As the CEO of Destinations International, Don Welsh spends a lot of time where you might expect: on the road. When Convene caught up with him at the end of March, he was in the midst of a week that included meetings and speaking engagements in Philadelphia, Miami, and Puerto Rico. The different-day, different-city routine began in March 2016 when Welsh became CEO of what was then called Destination Marketing Association International.
“When the team came together, we went to see 200 of our members in the first six months and asked them three key questions,” Welsh said: “What do you want? What do you need? And what will you support? Those answers helped us create a new mission statement, a value proposition, and a statement of purpose that the organization never had before.”
Over the past three years, Welsh has put the purpose to work. The organization overcame the legal and financial troubles left over from previous mismanagement, overhauled the organization’s products and services, elevated the level of education available to members, and trumpeted the CVB community’s voice with national and localized advocacy efforts. Welsh shared important steps along that journey with Convene.
When you think about your first day in 2016 compared with the current state of the organization, what are the most significant achievements?
I believe we have reestablished trust and provided a clear value proposition to our members. That was the most critical thing we could do, but getting there has been a three-year process. You don’t establish trust and confidence overnight. It takes a lot of work and collaboration, and I credit the dedication of the team I work with — many of whom left great jobs, relocated, and separated from families — to be part of this organization. We also have an extremely dedicated set of 60 volunteers that make up four boards. They were instrumental in the process, and the word “quit” never came into their vocabularies.
It’s paved the way to a lot of valuable changes. One of the most important is that we now have a more sophisticated segmentation strategy that helps us cater to the specific needs of each of our members. From those with big budgets and big staff like Las Vegas and New York City to the three-person operations with a half-million-dollar budget, our goal and our challenge is to make sure that we serve each member and give them the value they need. It’s part of our ongoing mission.
In your previous roles, you were the leader of individual CVBs in Seattle, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Now, you’re the leader of the entire CVB community. How do the roles differ?
The pressure feels different. When you’re leading a city, you can see the tangible results of your work. You see when you book a convention, a Super Bowl, or a major music event. The biggest shift for our team has been that this is now a continuum. Many of them worked at CVBs in the past, and we have to extract ourselves from our norms to recognize that we have one objective: To help the experts in each market to do better in their jobs.
It’s a singular focus, which allows us to keep bringing it back to the basics. But it extends to a much bigger map. We have to look at our role from a global standpoint. For example, the needs of destination marketers in Canada are a lot different than those in Mexico. So we’re thinking about how to apply what we’ve already accomplished in different locations around the world.
Compare and contrast the CVB of the past with the CVB of today. What are some of the key ways that CVBs have evolved over the past five years?
When I think of CVBs, I think of the three parts of a triangle. In the majority of cities, you can see a clear connection between two of those points — the CVB and the political leaders in the community. Those two parties are somewhat forced to have communication because of public funding and taxes. But a lot of communities have been missing a chance to align with the third piece of that triangle, which is the civic community. These are the people that are running hospitals, law firms, and successful businesses. That group is an anchor leg for the success of travel, tourism, and conventions. CVBs need a business community who understands that it’s a good thing when they can’t get dinner reservations during a big convention. They understand the value of tourism.
The really successful CVBs are the organizations that are modeling the behavior and the ideologies of their communities. They’re not just saying that they brought in a certain number of room nights or created a certain number of jobs. Those are basic responsibilities. The ones that are leapfrogging their competition are the ones who are tying themselves to the core of their communities. The next generation of successful CVB leaders has the ears of the mayor, the governor, and the CEOs of the leading businesses in the city and state.
What are the biggest challenges the CVB community needs to address?
There are multiple challenges, and they have reached a level I’ve never seen in my career. The first is funding. All destinations are constantly trying to figure out a way to maintain their current levels of financial support, but they’re also trying to determine how to increase the levels to do more. We spend a lot of time on the road, talking to people about the protection of funding for destination marketing organizations. I believe that most local governments do see the value of tourism, but there are so many additional local funding needs — for fire, police, and a range of other departments. Those are crucial pieces of a city’s infrastructure, but they should not be mixed with investment in a tourism industry that delivers revenue and job creation.
I’m also concerned about technology, particularly in the meetings industry, and its role in potentially diminishing the role of a CVB in booking group business. No one is better connected in destinations than the CVB. They have the critical knowledge to make a meeting a success. From small meetings to citywides, we’re trying to address the problem of meeting planners not engaging CVBs to the degree that they should.
And the final area is how quickly CEOs can shift from the days of talking about ROI and the core metrics to deeper conversations about workforce development, best practices for diversity and inclusion, and aligning with the ideology of the local community.
What initiatives are you most excited about in 2019 and beyond?
We’re doing a great deal of research to give our members the ability to compare themselves with their competitive set, and [Chief Advocacy Officer] Jack Johnson is continuing to do tremendous work in making the collective voice of the destination marketing community heard.
I’m also passionate about helping organizations establish checks and balances to make sure their houses are in order. Our CEO Summit includes a full day of education on tactical issues that cover bylaws, auditing, and any of the potential issues that can arise and create negative media attention that discredits the work in a destination.
We’re also seeing a significant uptick in interest in the Event Impact Calculator. We have around 300 destinations in multiple countries using it, and international interest is growing. The calculator covers meetings and events, sporting events, and festivals, and the International Association of Venue Managers [IAVM] also worked with us on a public show model. It helps destinations and venues understand how each project performs, and it helps articulate all the value that event organizers are bringing to these communities.
David McMillin is a Convene associate editor.