Category: Strategic Planning

Following a trip to Georgia in January to support the USAID Economic Security Program, Solimar International CEO Chris Seek prepared to embark on a journey to support the strengthening of several new Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) across the country. This initial trip revealed a key challenge: fragmented collaboration among tourism stakeholders necessitated the development of a national tourism action plan and on-the-ground support of regional DMOs. All of this work is both familiar and fundamental to Solimar’s mission in supporting global development through sustainable tourism.

The Solimar team planned to implement its traditional approach to developing these resources, training a local expert to help implement recommendations that were developed as part of the DMO Development Toolkit. However, in the following weeks and months it became increasingly apparent that nothing about this approach would be traditional. Everything about travel, the world, and Solimar’s strategy was about to change due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Like many in the tourism field, we found ourselves questioning what the future would bring when, by the end of March, 100% of destinations worldwide had introduced travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Solimar’s business model has always been based around deeply engaging with host communities. This most-often includes conducting in-person workshops and trainings, developing personal connections with local coordinators, and familiarizing ourselves with the on-the-ground context and teams leading the projects. Not only was traveling to support destination development no longer possible, but the very industry Solimar supports—travel and tourism—was shut down almost entirely, with businesses and destinations focused on survival rather than the future of marketing and management.

This growing crisis forced us to critically evaluate both Solimar’s approach to destination management and the very nature of the tourism industry itself. As the shock of the crisis wore off, articles and opinion pieces began to surface with a common theme: Was COVID-19 our chance to do tourism differently? As dolphins returned to once crowded canals of Venice and residents learned what it meant to be tourists in their own towns, it became clear that a return to the status-quo was not an option. Solimar quickly proposed its own COVID-19 response strategy to our clients, focused on a three-pronged action plan that emphasized a critical examination of the tourism industry: 1) Respond to the immediate challenges of COVID-19 and needs of the community, 2) Restart the destination’s marketing and management efforts, and 3) Reimagine what tourism means to your destination.

This strategy became the centerpiece of Solimar’s own reimagining of its resources, understanding how to best serve clients like the tourism industry in Georgia in the COVID-19 era. Unable to provide on-the-ground technical support for these regional DMOs, Solimar began working to create an online DMO Development Program to take newly established DMOs on a 16-week journey of self-reliance to improve the capacity and understanding of DMO Development in Georgia. Not only would this new online format enable training for multiple DMOs at once, but it would also allow for a far more comprehensive and detailed program that could be replicated in regions around the world—travel restrictions or not.

Each week, the course features a specific topic relevant to DMO development, from COVID-19 action plans to DMO board development to funding models and more. Participants have access to a weekly Learning Session presentation from Solimar CEO Chris Seek, an Expert Interview with various DMO professionals around the globe, and examples and best practices compiled from across the industry. Participants then work to put their learning into practice by completing a weekly output exercise, from marketing and branding plans to board policy documents, that help strengthen DMO governance. The Solimar team provides feedback on these exercises each week during a Live Learning Session, where participants have the opportunity to discuss any challenges they had with the content and ask questions to our team of experts.

Thanks to this COVID-19 pivot in our training methods and resources, more DMOs will ultimately be trained and established over the course of the program. Rather than one-on-one support with one DMO in Georgia, six DMOs over the course of the program will produce all the outputs necessary for a functioning, well-run DMO: COVID-19 action plans, essential governing documents, board policy orientation guides, operating budgets, new funding streams, members and visitor surveys, marketing and social media strategies, six new or improved websites, and much more.

Solimar International, like many others in the tourism industry, has been forced to critically re-evaluate and reimagine the resources we provide to our clients, the way they are delivered, and their intrinsic value in the post-COVID-19 era. The creation of this program demonstrates that international development is not only possible, but more critical than ever. Utilizing the tools that make our strange new world more connected than ever, Solimar is looking forward to bringing these resources to destinations around the globe—regardless of the distance or challenges we face together.

 

 

Most readers will recognize the National Park Service (NPS) as the preservers of natural and cultural resources in America’s most well-known protected lands, from Yellowstone and Acadia in the north to the Everglades and Grand Canyon National Parks in the southern portion of the US.

