How DEI Initiatives Transform Destination Experiences

The landscape of DEI is shifting and the travel industry is no exception. According to a recent article in Travel Weekly, almost as suddenly as DEI initiatives became a corporate must, a backlash has seen a wave of challenges and lawsuits to those policies. The article goes on to note the difficulty to quantify whether companies in travel have pulled back on their DEI programs; however, a 2023 study found that, overall, the number of companies without DEI programs in place increased 33% since 2020 but does not single out travel.

a landscape of mountains and ocean with a beach in the foreground. Two people on bicycles hold hands, a woman on the left wears a teal dress and a man on the left wears a teal shirt with jeans. A blue title overlay with white text reads "How DEI Initiatives Transform Destination Experiences" with the Travel Alliance Partnership logo

While certain travel companies have let their DEI initiatives and commitments go, others continue to prioritize and expand their efforts, and some are changing how they communicate the subject – moving from “DEI” to “social impact.”

Equitable is one of the core values at Travel Alliance Partnership and it was years ago that a series of small steps lead to a big shift in our company to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive. This commitment remains front and center today – from chairing a DEI committee and participating in conferences and educational sessions on the topic to the work we plan and execute with our current clients.

Why we need to keep focus on DEI

Just last week, the New York State Tourism Industry Association (NYSTIA) offered a webinar on “Unlocking the Power of DEI in Tourism Marketing,” where the speaker reviewed how DEI fosters learning and growth and how it benefits destinations. DEI should matter to everyone, and the following studies demonstrate why:

  • Impact on Brand Perception – 71% of consumers surveyed by Edelman (2020) stated that they are more likely to trust a brand that showcases diversity in its advertising.
  • Social Media Response – 45% of consumers in a Kantar study said they would share an ad on social media if it featured diverse representation.
  • Impact of Representation – when audiences see themselves authentically represented in advertising, they are more likely to connect emotionally with the brand and feel a sense of belonging. This emotional connection leads to increased brand loyalty and advocacy.

I also recently attend the NYSTIA conference in Niagara Falls, where a panel presented “Marketing to Diverse Audiences” for attendees to learn about I LOVE NY Division of Tourism’s marketing initiatives to reach diverse audiences and ask questions.

Key takeaways for DEI initiatives in tourism marketing

Research Your Target Audience

It’s vital to understand what interests your target markets. Beyond during your own research, make sure to have someone from that specific audience at the table, especially in the planning process.  

Be Authentic

You can’t be everything to everyone. Segment your audience and pick a few that fit into a niche you can highlight. Own what you have because that’s more authentic.

  • Rochester, NY is home to one the largest per capita populations of deaf and hard of hearing people in the country. Rochester’s Museum of Play hosted a specific “Deaf Day of Play” for this specific audience to know they would feel especially welcome at the museum with ASL assistance.
  • If you are going to focus on the LGBTQ audience, you need to have activities to support that. Focusing on Pride Week by scheduling paid advertising without events or LGBTQ- friendly or -owned businesses to support that, your organization appears inauthentic. If your community doesn’t have enough to share on this segment, you might consider creating a blog about wanting to be more inclusive and requesting feedback. 

Stay Current

Consider reviewing your website and materials to ensure images and verbiage are current and speak to generational differences when it comes to terminology.

Destinations and Travel Professionals Leading the Way in DEI

Historical Figure brings DEI to the Forefront, Cayuga County CVB

Cayuga County is proudly the home of Harriet Tubman, where she lived the last 54 years of her free life. Leading up to the 200th anniversary of Tubman’s birth in March 2022, the Tourism Office refocused the perception of the destination and repositioned itself as a place where freedom, justice, and equality are not just words, but actions supported by the entire community.

In Episode 295 of Destination on the Left, Karen Kuhl, Executive Director at Cayuga CVB shared that because of Harriet Tubman’s legacy and connectivity with so many community members and tourism product in the area, they needed to make sure the roots of the CVB were as strong as the marketing campaign they would create.

“If we were going to be speak of Harriet Tubman’s legacy, we needed to ensure that DEI was built into the DNA of the organization.”

Karen Kuhl

In the episode, Karen is transparent about how they laid the internal groundwork – from internal documents and authentically securing diverse community members to serve on their board of directors, as well as forming a communications committee to ensure the correct language was used.

They also executed pride-building community outreach. In collaboration with community leaders, residents were educated that their hometown is a pivotal destination to learn about equal rights, and to connect with the story of Harriet Tubman in their hometown. 

“There have been challenges but also surprising beauty within all of it,” she noted. Karen also speaks to how this effort has impacted her other tourism marketing efforts, especially working at a deeper level.

The Collaborative Creation of Letchworth’s Autism Nature Trail

The Autism Nature Trail (ANT) at Letchworth State Park is a one-mile loop with eight unique outdoor sensory stations designed to stimulate growth and inclusivity among those with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental disabilities.

In Episode 221 of Destination on the Left, Loren Penman, a retired educator who worked to bring Autism Nature Trail to fruition, shared how the idea was born. Listen to the full episode to hear how they aligned themselves with right partners needed to design, build, staff and maintain the trail. This ranged from an experienced design team to the autism community, including​ a volunteer advisory panel of a speech, occupational and physical therapists, special educators, school administrators, parents and grandparents of children with autism.

Loren also speaks to how their funding campaign was able to reach its goals despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. More than just a trail, ANT would not only impact the Park, but the communities that surround the park. Having outreach in place for staff training and even menu suggestions would help to positively impact the whole family experience. The story of the Autism Nature Trail is a perfect example of what can be accomplished with the use of collaboration and creativity.

Kristy Durso, Owner of Incredible Memories Travel and Spectrum of Accessibility

“Travel changes lives and even more for those with a disability.”

Kristy Durso

Kristy Durso is the owner of Incredible Memories Travel, a full-service agency with 85% of their clientele focusing on accessibility challenges. She is also the founder of the Spectrum of Accessibility, which trains travel professionals, destinations, DMOs to better accommodate travelers with a variety of disabilities that include mobility, hearing, cognitive, visual, invisible disabilities, neurodivergences, dietary accessibility and service dogs.

Episode 361 of Destination on the Left features insights from the National Tour Associations Travel Exchange. In her portion of the episode, Kristy discusses how changes in accessibility are happening on a broader scale and emphasizes that collaboration, partnership, and communication are key for successful accessible travel. She also shares what people should be thinking about when it comes to accessible travel and questions that are allowed to be asked to people with disabilities.

“Tourism is one of the most life-changing professions in the world. It isn’t just about leisure and free time. It gives us a deeper understanding of the world around us. Travel professionals open the doors for people to come in and get new experiences. Especially for people who think the world is closed off, a travel professional can change the trajectory of their life – it’s not just about getting to that one destination and being include in one experience, it’s about seeking out what else can I do?”

Kristy Durso

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