Board Governance in Destination Marketing (By Jason Aul)

Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs), tasked with tourism product development and the marketing of a destination, are faced with additional challenges beyond their typical scope of work. While destinations actively work for the interests of their stakeholders and partners, they must also consider the individual and group interests of their own Board of Directors. Fundamentally, a board of directors’ most important function is to approve, comment, amend, or otherwise advise the future direction of the organization, per the recommendations of an organization’s management. However, beyond that, the function, scope, and engagement of a board of directors is up to the will of board governance, an acting board chair, and organization management – often with conflicting opinions, lack of accountability, and declining board engagement. 

At its core, most DMO board of directors are comprised of local members of the tourism economy, typically representing the lodging, restaurant, attraction, and community sectors. Often, government employees will engage or sit directly with a board. For many, these are part time, unpaid positions where the DMO has a tangible, direct benefit to a sitting board member and their company. In many ways, boards of directors are made up of working professionals, yet lack the experience in a strict destination marketing capacity. 

Globally, DMOs operate at the nexus of the public, private, and community sectors. This inherently creates difficulties with tourism governance, not the least of which is accountability. In other words, who holds board members accountable amongst the board? Board members typically are managed by bylaws which govern accountability, however, it often is not as simple as doing things “by the book.” Additionally, what ways can management keep a board engaged, active, and champion your activities in the community? Often, these issues of board governance remain the largest and most prevalent challenges for all DMOs.

There are ways to solve board challenges. Generally speaking, good governance is effectively good teamwork. Successful boards of all sizes find that effective communication, a manageable board size, dedicated effort, and mutual understandings are the most effective tools in optimizing a DMO’s board. Communication and unique activities can help create an environment of engagement. Examples of this include inviting guest speakers to meetings, hosting quarterly lunches, or giving board members an opportunity to host a public meeting. Additionally, pre-board meetings and asking each individual board member for board agenda items is a personalized approach to engagement.

A 2016 case study of Hemavan and Tarnaby destinations in Sweden suggests that strong board governance can be fostered through mutual resource dependencies. With board members vying for tourists, just as the DMO does, it fosters strong stakeholder interdependencies on the same market, seeking a shared goal of increasing visitation. While additional case studies would be useful in determining how strong mutual dependencies can be in board governance, it is clear that it can help reign in board members who often are more focused on their individual business interests and not that of the community.

Despite these fixes, a significant amount of work is required by the DMOs executive leadership to set goals for a board of directors, to define oversight responsibilities, and to simply educate the board. Executive leadership often mistakes enthusiasm for joining a board with knowledge of how a DMO operates. Board members often know very little about the DMO industry and how it best operates, despite them being experts in their specific sector of the tourism economy. 

Visit St. Mary’s MD, for example, is in a unique position to dictate the direction and goals of its board. As the new private, non-profit destination marketing organization for St. Mary’s County, MD, the DMO is effectively a blank slate in which to apply best practices. A critical component of the development of Visit St. Mary’s will be the continued engagement of the tourism community, which will entail expanding its current 7-member board of directors as a cornerstone of stakeholder engagement and organizational planning. The organization is currently reviewing options to expand the board and to create board committees that keep every member engaged. While a large focus on the board could potentially detract from the normal daily operations of the DMO, a strong board will foster strong ideas that will help the destination grow.

Additionally, Visit St. Mary’s has already begun applying other lessons learned during the Strategic Issues in Destination Management course, thanks largely in part to the sharing of best practices amongst the course participants. For example, Visit St. Mary’s is expanding its one-on-one board engagement to ensure each member feels valued. Transparency is also tantamount to success, and sharing of weekly operations has already seen a return in board engagement. 

Destination governance describes a DMOs system of powers, processes, and controls to ensure a DMO is working strategically towards its mission and vision. While board governance remains a challenge for DMOs of all sizes, DMO executive leadership can lessen the challenge and spark engagement, communication, and positive activity from a board.

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