Most American’s may not realize, however, that NPS also acts as the stewards and protectors of the country’s numerous renowned trails, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Coast Trail. One of the longest of these trails is the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail that stretches 4,900 miles through 16 states, from Pittsburgh PA west to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon.

The Purpose of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is to commemorate the 1803 to 1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition through the identification; protection; interpretation; public use and enjoyment; and preservation of historic, cultural, and natural resources associated with the expedition and its place in U.S. and tribal history. The LCNHT passes through hundreds of counties and thousands of communities as it traces the footprints of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark along America’s great rivers. Each of these towns and cities, no matter their size or population, has it an opportunity to become connected to the Trail as a means of not only preserving a critical piece of US culture and history, but also to bring forward economic gains.

This is where Solimar International enters into the story.

Note: Before moving forward into the details of why the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail needed a tourism strategy, it should be noted that the National Park Service generally does not associate itself with tourism despite receiving millions of visitors each year. (NPS reported over 327 million recreation visits in 2019.)  The leadership team for the LCNHT showed enhanced awareness in recognizing the importance leveraging the tourism industry to support residents and stakeholders along the trail.

The Need for a Strategy

Interconnectivity is vital to achieve sustainability in the tourism industry. This is true at all destination levels, whether it be in an individual city, county, state or nation. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trial presented a unique set of opportunities in that it covers each of these four geographical (and political) points. Data suggests that over 3.1 million people visited at least one point along the Lewis and Clark Trail in 2017. These points include tribal museums, visitor centers and local/state/federal parks, not to mention the Trail’s countless hospitality enterprises. Despite a hugely eclectic group of stakeholders and millions of visitors, the LCNHT was lacking a common thread that allowed destinations and stakeholders to share a common identity.

A tourism strategy was necessary to unite the communities and individuals along the trail — all of whom have an underlying familiarity with the unique natural, cultural, historical and scenic assets of their destination – and provide a forum to build alliances. It was vital that the stakeholders acted as the storytellers for their individual community while still representing the mission and overstory of the Trail itself. This meant celebrating the character and culture of the destination while keening in on the overall sustainability of the trail. A strategy would have to be designed to allow these two forces operate in conjunction and in parallel with one another. Said another way, achieving sustainability successes along the trail would hinge on the celebration and preservation of a destinations’ culture and environment AND the trail would act as a catalyst for economic growth.

In this tourism strategy, the catalyst came in the form of Geotourism.

Geotourism Along The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

After discussion between NPS, Solimar, LCNHT partners and community leaders, it was determined that Geotourism would provide the framework for the most effective tourism strategy along the trail. Geotourism is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographic character of a place, its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents. It encompasses a range of travel including heritage, history, food, nature, adventure, the outdoors, water, music, and arts. iIn short, Geotourism celebrates any aspect of culture that makes a destination unique.

This strategy creates a link between the past and the present for communities along the trail, regardless of its place in history as it relates the Corps of Discovery. A small town in Western Iowa located on the banks of the Missouri River that is not mentioned in the Lewis and Clark journals may offer visitors phenomenal hiking trails or a brewery serving up beer made with hops from a farm across town. Ten minutes up-river and across the border in Nebraska, history buffs may find a plaque signifying camp site that the Corps of Discovery spent time hunting and fishing over 200 years ago. Bringing these two individual visitor experiences together onto one platform is a prime example of how Geotourism is being implemented along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

The Platform: Lewisandclark.travel 

In addition to increased domestic and international awareness, Geotourism along the LCNHT lays the groundwork for an active community of public and private stakeholders working to conserve land and legacy. These linkages allow communities to connect with visitors that appreciate their authentic sense of place.

