How to engage and involve diverse groups in tourism planning

If Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) want to ensure a thriving future for tourism in their destination, they need to ensure that tourism is serving their communities, that any adverse impacts are properly managed and benefits are shared and to do this they need to ensure they are talking to, engaging and enabling participation from a diverse, representative range of individuals. DMOs and consulting organizations need innovative and effective strategies to target and reach more diverse community members to achieve more representative engagement and participation in tourism development. It is imperative to include individuals who authentically represent the community, encompassing various cultures, including Indigenous populations, speakers of diverse languages, recent arrivals, individuals spanning different age groups, varying gender identities, adherents of different religions, individuals with disabilities, as well as those from racialized and marginalized communities.

So how can tourism destinations seeking resident engagement in decision-making and assessing satisfaction regarding tourism in their communities ensure representation from a diverse cross-section? While traditional methods like “town hall” meetings and surveys persist in tourism planning, they often fail to capture a broad demographic spectrum. These approaches frequently reach an older, primarily English-speaking audience, even in regions where nearly half of the population may communicate in another language. Additionally, the perspectives of younger individuals, vital in expressing opinions on what is significant, the impact on them, and their vision for the future of tourism in their communities, are seldom solicited. There is a tendency for community engagement to be more reactive, with individuals primarily participating when tourism-related issues arise. Conversely, in regions aspiring to develop tourism, a considerable challenge emerges in motivating individuals to actively partake in the process. 

As part of destination stewardship planning processes we’ve been involved with in North America, we’ve collected some reflections on what is working, what could be improved, and where we hope the tourism industry will do better in the future to engage and involve stakeholders in tourism planning. The following tactics have resulted in more engagement with diverse community members:-

  • Targeted focus groups: Hosting virtual focus groups by stakeholder type or subsector (for example: hotel managers, restaurant owners & managers, arts & cultural organizations, land managers, emergency service providers, tourism workforce, community organizations, etc.). Sometimes multiple time frames are needed but certainly representatives of particular groups should be consulted for most suitable time frames in order to achieve the highest level of participation.
  • Info sessions in familiar spaces: This requires outreach to community organizations within the cultural communities one wishes to engage, and planning for info sessions during regular meeting times (going where people are comfortable).
  • Info sessions in dominant second languages of the place: This may be done in conjunction with the above. It was done successfully in Lake Tahoe with Spanish-speaking women’s groups to gather input and feedback on tourism in Tahoe.
  • Sessions for hospitality & tourism workers: In Vail we were successful in providing a session where employers brought workers to a meeting in order for them to participate based on their available time.
  • Long term engagement with Indigenous communities (incl First Nations or Tribal Nations & Governments, tourism organizations, etc.): This requires more in-depth strategy than can be outlined here, but key to note is that the moment you need feedback it’s too late to start asking.  This applies to all community groups and the most successful engagement will result when DMOs have long-standing relationships with partners and representatives from various community groups that can provide input and advice on best places and methods to gather input.
  • Compensation should always be considered for community liaisons, whether asked to provide direct input, to support with recruitment or to support with building relationships across communities. 

In some cases we have seen town halls go unattended, and surveys (while translated into another language), go unanswered.  It’s essential that engagement tactics be continuously evaluated. Do not simply do what has always been done but look at what could be more innovative and effective.

We tasked student groups in Professor Rachel Dodds’ undergraduate destination marketing class at Toronto Metropolitan University to research and suggest further strategies for the tourism industry to consider. Their work resulted in a mix of new ideas and enhancements to processes currently utilized. Several of the ideas relate to building long-term relationships, being more present in diverse communities’ lives, providing foundational knowledge and building understanding over time, thereby enhancing participation and feedback opportunities when most needed. The winning team of students, Camila Aguila Cortes, Alexandra Ocay, and Navneet Osahan, presented the following ideas: Hosting radio call-in or podcast information sessions for diverse demographics; collaborating with universities & colleges to participate in surveys by providing incentives to learn more about tourism; and to employ community ambassadors to recruit participation at information sessions in familiar community spaces.  

