Are DMOs Evolving into Placemakers?

I have been exploring the changing role of destination marketing organizations (DMOs) through conversations with guests on my podcast Destination on the Left. My interest revolves around DMOs taking a more holistic approach to managing a destination’s brand and story by engaging with locals and serving the community in addition to focusing on attracting visitors. My guests have a lot to share on the evolution from DMOs to Placemakers! What follows are some of the highlights from my interviews.

Are DMOs Evolving into Placemakers?

Marketing to Leadership

In my interview with Bill Geist of DMOproZ on episode 115, he describes the evolution of the DMO as a transition from marketing to leadership. He suggests that the DMO of the future might be called a DLO or Destination Leadership Organization. We discussed how DLOs would be at the table when discussions about economic development are taking place. In particular, the DLO would help guide developments to support a vibrant city and visitor economy, alongside the needs of the residents.

Peter Kageyama is an author of two books For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places and Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places. In these, he talks about the entrepreneurial culture in cities, and calls the entrepreneurs “co-creators of these cities”. Bill sees a role for DMOs to help pull these co-creators together by weaving their stories into the brand. One way this may play out is through the use of social media, video and blogs. Who better to tell those stories than the organization that is great at telling the story of a destination?

Tourism and Economic Development

In episode 117 of my podcast, I had the opportunity to interview Connie Stopher and Melissa Barry from Southern Idaho. At the time of the interview, they were the Executive Director of the Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization and Executive Director of Southern Idaho Tourism, respectively. Both on the show at the same time spoke volumes about how intertwined these organizations are. After the interview there was so much to take away from the conversation. Connie and Melissa talked about how tourism and economic development go hand-in-hand and shared some specific partnerships they have forged. They actively recruit people to live and work in the area and focus on inviting visitors to experience natural resources without damaging them. They explain that working together with all potential stakeholders is the only way to really get the job done.

Visitors to Residents

In an interview with David Gilbert, President and CEO of Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and Destination Cleveland. He shares an initiative his organization was launching to harness the power of visitors to help generate economic development. David refers to the 1 million visitors that Cleveland sees each year as “first dates”. He explains how they are the best opportunity for conversion into future students, business opportunities or residents. In 2019, Destination Cleveland planned to launch a comprehensive talent acquisition strategy. The strategy drew on research and modeling for talent attraction and expansion on the #ComebacktoCLE test campaign they ran earlier that year.

DMOs Evolved during the COVID 19 Pandemic

An Example

As the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly changed the world, Valerie Knoblauch and her team at the Finger Lakes Visitor Connection knew they had to evolve. They turned to their major funder, Ontario County, to see how her team could assist. They discovered a new collaborative role with the county’s economic development department. The best way to help was to use their communication skills to address and assist with massive job loss and businesses closing in their community.

It was clear that the need extended far beyond traditional hospitality and tourism partners. The need was to address the survival of every small business that created quality of life in the community and that residents and visitors both valued. To bring together all segments of small business, they needed to collaborate with other organizations. In an unprecedented collaboration, FLVC partnered with the Ontario County Economic Development Corporation to support the small business community.

Partnering with Economic Development

Traditionally, economic development offices look to build up small businesses through financial programs with low-interest loans. FLVC understood these businesses did not need more debt, they needed to generate revenue by re-opening and getting customers back in the door.

The community-wide goal was to have all industries re-open effectively and efficiently. By taking the burden of working through the new protocols off small business owners, they could focus on figuring out the core operations of their businesses.

The Results of Collaboration

Awareness of the FLVC increased through its major role in the community during the pandemic. For the first time, the organization was invited to the table to work with partners different from those they had in the past. This increased awareness lead to stronger programs in the future.

Through this collaboration, new countywide partnerships have helped FLVC continue to create community impact in a post-pandemic world. The pandemic brought the organization together with Chambers of Commerce, Business Improvement Districts, Economic Development officials, city and town governments, and others.

Looking Ahead

The idea of DMOs evolving into community manager, DLOs or placemakers is not new and it has picked up steam in a post-pandemic world. A conference started in 2015 by City Nation Place connects nations, cities, and regions around the world to focus on strategies for engaging citizens, driving investment, attracting talent and developing sustainable tourism.

DMOs have the best opportunity that they have ever had to become leaders in their communities. They are able to start thinking more broadly when it comes to placemaking and economic development. Those who are willing to pivot will become even stronger.

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