To bring these benefits to life, NPS and Solimar are working in conjunction to build a web platform where communities and stakeholders can write their own story and promote their brand. These stakeholders run the gamut of destination development and include:

  • Locally owned and family businesses
  • Events, ceremonies, and festivals
  • Cultural experiences such as heritage sites, museums, theaters, music,
  • Artist studios and galleries, craft workshops, and shops featuring handmade items
  • Operators of outdoor experiences such as rafting, hiking, biking, hunting
  • Historic sites such as trails, old homes, or places that features local architecture
  • Scenic routes including hiking trails, bike routes, water ways, birding trails
  • Local artist or artisan, storyteller, outdoor guide or historian

Any and all of these enterprises and sites are eligible to create an account and lewisandclark.travel and promote their own personalized page where they can write their own story through words and pictures. From a web-marketing perspective, these efforts will enhance the digital footprint of the business by creating linkages (backlinks) to the National Parks Service. Offline, participation in the program will assist local economies by bringing in more tourist dollars and increasing the tourism multiplier in communities along the trail.

Above all else, this tourism strategy for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail acts as a catalyst for community engagement and interaction along the trail. Bringing together an eclectic variety of different members from a city/town/county – government officials, restauranteurs, hoteliers, teachers, museum curators, historians, etc. – all with a common goal and shared visions in assisting the community at large. The tourism industry is in the midst of unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic, and enhanced community relations via sustainable tourism is one of the key steps in coming out of this strong than ever.

 

Conducting supply side research is an essential prerequisite to creating a strategic plan as the supply of tourism assets translates to its economic growth potential and shapes recommendations for the future of the industry. To create products such as long-term strategies, visions, and action plans, Solimar must first understand how tourism is currently developed in the destination of focus. Questions asked should include: 

  • What is the existing level of tourism infrastructure? 
  • What accommodations and attractions are available and of what quality? 
  • What kinds of flights are available at and what cost? 

Solimar uses simple web sources such as Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet, and booking.com to help answer these questions and understand the challenges and opportunities present for tourism development in a country or region. Many countries and US states also have a dedicated tourism website that contain information on services, attractions and itineraries in the area. This type of research is also extremely valuable for individual travelers researching destinations when planning their own trips.  

Using Supply Side Research to Inform a Destination Strategy

Solimar uses a standard set of factors to review a destination and assess the existing tourism supply. These consist of:

  • Existing historical, cultural and natural attractions
  • Areas of high biodiversity value, including national parks and protected areas
  • Itineraries, routes, packages and the potential of creating connections with nearby destinations 
  • Hotels, rental properties, and the availability of other accommodation infrastructure
  • Existing services (extent and quality) including airlift, transportation, accessibility, and health care facilities 
  • Environmental factors and biodiversity
  • Existing tour companies servicing the destination (both inbound and outbound) and tours 
  • Extent of current tourism in area (flights, # of travelers, effect of cost), including any trends in arrivals
  • Traveler behavior in area (where they go, level of spending, general satisfaction)

Other more general factors also merit attention. For example, political stability and economic climate can greatly affect a country’s ability to attract investment and tourism. In particular, reviewing government policy towards tourism at national, regional, and local levels is imperative as the government is a key stakeholder and will almost certainly be an important partner in developing tourism plans. Additionally, information about population dynamics, cultural heritage, geography, and history can inform decision making or simply serve as useful background knowledge.

Completing a destination review by gathering the relevant information and reviewing any prior strategies is a necessary preliminary step before any fieldwork takes place. The more information our consulting team has, the better prepared we will be to meet stakeholders on the ground, ask the critical questions, and demonstrate an understanding of local trends and issues. The gaps of information that are unavailable online or in print sources are then flagged to be gathered during the field assessment.

Although the pandemic is preventing travel currently, now is a great time to conduct your own supply side research to destinations on your bucket list. For ideas, check out Solimar’s list of projects.

National Tourism Strategy Examples

“Why do we need another plan?”  We hear this question a lot at Solimar when asked to help a tourism destination develop a national, regional, or destination specific sustainable tourism strategy. We know that most of the destinations we work with have a cabinet full of previous studies and plans that were developed but never implemented. So, we understand and empathize with tourism stakeholders that may be reluctant to spend more time in consultation meetings to discuss the challenges and actions needed for the tourism industry.  As a sustainable tourism consulting firm, we believe strongly that every tourism destination needs a tourism strategy, or a long-term tourism plan that unites the industry and the government to puruse a shared vision for sustainable tourism development and management.  But the question is how do you develop a tourism strategy that is implemented and doesn’t just end up on the shelf?