Other ideas included:-

Enhanced Interactive Educational Pop-Up Booths:

  • Cultural Showcase Workshops: Facilitate workshops that provide cultural showcases, engaging multiple communities and fostering a deeper understanding of diverse communities.
  • Multilingual Engagements and English as a Second Language (ESL) Support: Tailor engagements to accommodate multiple languages and provide ESL support for inclusive participation.
  • Tourism Awareness at Cultural Events: DMO pop-up booths at various cultural events to educate attendees on tourism’s impact, encouraging dialogue and idea-sharing.

Targeting the Younger Audience for Comprehensive Engagement:

  • Collaborative Educational Initiatives: Establish collaborations between DMOs and high schools, offering workshops, elective courses, and school trips for a comprehensive educational approach.
  • Internships and Volunteer Opportunities: Provide internships and encourage high school students to volunteer, creating a pool of tourism ambassadors with hands-on experience.
  • Engaging Higher Education Institutions: Collaborate with universities and colleges for surveys, using incentives and diverse meeting formats to gather valuable insights.
  • Student Incentives for Feedback: Offer discounts or gift cards to students, encouraging engagement with local hospitality and tourism businesses, to learn about tourism and the role of the DMO, thereby being more informed to provide constructive feedback back to the DMO. 

Small Business Funding and Development Programs:

  • Educational Entrepreneurship Programs: Introduce educational programs teaching residents (or funding training) about how to start small businesses in hospitality and tourism or complementary sectors such as arts/handicrafts.
  • Diverse Audience Engagement: Offer business development programs to engage diverse audiences, fostering a deeper understanding of the tourism economy’s role in their lives. 

Storytelling Workshops for Cultural Connection:

  • Cultural Community Understanding: Partner with schools, libraries, and cultural centers to demonstrate different cultural communities through storytelling.
  • Integration into Tourism Materials: Use gathered stories in tourism materials, creating a narrative that connects tourists with the cultural richness of the destination.
  • Scalable Approach: Begin with small-scale initiatives and gradually expand, emphasizing storytelling’s impact in a larger place. 

Digital Inclusive & Ongoing Engagement Platform:

  • Hashtag Campaigns and Interactive Challenges: Utilize hashtags for campaigns, contests and challenges, fostering interactive engagement.
  • Live Q&A Sessions: Host live Q&A sessions, encouraging real-time interaction and dialogue, to foster an understanding of tourism, its role in people’s lives, and the role of the DMO.
  • Open Google Forms and QR Codes: Employ open Google forms and QR codes that link back to surveys/forms for ongoing, multilingual feedback collection.
  • Iterative Engagement: Embrace an iterative approach similar to participatory action research for continuous, circular, and long-term engagement.

Community Immersive Workshops in Familiar Spaces:

  • Cultural Showcases and Storytelling: Utilize community spaces for cultural showcases, integrating storytelling to create immersive experiences.
  • Community Ambassadors/Liaisons: Engage cultural ambassadors to facilitate discussions, recruit participants, and connect cultural communities with tourism development efforts.
  • Comfortable Community Spaces: Leverage existing community spaces such as community centers, the YMCA, places of worship and other cultural, meeting people where they are comfortable.

Virtual Reality (VR) for Future Visioning:

  • Immersive City Exploration: Utilize VR to simulate city walks, allowing residents to envision changes and improvements in their community.
  • Understanding Tourism Impact: Help residents understand tourism’s impact and encourage them to actively participate in shaping the future. 

Radio Call-In Sessions and Podcasts for Varied Outreach:

  • Strategic Radio Sessions: Host radio call-in sessions during commute times, reaching specific demographics and providing information about tourism.
  • Podcast Expansion: Convert radio sessions into podcasts for broader reach, discussing tourism issues, potential solutions, and exposing diverse demographics to relevant topics.

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