Ideas for Engaging with Your Elected Officials

By Gabriel Seder, Senior Director of Advocacy Policy and Program Development, Destinations International Foundation

From the very beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, it was clear that destination organizations’ revenues were going to take a hit. In North America, the vast majority of these organizations are funded by some portion of hotel or accommodation taxes. With hotel occupancy at record lows across the board, the bottom has fallen out of this tax base and left destination organizations with drastic budget shortfalls. In Destination International’s weekly member surveys, more than 80% of members report that they anticipate some short-term budget cuts to bridge the gap. Our latest survey results show that nearly 20% of members anticipate reducing their projected budget by 75% or more.

At the same time, municipal governments are bracing for their own budget shortfalls. A study last week found that 2,100 cities in the U.S. alone anticipate budget shortfalls, with some planning deep cuts to programs and staff layoffs. As city governments search for new sources of funding, hotel tax revenues are going to look like attractive targets for legislators anxious to make up budget shortfalls or fund cash-strapped programs.

Some of our members have already suggested that they anticipate being required to renegotiate their funding contract with their city, conceding a larger portion of hotel tax revenues to the destination’s general fund. At some point during or after this crisis, many more destination organizations are going to face tough questions from policymakers and be expected to justify tax revenues that support their organizations.

The organizations that will fare the best in the next six to twelve months are those who are effective, impactful, and vocal in the next six to twelve weeks. We have seen destination organizations leading the industry and serving their community from the onset of the crisis, pivoting their marketing strategy to tackle the COVID-19, coordinating with industry and community leaders, supporting workers affected by the crisis, and inspiring residents. What is also required is that destination organizations also proactively engage with elected officials to tell their story and demonstrate their value.

The best defense for organizations anticipating cuts tomorrow is a strong offense today. 

Organizations should have a plan to communicate proactively and consistently with local legislators both directly and through their staff—and to continue those conversations through local industry groups, community leaders, and the local media. Make this communication useful and actionable. Share practical information about the industry: Which hotels are open? What is their occupancy, and how does that compare to regional or national baselines? What restaurants are open? How are you calculating loss revenue and economic impact?

But also share inspirational stories from the industry and share ideas about how the community can support one another: How can people volunteer? What causes can people donate to? How has the industry innovated or adapted to support the community through these times?   

Make communication bite-sized, understandable, and above all sharable. Give your elected officials content they can distribute on social media and help them tell your story. They—and their communications staff—are eager for good news they can share about your community. Be a valuable source of information for them.

Destinations International tracks legislation, statements, and social media from local and national elected officials around the world to understand how policymakers talk about tourism and the tourism industry in their destination. What we find again and again is that legislators talk about tourism when they have a good story to tell—and that they are receptive to sharing stories from the industry.

Organizations that can effectively engage policymakers and help them convey the impact of the industry in service to the community throughout the crisis and the role of tourism in the recovery will be in the strongest position to negotiate with these same policymakers on the other side of the crisis.

About the Author

Gabe Seder
Senior Director of Advocacy Policy & Program Development
Destinations International Foundation
Gabe is a tourism marketing and destination development professional with more than 10 years of experience consulting for emerging and established destinations and tourism businesses around the world. He has supported city, regional, and national destination organizations to create and implement tourism strategies and master plans, develop and roll out national tourism brands, and implement international multi-channel marketing campaigns.

A native of coastal Maine, Gabriel lives in Washington DC. He has a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs from the George Washington University.