Based upon our tourism planning and implementation experience in more than 500 destinations around the globe, we know that tourism strategies often fail, but rarely because of a lack of good ideas. In our experience, we believe the process is just as important as the end tourism strategy.  We see the keys to successful strategic tourism planning include: 

  • Buy-in and consensus, from the wide range of public and private sector stakeholders that will be needed for successful strategy execution. Solimar uses a variety of tools and proven approaches for achieving that buy-in and consensus.
  • Detailed action plans that clearly define timelines, responsibilities, and the human and financial resources that will be required for plan implementation. Unlike most tourism planners, Solimar implements most of the tourism development strategies that we develop. That experience gives us valuable perspectives in defining action plans that are time-bound, practical and achievable. 
  • A focus on demand-driven solutions. While policy frameworks, training, and infrastructure development are all important components of a comprehensive tourism development plan, increased demand is the primary and ultimately the only sustainable driver of more frequent and affordable airlift, product diversification, and improved service delivery. 

Solimar’s sustainable tourism strategic planning process is centered around helping tourism stakeholders answer 4 main questions:

  1. Where are we now?  what is the current situation with our tourism industry?  How is the industry performing? How do we compare to our competition? What are our tourism assets? What tourism services are available for visitors? Who is responsible for tourism policy, management, marketing, investment, etc? How is the industry organized?  But most importantlywhat are the main challenges that are preventing our industry from reaching its full potential?  Through a careful review of tourism statistics, previous studies, online research, and interviews and surveys with tourism stakeholders we are able to develop a tourism sector analysis or a tourism situation analysis that sets the foundation for the tourism strategy.
  2. Where do we want to go?the vision statement is one of the most important components of a tourism strategy. The objective of the visioning process is to build consensus around a shared vision for the future of the tourism industry in the destination.  Solimar uses a variety of different approaches to create a shared vision but this is mainly achieved through a participatory planning workshop where stakeholders come together and think into the future and describe a tourism industry that they would like to see for their destination.  How has tourism changed from today?  What is improved?  What remains the same?  Asking tourism stakeholders to describe their desired future of the tourism industry shows that while stakeholders have many different opinions about what needs to be done and what should be prioritized, they often share a common vision for what they want tourism to look like in the future for their destination.
  3. How do we get there? – Once a shared vision is agreed upon, the next question is how the vision will be achieved and how best to organize action plans to be implemented. While every tourism destination is unique and has its own challenges and priorities, most tourism strategies tend to prioritize 5-6 main pillars of the strategy that we call strategic objectives or strategic goals.  These tend to be focused around improving Policy/Coordination, Marketing, Product/Destination Development, Workforce Development, Sustainability and other topics that flow from the participatory planning process.  After defining these main pillars, the next and most important step of the strategic planning process is to define the specific strategies to be implemented to achieve these goals.  Individual strategies are the main components of the document and what provides the direction for the industry to realize the vision. Through stakeholder interviews and outcomes from the tourism planning workshop these strategies are identified and grouped under the corresponding goals. A description of each strategy is important to help everyone understand what is being proposed and why.  The last and very important step is the creation of detailed action plans.  These action plans are developed through working groups that include the public and private sector, conservation and community organizations, and other stakeholders. The key to action planning is aligning the action plan updating and reporting with the government’s own annual work planning and budgeting.
  4. How do we know we’ve arrived? – Indicators are an important tool in a strategic plan to define quantifiable targets that can be used to measure the results of the strategy implementation process. Indicators should include not only economic performance, but also sustainability and other policy focused metrics that demonstrate progress towards realizing the vision and communicate progress.

A wise man once said “Without goals, and plans to reach them, you are like a ship that has set sail with no destination”.  Tourism is not the type of industry you want to allow to set sail without a clear direction and someone at the helm. Sustainable tourism planning provides an important tool to bring tourism stakeholders together and define in their own terms how tourism can and should contribute to a desired future for their destination and community.

If you are a tourism manager or someone interested in learning more about Solimar’s strategic planning process, click here for an informational video that discusses our methodology in greater depth.

 

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“We rely confidently on Solimar's deep technical experience and professionalism as tourism consultants. You always are exceeding our expectations.”
Leila Calnan, Senior Manager, Tourism Services Cardno Emerging Markets

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