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The Opportunity of Partnership

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Earlier this summer, Skift featured an interview with yours truly in which I riffed about the future of Destination Marketing. As I offered during The Great Debate at DMAI15, we have to stop being CVBs and embrace being DMOs.

In the interview, I shared my admiration for what Visit Salt Lake has done in their transition from the DMO Membership Model to a Partnership structure. For those unfamiliar with what sounds like a subtle distinction, allow me to explain.

Many CVBs in the last century supplemented their budgets with the membership dues of businesses that craved visibility in the Bureau’s Visitors Guide or desired special services such as leads for meetings and conventions. It made a lot of sense in an era before the internet. Businesses that wanted enhanced visibility paid for it. Those that didn’t were left out of the club. All good.

What once was a mutually beneficial relationship, however, became a sensationally limiting practice as the web provided unfettered access to destination information without regard to who paid for visibility. And, DMOs increasingly felt their relevancy slip through their fingers as they were constrained to tell only part of the destination’s story; in some cases unable to promote some of their largest attractions because they weren’t members.

Shifting to a Partnership model allows a DMO to list and link to every business and attraction (without payment), which is what the consumer wants, needs and deserves. In the Skift interview, I said that smart DMOs were replacing (and, in some cases, increasing) their revenue streams by offering enhanced listings and first-in-search positioning for a fee to those businesses that recognize the power of their DMO’s online and print platforms.

I got a lot of positive feedback over the next couple days from Skift readers on my vision for the future of DMOs. But, that night, I got a serious pushback on the segment regarding “pay-for-priority” from Joe Vargo of Experience Columbus. Here’s his side of the Twitter exchange:

@Joe_ExpCols: But I disagree with the pay-to-play suggestion. List all, feature the best (not the ones who paid).

@Joe_ExpCols: Better to get partners who want to fund your mission than get a tweet or blog post written about them. Visitors first.

@Joe_ExpCols: The pay-for-priority model devalues a DMO's believability with consumers. If we can't be trusted, what good are we?

He’s right, of course. In a perfect world, DMOs would lead with the coolest, hippest and most unique attractions and experiences in the destination without any monetary consideration. But, as I countered (as well as is possible in 140 characters):

  • Recommending what we, as DMOpros, believe to be the best experiences in our regions is fraught with political peril. Regardless of how many stars a restaurant has earned on Yelp!, there’s always going to be a diner with two stars that your biggest critic on City Council eats at every week. And, even if you could reason with her/him on the stars argument, there are some destinations (like Sydney) where the top five rated restaurants are gelato stands. So, consumer ratings don’t always work.
  • The revenue streams that some DMOs put at risk by discontinuing their Membership programs are hardly inconsequential. Replacing that with “pay-for-priority” visibility makes more sense than simply walking away from scarce resources. Joe countered that DMOs should mine their corporate community for revenue as Columbus, Cincinnati and Tulsa have done, providing a valuable service to them in making those communities attractive to top talent through Quality of Life marketing programs. And, yes…he’s spot on. But, it takes a corporate community that understands its DMO’s ability to make a destination attractive to more than just visitors (my original point) and is struggling to attract top talent for that to work.

Ultimately, I believe we’re both right. And, I’m thinking it’s not an "either/or" proposition but, instead, a "yes/and" hybrid. For the most part, those businesses that desire (and are willing to pay for) increased visibility are the attractions we want front and center. But that hip craft bar made out of shipping containers that is just getting started and doesn’t understand the ROI of Partnership? Yeah, we should feature them, too.

And, if the paying Partners bitch? Explain how they benefit from the coolness factor of being front and center with the new, hip kid on the block.

Maybe it should be like the exchange in “Pirates of the Caribbean” in which the person invoking the "Pirate's Code" is told it’s not really a code…more like a guideline.

Thanks, Joe, for making us think through this new reality. The conversation is just getting started.

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