Over the last few months, I’ve heard rumblings about something called the Destination Development Process, or DDP. In some circles, the mere mention of those three letters induces a state bordering on apoplexy. Yet, within the heritage sector, talk of the DDP produces mostly blank stares.
These polar reactions got me wondering: What exactly is the DDP? How might it impact heritage and heritage organizations in this province? Is it a process we should be involved in? And if so, why do so many of us know so little about it? Last week, I sat down with Carol-Ann Gilliard, CEO of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador (HNL), and the always helpful Lisa McDonald, Manager of the Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism Board (NLTB), to get some answers. The following is a brief summary of what I learned, along with some initial musings.
In 2009, the province launched its new tourism strategy Uncommon Potential: A Vision for Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism. This document (a.k.a. Vision 2020) provides a blueprint for tourism development over the next decade, with the ultimate goal of doubling tourism revenues by the year 2020. To achieve this ambitious target, Vision 2020 identifies seven strategic directions:
- Private Public Leadership
- Sustainable Transport Network
- Market Intelligence & Research Strategy
- Product Development
- Tourism Technology
- Marketing Our Brand
- Developing Our Workforce
The NLTB - the organization tasked with implementing Vision 2020 - has identified strategic direction #4 - product development as a current priority.
What exactly is product development? Simply put, tourism products are the places and experiences we market to visitors, plus the services and infrastructure that support them. The former includes most of us: museums, historic sites, archives, archaeological sites, cultural landscapes, etc., along with the programs and experiences we offer. The latter includes everything that makes a visit to our communities/sites possible: From places to stay and eat, to signage and wayfinding.
Doubling the province’s tourism revenues will require us to continually provide people with reasons to visit Newfoundland and Labrador. In other words, to develop and evolve our tourism product. This means:
- Sustaining core attractions
- Improving the quality, market readiness and professionalism of existing tourism services and attractions
- Developing new, innovative and authentic tourism experiences
In the past, product development in this province has been primarily undertaken on an ad hoc basis - to meet the needs of a specific community, organization or business - rather than as part of a coordinated region or province- wide plan. The NLTB and its partners, HNL and TCR, believe that the ambitious targets identified in Vision 2020 can only be met if future investment in product development becomes more focused, proactive and intentional. To this end, the NLTB, in partnership with HNL and TCR have embarked on a Destination Development Process (DDP), which they describe as:
A tourism development approach used to inventory and analyze tourism amenities and attractions and identify opportunities for tourism investment and development. The results provide a comprehensive inventory of tourism assets and identify priorities to improve tourism products and help develop areas into successful tourism destinations.
According to the project’s terms of reference, the DDP will achieve the following:
- Obtain a collection of critical data for each region that paints a clear picture of a destination’s status, opportunities and challenges related to its tourism offering.
- Develop an action plan for each region that will improve the destination’s long-term success through a proactive process of improvement.
- Improve collectively, Newfoundland and Labrador as a tourism destination (through regional development) and enable individual tourism business operators to be more profitable.
The DDP will be implemented region-by-region over the next three years. To date, a consulting team has been hired to oversee the process and work has already started in the Eastern Region - an area that includes the Burin and Bonavista Peninsulas (east of Terra Nova National Park) and most of the Avalon (except the St. John’s Metro area).
Here’s where things get a little complicated. HNL is acting as the project coordinator. With funding from ACOA and IBRD, they’ve hired a consultant team who is responsible for the development of the overall process e.g. determining what tourism data is required and how it will be collected and assessed. The required data for each region will be collected by an Assessment Team comprised of TCR Visitor Information Centre staff. Their work will be monitored by the consultants. Next, working with Destination Management Organization (DMO) staff and the Assessment Team, the consultants will review the collected data, clarify findings and make observations. These findings will be presented to the DMO’s Tourism Advisory Subcommittee (TASC) for review and approval. The approved findings will then be used by the consultants and DMO staff to identify and prioritize development opportunities. Finally, these recommendations will be presented to tourism stakeholders for review and approval. Whew!
I’ve heard several objections to the DDP. Some point to a perceived lack of transparency and an insufficient flow of information from the project’s partners to potential stakeholders. I agree that detailed communication about the DDP has been scarce. My hunch is that this has more to do with the way the project has been organized to date, and less to do with an intentional plan to keep us all in the dark. However, given recent events in this province, it’s easy to understand why some of us feel uneasy. Hopefully, next week’s information sessions (see times and locations at the end of this posting) will go a long way towards solving this problem.
