Development of an Advocacy Plan (By Jason Aul)

During my time at Visit St. Mary’s MD, Brand USA, and the Confederation of British Industry, I developed and executed different advocacy plans that focused on multiple audiences. These plans incorporated external outreach to members of the press, elected officials (both at the local and national level), key stakeholders, and general members of the public.

Below is a report on building advocacy plans for small organizations, showcasing specific best practices I developed during my time as the Executive Director of Visit St. Mary’s MD. My hope is that you find this useful as a template to create your own advocacy plans for your organization. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly at Jason.Aul@gmail.com

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Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) play an implicit role – and often an explicit role – in being an advocate for their local tourism economy. Faced with challenges of differing public perception of the industry, political pressures, an ever-changing regulatory landscape, and simply being an informative body, DMOs can function as the “go-to” organization for any and all issues related to the tourism economy. Apart from being the voice of the industry, DMOs need a strong advocacy and community relations plan to solidify their position in the community. In other words, DMOs cannot be passive organizations. They must make their voices heard on specific issues and stand for something greater. Creating an advocacy plan and following through with it helps position a DMO as a community and public good.

Visit St. Mary’s MD began as a private, non-profit organization in July 2018, having formally separated from the County’s Department of Economic Development. The timing is key for the organization to develop a proper advocacy and community relations plan, especially as Visit St. Mary’s is playing an active role in helping the county modernize and update regulations that affect the broader tourism economy. 

Executive Summary
As the destination marketing organization for St. Mary’s County, MD, Visit St. Mary’s MD has a mandate to act as a positive representative for the local travel and tourism industry. This mandate includes the ability to work towards proactive and beneficial change to the broader St. Mary’s County community that first and foremost benefits its residents and helps create a positive business environment for our tourism stakeholders and a desirable destination for its visitors.

Visit St. Mary’s works with its partners within the St. Mary’s County government, led by the Department of Economic Development, to understand, respond, draft language, and develop platforms to deliver messaging, propose positive changes, and advocate for the industry at the highest levels of the County government. Additionally, Visit St. Mary’s MD continuously keeps apprised of major travel industry policy proposals and changes made by St. Mary’s County, the State of Maryland, and any important information coming down from the U.S. Congress or Executive Branch agencies.

Specific to proposed policy and regulatory changes, Visit St. Mary’s role is to be an advocate for the industry in a manner that seeks to benefit the St. Mary’s community and its residents. Additionally, Visit St. Mary’s will communicate information related to policy/regulatory change(s) through consumer and industry channels, and to help the local tourism economy and visitors have the resources they need to maximize overnight stays. Our ability to reach travelers and influence their decisions to visit St. Mary’s County is especially important when uncertainty or misperceptions exist.

Overall Considerations

An advocacy and communications plan is needed to take proactive steps to change or enforce regulations when necessary, to reduce burdens to the local tourism economy, to grow the industry by attracting more overnight visitors, and ensure that travelers and the industry receive consistent and credible information. 

Key Issue

Following the completion of the St. Mary’s County Tourism and Hospitality Master Plan, farms and other similar rural venues were identified as potential beneficiaries for additional events such as weddings, private events, reunions, corporate retreats, and more. Currently, County regulations allow a maximum of 20 private events per calendar year for farm venues.

The core of the issue is the growing national demand for weddings and other private events held in rural, rustic, and otherwise scenic venues outside of traditional venue-halls and city environments. As Visit St. Mary’s continues to grow its sales profile in the wedding industry and beyond, we estimate that the number of weddings hosted in St. Mary’s County will grow substantially over the next three to five years. With this in mind, consideration is being given to a modest increase of the maximum number of private events allowed on farm venues, from the current 20 maximum to a 35 event maximum – and more if there is significant appetite from the business and political community.

Failure to properly advocate for this policy change and communicate the importance of the private event market to our elected officials and their constituents could lead to outcomes such as: 

  • Stagnant growth in the local wedding industry, leading to a leveling-off of overnight stays and spending by visitors in the County
  • Confusion in the marketplace among farms, hotels, attractions, restaurants, and more regarding the sales efforts of Visit St. Mary’s
  • Inability to provide a positive narrative about Visit St. Mary’s value towards effective tourism policy changes
  • Failure to build and maintain trust, as well as a failure to add and create value, for critical partners that have a say in Brand USA’s Board of Directors and annual marketing/sales objectives
  • Disjointed sales efforts among those venues who are seeking significant growth and those who are not
  • Loss of market share to our immediate competitors in Calvert County and Charles County, as well as those across the river in Virginia

The primary objective of this advocacy plan is to engage with the local community, our industry partners, elected representatives, and visitors to remind them that continued destination development is for the benefit and well-being of every person in a community. It is a common good and a public good. It is essential community investment to develop opportunities and build quality of life to benefit the people of a destination. We help the people in our community, and we seek to see St. Mary’s County grow. 

