Glenn talks about the Thompson Okanagan Region which comprises 90 communities and attracts 5 million visitors per year, employing 35,000 people.
Their primary market is domestic, which has helped them through this challenging period. TOTA is one of five regional tourism organisations in British Columbia, working under the Super Natural British Columbia brand. TOTA is also Biosphere certified as a Gold Destination.
Glenn opens up by talking about the Thompson Okanagan Region which comprises 90 communities (33 indigenous ones) and attracts 5 million visitors per year, employing 35,000 people. Their primary market is domestic, which has helped them through this challenging period. TOTA is one of five regional tourism organisations in British Columbia, working under the Super Natural British Columbia brand. TOTA is also Biosphere certified as a Gold Destination.
Glenn starts by explaining that they operate a stakeholder model and this has been one of the underlying foundations behind all their activities as an organisation over the last decade, leading them to make a raft of commitments, ensure accreditation and focus on measurement as a destination.
The Regional approach includes clear intention, transformative opportunities, accountability, inclusivity, place DNA, stewardship and expanded measurement. In 2012, they set out a clear intention as a 10-year regional tourism strategy to embrace their potential. This process meant engaging with all communities and getting hundreds of people and businesses to get behind an idea: this was a significant feat for Glenn and his team.
Thanks to this strategy refresh, they now have a clearly defined intention and guidance for everyone in the region, which is led by core principles that are meant to benefit the whole community. They are fostering a culture of continuously assessing how they value and measure success. Especially now, it is time to redefine some of the notions of success in order to move forward more sustainably.
Looking to the future, they recognise the necessity to develop tourism experiences rather than products and confront issues with zero-sum thinking. There's a big question about 'privilege' vs. 'rights' and the role of tourism and society. TOTA has been trying to move things forward, to try new ideas and see the destination as a 'living lab' as an opportunity to try new ideas and test and learn from them.
Glenn explains that they have always been aware of their environment and the health of all who live in it.
As a destination management organisation requires them to apply good data to be able to identify, understand, rise-up and respond to bigger global trends. Looking into the future for TOTA required them to step up their game in terms of data processing, data interpretation and understand what was happening both in the destination and in the source markets. Key to this is improving the understanding to create change and net benefits for communities. Whilst focusing on this mission, the current challenges also remind us that we need to be more holistic, timelier, more regular, more geo-referencing and more detailed in what we do to understand changing situations whether that is the pandemic or whether that is growth.
Looking at the data, we can see that there's an estimated job loss of 306,000 - 406,000 jobs with a GDP decline of anything from $17.6 to $23bn. During the current pandemic, Covid-19 impact survey results help understand the shock of the crisis at a business and community level, by having continuous and direct engagement with their stakeholders. This helps them to look closely at market shifts and resident sentiment.
Without the data, we can't make the right decisions, respond to the needs of our stakeholders and communities. This remarks the need for better and expanded measurement towards a regional data hub.
TOTA is now on a journey to create a central data hub that provides continuous and timely insights into tourism-relevant trends and dynamics in the region for a range of better outcomes. Glenn believes that if they can create a platform that all stakeholders can use they can make it easier for them to find information, reduce the time to access data and maximise the benefits and opportunities for all those involved in the system. For many, it can seem quite overwhelming to use and maximise the opportunities of data and whilst there is a hunger for more information, there are difficulties in getting the full possibilities out of it.
One of the most important steps of this journey was their application to the UNWTO International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories, bringing together likeminded destinations with similar priorities. To achieve this recognition, they had to demonstrate their commitments and steps taken across nine key areas of measurement. So from not knowing where to start and seeing only a mountain, they were able to break down the barriers and find a pathway to navigate the many challenges along the way.
They have set a modularised timeframe, splitting it up into different phases. First, there is the preparation phase where they plan to complete the platform to be launched in mid-2021. Then there is the preparation phase, where they can look at what their vision and timeline look like, what their objectives are, look at how they can break the process into digestible and achievable pieces, think about resources, expectations and check-in with themselves on whether they are realistic. Furthermore, making this success depends on having champions who are fully engaged.
The second building block in the preparation phase requires a review of internal indicators. This means looking at what indicators they are already monitoring, what new indicators they want to observe and taxonomy of prioritisation, verifying which indicators align with their various commitments. There is also a need for review, what needs to be adapted to make them more achievable and how can they set the right priorities at the starting point. In parallel to this, there's also the need for an internal data review with a lot of key questions such as what data to collect and how.
Stakeholder engagement sessions have also been pivotal: they have been conducted both with public and private groups to gather input for the process and ask and understand what data they are dealing with. In parallel with this, there's a bigger conversation about what external data is out there, the availability of this data and its reliability in order to integrate this into the platform.
Finally, the search for a technical partner was necessary. As a small team, without the technical capacity in-house, there were many questions to consider - from developing a platform in-house completely custom-built, to building in an existing platform and then came questions about the level of control, the financial viability or potential revenue model and what technical partnerships might look like. As with any project, it also comes down to the question of costs.
There are some really key learnings through this process. The first is to be clear on your intentions, from the outset and through the entire project phases. In order to know where we are going and how we are going to get there, you need to do your homework first. Talk about expectations over and over again, find that alignment, talk about differences openly and be sure that all start from the same point. As an organisation with limited resources and capacity over a vast territory, we need to also be realistic in what we can do and what we can achieve. Crucially, it's important to think about how you can create value, to build capacity and to grow through the process.
In view of this, TOTA has split the next steps into five technical areas as they approach the next phase in the project.
Beyond the platform, this is needed for a much greater purpose. This is not about the data or the platform, it is about using data as an agent of positive change and the question really that we should be asking ourselves is "how do we fundamentally transform tourism into a resilient agent of positive change?". How do we ensure that we embrace our strengths and our weaknesses, protect our most important assets, our land and our people and put them at the centre of our development approach?
We are not talking about data, we are talking about values.
1. Break down the barriers and find a pathway to navigate the many challenges along the way.
2. Be clear on your intentions, from the outset and through the entire project phases.
3. Talk about expectations over and over again, find that alignment, talk about differences openly and be sure that all start from the same point.
4. As an organisation with limited resources and capacity over a vast territory, we need to also be realistic in what we can do and what we can achieve. Think about how you can create value, to build capacity and to grow through the process.
With over 25 years’ experience as a recognized leader in sustainable destination management and community economic development, Glenn has successfully administered and/or coordinated community and product development projects, business retention programs, local, regional, provincial, national, and international partnership development programs, and innovative marketing initiatives.
Birka Valentin works as an independent consultant supporting destinations on their journey towards more data-driven decision making and sustainability.