Others suggest it’s a top down process that does not provide enough opportunity for meaningful stakeholder input. Indeed, if the process proceeds as it is outlined in the project terms of reference, there seems to be little opportunity to ask questions and offer comment ... until the final recommendations have already been drafted. The project partners have assured me this is not the case, and that additional details regarding the process will be presented next week.
Finally, others have questioned whether VIC staff have the necessary skills to undertake the data collection and assessment process. My own response is maybe ... maybe not. It’s difficult to say without additional details regarding the kind of data the consultants require and how they propose to collect it.
Challenges for Heritage
Not surprisingly, AHI’s concerns are more sector-focused. First, the heritage sector has little or no representation amongst the project partners and the various working groups (there are no heritage representatives on the boards of either the NLTB or HNL, and there is just one representative of a heritage organization on the Eastern DMO’s Tourism Advisory Subcommittee). And while tourism is often an ideal venue for the presentation and promotion of heritage, the relationship between the two is not always conflict free. How do we ensure that our needs and interests are considered if we are not sitting around the table?
Second, according to both HNL and the NLTB, the DDP will include an inventory and assessment of existing visitor experiences. When asked how this will be done (and specifically, whether anyone will be actually sampling and evaluating experiences on the ground), I was told that it will include a review of primary and secondary information gathered by the Assessment Team. This will consist of more than a simple inventory, as it will also capture visitor perspectives from sources like TripAdvisor. It will not, however, include an on-the-ground appraisal of tourism experiences or assets.
For AHI, this approach raises a red flag. It is nearly impossible to assess the quality of an experience without actually sampling it. And while we agree that visitors’ perspectives (like those posted on TripAdvisor) should play a central role in assessing any experience, it’s important to recognize that a majority of this province’s heritage sites, facilities and experiences do not appear on TripAdvisor and other, similar websites that rely on user-generated content and reviews. We worry that many heritage experiences will be overlooked or undervalued simply because they will be more difficult/labour intensive to assess.
But most importantly, we have serious concerns about the very notion of a planning process that uses tourism marketing potential as criteria to set development and funding priorities, particularly when it comes to heritage. Take a good look at the most successful heritage organizations and initiatives. What do you find? Grass-roots movements based on a real connection to their community and an imperative to use heritage as a means of serving local needs and solving local problems. And while these needs and problems can include job creation and economic development (often through tourism), they also include things like maintaining identity, improving literacy, engaging seniors, welcoming new residents, promoting a healthy life-style, generating community pride ....
If projects like this were to apply for funding in a post DDP world, how many of them would be considered regional tourism development priorities? It’s ironic because in many cases, those same initiatives and organizations are some of our biggest tourism assets - not because they conform to a set of pre-determined criteria, but because they are real. In study after study, what do visitors say they are looking for in a tourist experience? Authenticity. And when researchers probe deeper, asking visitors how they judge the authenticity of a place or experience, how do visitors respond? With phrases like “local participation” and “community support”. In other words, authentic experiences aren’t simply about a place, they are for that place. Will this kind of work still be valued using a criteria based on marketing potential?
So, now what? How do we ensure that the DDP benefits all tourism stakeholders, including the heritage sector? To be honest, I’m not sure. I still have a whole lot of questions about the process. That’s why I’ll be attending at least one of the upcoming information sessions. Can’t be there in person? Feel free to forward your questions to AHI by email at email@example.com or by posting them on our wallwisher page. Send or post your questions by 9 AM, Wednesday, May 22 and I’ll ask them for you.
Next, contact the Eastern DMO’s TASC representative for your area (you can find the list here). Let them know you’re interested in the process and want to be kept informed. Finally, stay tuned. The DDP is just beginning. I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the months ahead.
Info Sessions - Locations & Dates
Ferryland - May 22, 1-3 pm Southern Shore Folk Arts Centre,
Bay Roberts - May 22, 7-9 pm Bay Roberts Hotel (Formerly the Klondyke Hotel)
Port Rexton - May 23, 1-3 pm Conference Centre, Fisher’s Loft Inn
Marystown - May 24, 10-12 pm Braxton Suites
Please RSVP your attendance to Kathi Stacey, Executive Director, Eastern DMO at: