destination organization.
In addition, our findings brought us new insights into what ROI should encompass for measuring destination promotion. Long have we documented and demonstrated our value through logical and linear KPIs that might tie back to the hotel community, revenue, or advertising. What has eluded us is talking about our work through measurements of emotion and a sense of belonging. In the increasingly emotional decision-making process, we can no longer sustain our work simply on its linear components. We must now shift to incorporating compelling stories or emotionally resonating metrics.
Lastly, we outlined several models or examples that a destination organization could consider for outlining their own destination promotion index. Then we put the information into an industry brief filled with real-world applications.
We looked for a partner who is already assessing current community standards and metrics across the globe and demonstrating how to think about these across the varying destination organization landscape. The team at Zartico has built a strategic planning solution that puts destination data at leaders’ fingertips and empowers them to tell better stories about the impact of the visitor economy. We’re excited to partner with these industry leaders in the next stage of this project as we explore the first five community indicators.
1. The importance of the visitor economy
Visitors travel for many reasons. From someone spending a weekend with extended family, to a business traveler choosing to make an in-person pitch, to a family on a weeklong leisure trip, to a patient traveling 100+ miles for quality medical treatment, the visitor economy defies easy classification. It’s easy to undercount — and therefore undervalue — many of these sectors. And, our traditional, linear KPIs of hotel occupancy, visitor volume, and visitor spending only go so far.
But if we use modern data sets to look across a broader range of metrics, we can help people in our communities better calibrate their understanding of the visitor economy.
For example, reporting the total number of dollars spent in local restaurants may sound impressive, but a large number is difficult to contextualize. However, sharing that 42% of restaurant spending came from visitors paints a different picture. An elected official or small business owner can easily imagine the catastrophic impact of losing such a large share of the community’s restaurant revenue.
This recalibration helps us to communicate how important the visitor economy is — not just in hotels or car rentals — but in many facets of local life.
2. Tax revenues
With this more complete understanding of visitors’ contribution to the economy, we can also associate a broader range of economic activities with the tax revenues they generate beyond lodging taxes — including restaurant taxes, sales tax, and gasoline tax.
These tax revenues are currency for elected officials and other local decision-makers who spend this trusted resource to provide valued community services including schools, transportation, policing, and emergency services.
Visitor spending increases the effective tax base of a community, which allows local governments to provide a higher quality of these services without increasing tax rates for residents. For example, gasoline taxes often fund improvements to roads and transportation infrastructure. If 20% of local expenditures on gas come from visitors, communicating this is a way to demonstrate how visitors offset the cost of maintaining quality roadways.
We need to lean into the stories about how tax revenues provide tangible benefits to residents — and this may require shifting our approach. While household tax offset is a popular way to quantify visitor contributions, it is also risky in some communities where residents would perhaps rather pay the extra taxes and avoid the headaches they associate with tourists.
Instead, talk about how valued community assets such as bike paths, hiking trails, or community gardens are partially funded by the visitor economy. This transforms an abstract concept (taxes a household didn’t pay) into a tangible one (beloved places that residents enjoy).
3. Economic opportunity and jobs
Discussions around leisure and hospitality jobs are rife with misperceptions. Hotel, restaurant, and transportation jobs dominate the conversation, and they are often dismissed as low-wage and low-opportunity. But we know this is not the whole story.
The jobs story is tightly interwoven with the broader story of the visitor economy and its impact.
As a destination works to build a strong, differentiated place brand, it allows local businesses to capitalize on the awareness and interest by developing unique products or services that fulfill that brand promise. As a result, travelers engage with a more complete customer experience (think bike shops, guide services, and bike-friendly brewpubs to accompany nearby trail systems), and local business owners invest their profits into the local economy by hiring bookkeepers, contractors, insurance brokers, etc.
As illustrated in the Community Vitality Wheel, developing more public and private community amenities makes the place more attractive to workers, entrepreneurs, and investors. In this way, the activities of the destination organization are tightly linked to the community’s long-term success.
The Achilles heel of this approach — and the opportunity to find solutions in the data — lies in the seasonality endemic to the visitor economy. Many leisure and hospitality jobs are part-time or seasonal positions that are shed at the end of the busy season. This creates employment cycles that make it difficult for people to put down roots, purchase homes, and raise their families. Destinations that generate a more consistent flow of visitors throughout the year will provide predictable cash flow for independent businesses and stability for workers.
4. Community amenities and quality of place
Visitor spending expands the range and quality of businesses present in the community beyond what could be supported by residents alone. Additionally, public investment in community facilities may be accelerated based on the draw they provide to visitors and visitor-driven events.
For example, many destinations work with youth sports organizations to attract tournaments and competitions, which provides the direct benefit of visitor spending in hotels and restaurants. But we can take it a step further.
When a community invests in enhanced sports infrastructure, such as baseball diamonds, soccer fields, or skate parks, it enhances this direct impact while also creating additional indirect benefits. For local children who play sports, they get the opportunity to practice and play on better fields. When regional tournaments come to town, they can play against more competitive opponents and further develop their skills. And because they can now play some tournaments at home, other family members have more free time to engage with their own communities.
From a storytelling perspective, destinations can showcase these examples and name the contribution from the visitor economy — which will help residents and elected officials recognize just how pervasive and valuable the visitor economy is to the overall success and health of the community.
5. Quantifying the negative impacts of tourism
No community indicator project would be complete without capturing the negative effects of the visitor economy. These effects tend to fall into three primary categories:
- Crowding: Residents may develop a negative view of tourism when they are displaced from valued places such as hiking trails or downtown parking.
- Costs: The rise of short-term rentals has created a challenging dynamic for many communities where homes are now used for lodging temporary guests rather than permanent residents. This drives up housing costs, makes it difficult for permanent residents to find a place to live, and lengthens commutes for local workers — especially those whose work supports the visitor economy.
- Degradation of place: Popular natural places experience a variety of issues that degrade the environmental, cultural, or historical beauty that is key to the destination’s allure. Trash, vandalism, wildlife encounters, and overuse can exact a toll on beloved places.
These consequences arise from having a high concentration of visitors that disrupts the normal function of the community, which is sometimes the result of an over-reliance on demand generation efforts. But destinations can mitigate these pressures through compelling storytelling, strategy, and innovation. Destination organizations have the power to shift the balance back in the right direction.
Over the next year, Destinations International and Zartico will work together to further develop this community indicators program, using a collection of data metrics that will allow destinations to score their own performance and compare it with others.
Along the way, quarterly reports will illustrate the indicators in action, featuring everything from investment in youth sports, to developing a strong culinary brand, to addressing extreme seasonality in the visitor economy.
Learn more from Zartico and Destinations International, and stay tuned for more to come.