Our key objectives to accomplish this goal include:

  • Protect Visit St. Mary’s relationships and trust with key stakeholders.
  • Clarify Visit St. Mary’s role in advocating for policy changes, communicating when necessary, and promoting travel.
  • Add and create value for our individual industry partner messaging.
  • Ensure consumers, industry, media, and partners are aware of our goals and progress.
  • Minimize rumor and speculation in the market. 

Additionally, significant community relations must be a key component to any advocacy and communications plan, as it ensures the work of Visit St. Mary’s MD and the industry is visible, valued, supported, and sustained. Community involvement and support will only strengthen our position and our message, and ultimately highlight that Visit St. Mary’s is seen as an equal partner to the community with the community’s best interests in mind. 

Finally, our objectives must include research into the topic, looking at how any change will affect both the community and the industry, and work to doubly-ensure that the industry continues to be good stewards of the community as our industry grows and more travelers discover St. Mary’s County. 

These key strategies will support the achievement of Visit St. Mary’s objectives and goals in raising the private event maximum from 20 events per calendar year to 35 events per calendar year:

  • Convene principals from the industry and key stakeholders to determine a proper path forward in regards to advocacy and communications, and determine the appropriate level of response needed to lack of momentum on this policy issue.
    • Meet regularly with the County’s Tourism Regulatory Committee, led by Economic Development, to achieve consensus on modernizing and updating the appropriate regulation.
    • Conduct one-on-one meetings with each of the five County Commissioners to inform them of the importance of this issue and provide context and background necessary to push a vote forward.
    • Determine the appropriate level of response necessary should the regulatory committee not come to consensus.
  • Coordinate external activity when appropriate and necessary.
    • Executive Director to provide letter-writing template to each member of the Visit St. Mary’s Board of Directors to write a letter of support, from the perspective of their respective business, supporting the increase in the event maximum. 
    • Sales Lead to reach out to farm venues to gather information and, when necessary, provide the information and opinions from these venues to the Executive Director.
    • Ensure public allies know what Visit St. Mary’s MD is doing in terms of advocacy and communications, including the Leonardtown Business Association, key hotel and venue partners, and more.
    • Consider the writing of an op-ed piece for a local publication to emphasize the economic importance of private events such as weddings, emphasizing the growth trend and highlighting how growth benefits residents of St. Mary’s County.
  • Communicate actions and changes to a wide audience that include both the industry and consumers.
    • Prioritize communications to Visit St. Mary’s key partners.
    • Add necessary information to wedding sales and trade show activity.
    • Forward important information and feedback, ,as necessary, to key stakeholders and government partners.
    • Utilize a variety of methods to quickly reach a wide audience that include e-mail blasts, conference calls, partner outreach, and more. 
Priority #1Board of Directors and Key StaffVisit St. Mary’s to ensure that the Board of Directors is informed in all advocacy in advance, as being in a small/rural community, word spreads fast and we want to ensure messaging is consistent and appropriate.Assign duties to key board members and staff.
Priority #2St. Mary’s County GovernmentAdvocacyIndividual meetings combining broad overview of our work and successes, while putting 30 – 50% of the time solely dedicated to discussing the events issue.Continue providing industry information and research to the Tourism Regulatory Committee to sway opinion and reach a general consensus on an updated regulatory proposal. Community RelationsWorking in tandem with Economic Development, determine the key community groups to engage with in the rural communities in St. Mary’s County.Determine, if appropriate, engagement with the Patuxent Naval Air Base is a factor, given that they are the community’s largest employer, area’s largest tax generator, and that many permanent military personnel get married in the county.  
Priority #3IndustryExecutive Director and Sales Lead to work with Hotel Advisory Group to ensure they have a seat at the table.Engage with the broader industry to better understand the impact of this issue and minimize any negative outcomes.
Priority#4MediaAt such a time where engaging with the media is deemed appropriate, determine the correct avenues and publications worth reaching out to.Write opinion pieces if no action is taken by the Commissioners.Write a press release if positive action is taken by the Commissioners, praising their work and praising the industry.Write to local community publications (i.e. rotary club, church groups, and those who have a tangible benefit) highlighting how this issue can positively affect them. 

The advocacy plan in the prior pages is designed to help position Visit St. Mary’s as a community and public good, one that has a new but growing voice, and can be a singular advocate for the tourism industry in the county. More importantly, it lists specific instructions, denotes who is the “right” voice regarding the issue, and plans ways to circumvent any factors limiting our influence. In our effort to compete with other communities around the region, this plan helps show that our community is a destination with a clear and defined benefit for every person in the community. With our residents constantly in mind, we look to support the destination for the benefit and well-being of every person and to drive community investment and develop opportunities to improve the quality of life in St. Mary’s County. 

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