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To be or not to be: Strategic

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

There’s a great George Carlin routine from very early in his career in which he skewers the way Americans have a penchant for increasingly dumbing down words and phrases until nobody knows what they mean.

With all due respect to those that use “Strategic” as a throwaway word to connote something valuable, it really is an extremely important word that has begun to lose its meaning.

We see the word “Strategic” utilized in some fashion in virtually every RFP we receive. Members of the DMAP Board of Directors (the Destination Marketing sector’s accreditation program’s oversight body) tell me they see all manner of documents presented as Strategic Plans being submitted by DMOs around the world to satisfy DMAP requirements.

I’ve had the opportunity to hang with a couple of the DMAP Board Members during our travels over the past few weeks…and learned that what makes us a little nuts with the way some people use the word is mind boggling to the reviewers.

For both the DMAP Board and DMOproz, a Strategic Plan is what drives the Organization forward and is designed from a 30,000 foot level. “Strategic” is long-range and big picture, while “Tactical” is short-term and detail-oriented.

Strategic Planning is a process that, in its most basic iteration, involves the Board of Directors and the DMO’s CEO in a deep dive into vision, mission and what’s next. A more powerful and effective Strategic Planning process would include gathering input from key community leaders, industry veterans and elected officials through online surveys, focus groups, face-to-face interviews and/or DMAI’s DestinationNEXT.

In the Destination Marketing world, we believe a Strategic Plan has two primary foci: How do the Board and CEO enhance the Organization and the Destination? Period. How does the Board elevate the influence, budget and effectiveness of the agency? And, how does the Board advocate for appropriate policies and projects that will make the destination more magnetic?

To the Board member who objects and wants to know why it’s 2pm in the Strategic Planning Retreat and the topic of how to increase Room Nights has yet to have been broached, it’s because Room Night generation is not the Prime Directive. And, Strategic Plans focus on the Prime Directive…which is how to attract more visitors to town which will then create more room nights.

Indeed, part of effective Strategic Planning is an exercise in how to “Start with Why,” the breakthrough book and TED Talk by Simon Sineck. In both, he explains the concept by comparing Apple to every other computer company. The others essentially say that they’ve built a really great computer and ask the customer if they want to buy one.

Apple, however, started with “why” when Steve Jobs said he wanted to put a dent in the universe and give people a way to be more creative, productive and change the world. Apple did it by designing insanely innovative and beautifully designed computers. Now, which one would you be more interested in buying?

It’s the same for destinations. The "why" is not "because we have a bunch of hotel rooms." That's the "what."

If DMOs started with “why,” it would sound like this: We want to enhance the economic vitality and quality of life of our region. So, we want to tell you about the amazing meeting, sports and leisure experiences you can have here. And, we just happen to have some great hotels so you don’t have to go back home at the end of the day. Wanna come for a visit?

Much more likely to get to "yes," wouldn’t you think? And, that’s what Strategic Planning really is all about. Why are we here and how does the Board and CEO leave a mark? What can the Board do, given its influence in the community, that paid staff cannot? A Strategic Plan is a roadmap for the Board and CEO as they attempt to move the needle.

So, where do we get to Room Nights (and everything else a DMO does)? That is in the Tactical Plan…often called a Sales & Marketing Plan or a Business Plan. That’s the plan for professional staff to execute as they drive awareness, intent, visitation and, yes, Room Nights.

Two very different (and both critically important) documents for two very different groups of people, tasked with two very different jobs. Board Members rarely can impact Room Night production (unless they manage a hotel)…so that’s why we don’t talk Room Nights in Strategic Planning sessions. Instead, we discuss the things Board members can influence…like collaboration, partnership, public opinion, public policy and increasing organizational revenue streams.

And, if a Board Members doesn’t want to talk about those things, s/he should transition to a committee, where all the tactical aspects of Destination Marketing are discussed.
I’m not trying to be the grammar police. Hey, I use words like “stoopid” and “destinational” all the time, and neither is in the dictionary. So, you can continue to use whatever words you want to describe what you do…but, according to the DMAP Board and DMOproz, that’s not how any of this works.

We’ll be facilitating a “Strategic Marketing Retreat” for a client later this summer. It’s just what they have always called this annual exercise with their stakeholders and there’s no reason to change it up. But, this accomplished DMO has never attempted to pass off what ultimately becomes their Marketing Plan as a Strategic Plan to the DMAP Board.

Neither should you.

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