8 key things that Tourism Networks will need to go the distance!!
When I think of a Tourism Network that has responsibility for promoting and protecting a visitor destination, I can’t help thinking that there was a pre-Covid type network that quickly disbanded and a post pandemic style network that has come through the war zone that the hospitality sector has experienced since March 2020. Of course, businesses that join networks do so for different reasons such as getting to know people in the region, learning from other business owners, creating referral partnerships, having a chance to exercise a skill for the greater good such as fundraising or marketing, contributing to the protection of the destination, having a say in how the destination is being managed, and for others it’s the camaraderie! There is a time when recruiting members to come to meetings is relatively easy, when there is something new and exciting, and there’s a certain sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), and while there is funding being provided from various agencies a honeymoon period will ensue, while members get to know each other. Events, promotional initiatives, and great ideas will be executed. Training courses will be attended on various topics and indeed a great amount of marketing collateral will be developed and conveyed through the media channels and social media platforms. The challenge comes when its time to go to the next level, and when the members need to be wowed again, enough to keep everyone together and to give them a strong belief that they are in the right place and with the right people. As one small business owner said “on the bad days and in the off-peak months, I just want to feel that I am part of something bigger”.
When I think about getting a tourism network to the stage of being able to easily retain members in group and to have longevity, years after the early-stage honeymoon, I am reminded of my 12 years spent in franchising. The franchisee’s need to be reminded as to why they are better off with the brand, as a collaborative unit with more purchasing power, more brand presence and more central support. There will always be a small number of franchisees thinking that “I am tired of paying the monthly royalties, what am I getting anyway?!” However, when crunch time comes invariably, they decide to continue as they feel safer as part of the bigger group, if it is a well-run company with genuine support and operator engagement in place. The same goes for members of tourism networks, they need to feel that they are part of something that is bigger than themselves, that they feel better together, and don’t mind paying a fee, but they must know what the tangibles are, especially when the fee must be paid.
The characteristics that I feel are necessary for networks to succeed and to survive perfect storms like Covid 19 are:
Important to the survival of a tourism network is clear governance and the allocation of positions to individual people that are willing and enthusiastic enough to take on the roles. The nomination (and seconding!) of a chairperson, a secretary and treasurer are a vital part of ensuring that a wider structure can develop and that the network can start operating as an entity. In the early stages, this will require a significant investment of time by a small few people, however it is by putting the key people in these positions that the anatomy of a network will begin, even down to scheduling meetings, setting agendas and the allocation of tasks.
In the early stages, there is a chance for members of a network to discuss their overall objectives for their destination, and to refine them down into a set of clear goals and values. Out of this cauldron of thinking and discussion, between people from different age groups, from different disciplines and backgrounds and from a wide spectrum of businesses large to small, a vision will be forged, and a mission statement will be written. It is important that members are reminded of the vision regularly and subtly, and that they feel they contributed to the vision. The common vision also acts a bonding agent especially during times of crisis, as several franchisors will confirm, as well as the managers of business and tourism networks. It is in later years, that this process starts to pay dividends!
As members join and start to attend meetings, they need to be made aware quickly of what the network “does”. This is basically what they themselves would tell someone else about the group if they were asked. It is crucial that the board of directors have defined the key functions of the network from marketing to environmental protection, public relations, lobbying, fundraising and referral generation. When the functions are clear, members find it easier to participate, as they gravitate to a discipline that appeals to them, giving them a stronger sense of belonging, and of being valued.
The direction that a Tourism Network is headed quickly becomes important, as members ultimately want to follow the leadership, if they are happy with what they are hearing and if they feel that there is something in it for themselves, as well as the wider area. The direction comes from having regular meetings of the functional groups, in that the group can make plans, and refine plans and execute plans as a collective. Clear direction also gives the members of a tourism network a pride of place, because they feel that they are part of a group of custodians/destinations hosts that have collaborated and have a greed on how the region will be promoted and operated.
5. Facilitation & Efficiency:
Establishing a culture that respects member businesses, their teams and their time is something that is of high value at all stages in the life of a network. As members are asked to give their valuable hours, their experience and creativity to the destination and the wider community, it is advisable to treat that time and resource with the utmost esteem. This means that meetings need to be efficient, run well by an appointed facilitator that starts the meeting on time with a set agenda, minutes, and objectives, allows all participants to contribute in a fair manner, bringing the meeting to a close in a timely fashion. Meeting efficiency is what guarantees a good attendance at the next session, hence the need for an effective facilitator/chair!!
Ultimately, one of the key functions of an effective network is to execute agreed activity by sourcing funding, and channeling funding towards projects that benefit all members regardless of their size. Getting work done with/for members that they would be highly unlikely to do on their own due to time/budget constraints is one of the key deliverables, and is where a committee, or subgroup can really add value.
Success in utilizing publicly sourced funds provides an enormous psychological boost to the collective such as getting a write up in a national paper, getting a professional photo shoot done for all members, training certificate presentation or infomercial creation. One successful initiative that gives members a tangible, creates a strong desire to seek further funding, and gives members that reason to continue to participate.
I would encourage regular communication with members and between members. This can be done with an internal Facebook Group that allows members to share their wins and woes, learnings, and tips. Communicating with a newsletter also keeps members up to date on what’s going on especially in peak season when it is not always easy to attend meetings. Communication with the markets through all mediums available as a function of a network will become what really defines the identity of a destination management network. Members want to see presence out there as often as possible and to feel that “we are out there with the best of them”. Having a habit of issuing press releases and giving radio interviews about events, happenings in the industry, product launches or new members joining all helps to build awareness externally – and internally. Effective Communication is also central to acknowledging partners and funders and sends a clear message that this network has a clear vision and a definite mission, which in turn sets the group up for availing of further opportunities. Importantly, a strong PR function also plays a key role in new attracting new members, bringing further diversity and creativity to the group.
Tourism Networks are an excellent way to develop strong internal partnerships, as well as forming a strong entity for engaging with national agencies and local authorities. Getting them right first time will rarely happen as there are many different businesses and personalities to be brought together, and not every aspect if the network will appeal to everyone. However, if there is enough respect shown to all potential participants, a healthy and inclusive culture will develop. Participation in a tourism network is a rewarding way to collaborate and to have colleagues to work with for the long term, try it sometime!!
Jarlath has worked as the CEO of the Burren Ecotourism Network for 3 years now and has vast experience in the area of tourism networks and clusters, delivering many training programmes on the topic.
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