Do We Need Membership Based Destination Marketing Organizations?


Clutch the pearls.

I can see the faces right now from the Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) who have members or partners or whatever other terms you call them now. And I’m not bashing you at all.

My question is really an honest one – and I’ll give you my honest assessment:

“Membership/partnership to a destination marketing organization means absolutely nothing to the end user.”

Having been in the industry going on eight years, I’ve often had this debate with colleagues who are both member based and non-member based, and I’ve heard compelling arguments from both sides.

What DMOs need to do better is to understand the end user…the traveler. When is the last time you have visited a destination, and decided to frequent a business because you saw that they were a member/partner of the DMO? When is the last time you pulled up a Trip Advisor review or Yelp listing to see if the attraction or restaurant is a member/partner of the DMO? When is the last time you asked Google or Siri to give you recommendations only using the members/partners of the destination? While I wait for your answer, I can tell you that I have never come across a listing that shows me the members/partners of any destination on a mobile app or in a mobile search. I’ve never made a dining choice based on the relationship and status of a restaurant with the DMO. I’ve never visited an attraction because I saw that they were a member/partner of the DMO.

You see, travelers want to get the full destination experience, not a fabricated one that only gives them select choices. This is one of the reasons why people don’t trust DMO websites, because we only give them a snippet of what they want to hear, and not the full destination experience. And that is what membership/partnership programs do, they create this “exclusive” group of businesses that in turn limits the story you can tell the potential traveler. It limits what you can put on your website, in your publications and across your social media channels, which are all the major marketing tools of any destination. If the newest attraction, bar or restaurant opens in a destination, and chooses not to become a member/partner, are we telling our public relations teams not to pitch it as part of the destination story? Are we telling our sales teams not to take clients there? If we market, pitch and sell non-members/partners anyway, why have the program?

If I am the destination, am I not going to talk about the local attractions, hotels and restaurants already? I mean, who else am I going to talk about? So what does that membership/partnership fee really provide to the member/partner? Higher visibility and enhanced listings that the traveler probably won’t see because of the high bounce rates on destination websites? Maybe you get exclusive access to meeting planners and motor coach operators. But while that can be an awesome opportunity, the meetings and group market pales in comparison to the overall leisure market, which is where most destinations should be focused. Maybe you get invites to special events and networking opportunities, but aren’t there plenty of those to go around in every city?

I believe that if a destination wishes to have a membership/partnership program, they need to adequately invest in that program with something more than just collecting a nominal fee. There needs to be ongoing hospitality training with accountability that lets visitors know we really care about their experience in our destination. And I’m not talking about that once a year training where someone gives you a PowerPoint presentation over stale donuts and cold coffee. I’m talking about in-depth hospitality training that not only shows members/partners how to treat visitors, but also gives them the tools to share and tell the destination brand story. I’m talking about a program where the DMO deploys staff out into the destination and is completely engaged in their members/partners and vice versa. If you’re not turning your members/partners into full-on destination ambassadors, then you’re wasting your time.

Destination marketing is about selling the entire destination to all market segments, regardless of membership/partnership status. Since most membership/partnership programs don’t mean anything to the visitor, why should destinations have them?

I’d love to hear what you think.

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