Have you noticed – talk about networks is everywhere? I’m sure you’ve dipped into articles (not unlike this one) with interesting titles such as “What to say at Networking Events”, “5 Great Openers at Networking Events” “Using Social Media to Build your Network”, “Networking Basics”, “10 Essentials of Better Networking” “10 Things Never to Do when Networking”, “How to manage your Network Effectively”. I know you recognize them! You may be part of a collaborative network, a virtual network, an online network, a food network and, one of my personal favourites, a Network of the Mind!
Have a look around in the world of business. Network organizations are growing faster than most others – just think about Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ebay, Uber and of course, in the tourism space, AirBnB, tripadvisor and booking.com. All of these have fundamentally changed the way people think and operate in certain marketplaces, all based on innovations in how people can be connected through information and communications technologies. Perhaps you, like me, find it all a little overwhelming!
As it happens, my career in tourism started with a one-year, part-time contract to support the then fledgling Burren Ecotourism Network grow and expand. I am grateful that I continue to be involved in this Network and to experience the significant challenges and sometimes amazing benefits of tourism networks first-hand. The experience has very much shaped my view and approach to tourism and, as a result, I’m often asked to speak about networks and networking within tourism. The brief is usually to inspire groups into creating or building their own network. Inspiration aside, here are my views on 4 very practical building blocks that a group can put in place at the very beginning that will enhance the ultimate effectiveness of a network.
As the great Steven Covey once advised ‘start with the end in mind’. A network for the sake of having a network is a folly. To be effective, a tourism network must have a clear sense of higher purpose and a strong vision for the future it is seeking to create. Only in this way can it inspire the engagement and enthusiasm of its members. The vision needs to be put into words, written down and articulated often. The image of the future needs to be created so members can see it in their mind’s eye. What it would feel like to achieve the vision also needs to be described. Somebody within the network would ideally have responsibility for reinforcing the Network Vision and using it as a type of ‘North Star’ for network activity. The network then becomes a framework or a platform for bringing the shared vision of the future to life.
When we think tourism network, we tend to think of a collection of tourism businesses coming together for mutual benefit. This is certainly true. However, in tourism, a strong vision and true sense of higher purpose calls for all destination stakeholders to be members of the Network. The network can provide a structure for engagement between tourism enterprises, destination managers and policy leaders, and a key function of an effective tourism network. It is therefore logical that all could and should be members, all stuck in at the membership level, pooling resources and knowledge in pursuit of the areas of common interest. The network is the space to bring all people interested in the future vision together on one team. Moreover, it is a truism that bigger networks are better networks, that vibrant networks get more vibrant. This is because a network’s effectiveness lies in its depth and reach. A Network will grow as a result of the activity of Network members. A Network will grow if it is in the interest of members to grow. More members leads to more activity, which in turn leads to more growth and ultimately to more members. It’s potentially a self-perpetuating circle.
While the term ‘Network Society’ often relates to how communication and information technologies have fundamentally changed social structures, the old chestnuts of trust and respect - the human dimension – are cornerstones of network effectiveness. A culture of sharing and collaboration can only be cultivated if these two elements, trust and respect, are in place. This requires time and space for human relationships to grow and be nurtured. As mentioned above, a network will grow if it is in the interest of its members to grow. Therefore invite the views of members often, and enable members to have ownership and influence over the direction and activity of the network. People also need time to ask questions, understand and be inspired. Allow time.
I myself find this to be a tricky one. Most effective networks will require contributions from its members – in terms of money, time or expertise. Often, the instinctive reaction is to ask ‘what do I get in return?’ Yet the primary benefit of a tourism network does not return to the individual but to the collective. Collective benefit, that moves the group towards the common vision, must take precedence over individual benefit. The network exists to serve the vision and this is the top layer of benefit. That said, an effective network must ensure a second layer of benefits, that provides clear and tangible return to members, for example in the form of training, marketing, referrals. This layer is often seen as 'what you get or your money'. However, the less tangible and more subjective benefits can often be just as important (if not moreso) and this is the third valuable layer of benefit. Networks are about meeting other people with complementary knowledge - an effective network will provide members with an abundance of opportunities to meet. When this happens, what Richard Koch of 80:20 fame called the ‘Serendipity of Random Connections’ kicks in and exponential benefits arise for visitor, policy, business and destination. Herein lies the great value of networks for tourism.
To borrow Zig Zigler's great motivational rally call: a Network doesn't have to be great to get started but it does have to get started to be great. In fact, getting started may just be the easy bit!! Building momentum and participation, providing certainty and continuity, maintaining engagement and commitment to the vision, setting objectives and sticking to them – that’s where the hard work of tourism networks might really start. So nobody is saying that it’s easy or that it gets easier. However, it would seem that a collective, networked approach that incorporates agencies, enterprises, communities and even the visitor, will be a key component of building destinations that last.