Doing It Better: Thompson Okanagan, B.C.

[Above: Okanagan scene. Photo: Allen Jones/TOTA]

Toward holistic destination stewardship – Profile #1

Thompson Okanagan Tourism Authority (TOTA),
British Columbia, Canada

Editor’s note: With this post we offer the first of our profiles of destination organizations that at least partially meet the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s  destination-management criterion A2, which reads in part:

“The destination has an effective organization, department, group, or committee responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism, . . . for the management of environmental, economic, social, and cultural issues.”

The requirement seems obvious, yet very few places around the world come even remotely close to meeting it. Below is Ellen Rugh’s profile of one that does, with more profiles to come. We hope this information will provide other places with ideas on how better to manage tourism’s hazards and benefits. To join in our search for more examples of holistic destination management read more here.

Introduction

Founded in 1956, TOTA had followed the historically linear path of focusing themselves solely as a destination marketing organization for the Thompson Okanagan region. TOTA began to revamp this model around 2011, and since then, has forged a guiding path towards successful destination stewardship. As one of the five regional DMOs (Destination Marketing/Management Organizations) represented under Destination BC’s “Super, Natural British Columbia” brand, TOTA manages to push the conventional limits of a DMO while avoiding any major structural overhauls. Today, they operate under the mission “to stimulate ongoing sustainable growth by embracing the value of tourism through community engagement, innovative leadership in promoting authentic experiences, and inspiring creative collaboration.”

Thompson Okanagan region

Geographic Description

The Thompson Okanagan region lies in the southern interior of British Columbia, Canada and encompasses a land area of 71,600 km / 27,644 mi., about the same size of the Irish Republic. Some 500,000 inhabitants live within the region, spread across 90 towns, villages, and hamlets, as well as 33 Indigenous communities. [1]

Context

Under the visionary leadership of Glenn Mandziuk, the current CEO, TOTA began to recognize its need to shift both their resources and mentality away from marketing alone and toward a more holistic management approach. As the first step in accomplishing this, TOTA set out to develop their Ten-Year Regional Tourism Strategy, creating an advisory steering committee to embark on a road-trip to communicate with local communities. Over the course of 18 months they spoke with more than 1,800 private, public, and nonprofit stakeholders about issues and potential solutions.

Prior to departure, however, TOTA recognized a flaw in their membership-based model: with a $500 membership fee per business, only half of their 200-300 members actually engaged with products and services; the rest just paid into the system because they felt obliged. Meanwhile, countless other tourism stakeholders were neither members nor adequately represented. In an effort to build trust with the local communities prior to embarking on their strategy-planning road trip, TOTA broke the barriers to entry and eliminated their membership model. Today, 4,500 representatives participate in their free, stakeholder-based model.

[1]https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/industry/crown-land-water/land-use-planning/regions/thompson-okanagan

Locals Demand Sustainability

In terms of sustainability, TOTA has identified this growing issue and stressed that they will only succeed at being a responsible and sustainable if they work cohesively and share best practices. In fact, while collecting information to develop their 10-year strategy, it was one local community, who, upon witnessing bad tourist behaviour, demanded that sustainability be interwoven throughout TOTA’s entire strategy. While they wanted to see tourism grow, they also wanted to ensure the development would not be just more summer sun and fun—“tourism for tourism’s sake.” As a TOTA representative explains, “The communities wanted to see the visitor economy grow with guests who shared our values and appreciated our environment, history, and culture.”

Universal Endorsement

In order to have legitimacy and buy-in from local communities, TOTA decided they needed an official endorsement process. Some cities, including the two biggest, were skeptical of TOTA’s plan. In order to get those already vibrant subregional programs on board, TOTA key message, both then and now, is that “the competition is not in the room or even down the highway,” recognizing that the region is competing globally, and as such, they must work together to not only market, but manage the region. 

Greenwood, B.C. Photo: Allen Jones/TOTA

For six months, TOTA had to compromise and realize the needs and wants for every community. It was the first time such a strategic commitment had been made in Canada and was formally endorsed by all the region’s communities, as well as by Destination BC and Destination Canada.

The strategy continues to update and evolve based on feedback. Post-development, TOTA has hosted annual road shows in local communities and subregions to update and inform stakeholders on the plan’s progress. In 2017, TOTA returned to these areas to host formal meetings, in order to review and update the destination development and planning priorities, as well as reconfirm the direction of the Regional Strategy.

Each year, TOTA hosts a half-day session at the Southern Interior Government Association conference update and inform municipal government on the strategy and priorities, as well as ensure ongoing commitment to sustainability practices. For specific Destination Development projects, TOTA will at times employ online surveys, face to face meetings with key stakeholder groups and community leaders, group workshops, and telephone interviews to determine the needs and priorities of both the resident and consumer groups. This is when some local communities raised concerns about tourist behavior and demanded that sustainability be an integral part of the TOTA strategy. 

Activities

TOTA, with Destination BC, hosts the Remarkable Experiences Program,  designed to support BC tourism operators in developing and delivering outstanding, visitor-focused experiences while enhancing their digital and social media marketing efforts. The program uses in-class learning, personalized coaching, and access to leading information and resources to provide stakeholders with tools to attract more visitors, deliver exceptional experiences, and gain more recommendations and referrals. Additionally, TOTA has created a strategy for a Rail Trail network to create a sustained economic boost for rural communities.

Photo: Don Weixl/TOTA

Working with Aboriginal Tourism BC, TOTA co-sponsors a dedicated Indigenous Relations Development Specialist who focuses on building trusted and transparent communications with regional indigenous communities. To develop further develop indigenous tourism products, TOTA is committing to implement an authentic Indigenous art distribution program.

In terms of marketing, TOTA deliberately does not offer the typical DMO’s set of consumer resources, instead choosing to keep their main site, thompsonokanagan.com, focused sharing their values of regional sustainable tourism and recognizing businesses that promoting responsible travel. Their campaign websites, such as Route 97 encourages further exploration of the region and Hello BC, the provincial site, provides practical information.

Sustainability and Stewardship Programs

In 2017, TOTA successfully became an RTI “Biosphere Certified Destination,”  committed to continuous improvement in combating climate change, protecting the environment, and enhancing cultural, social and economic conditions. (More information on RTI’s Biosphere Tourism.) TOTA is currently working with stakeholders and community organizations to establish collaborative synergies and invite others to adopt a commitment to sustainability. Launched in August 2018, they currently have over 50 committed entities to this “Biosphere Adenesion Proragm.”

Since 2013, TOTA has also been advocating the advancement of indigenous tourism, co-hosting and sponsoring the first two national indigenous tourism conferences in Canada, in partnership with Aboriginal Association of BC and Nk’Mip.

TOTA has signed an MOU to undertake the role of Secretariat for the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program, whose mandate is to bring together and support 32 environmental agencies within the region.

Scenic biking. Photo: Allen Jones/TOTA

Managing Tourism Volume

While TOTA claims there is no current concern for overcrowding, they are currently developing a visitor management system to create load capacity indicators. Through community consultation, TOTA intends to identify a maximum social capacity, while  collaborating with environmental organizations to identify a maximum ecosystemic capacity. Recreational sites and trails track data to help them to establish capacity indicators in the future. “There are management plans being developed for several areas, which will include maximum numbers (during visitor events), to determine the maximum carrying capacity of the system for a given time period. Through a BC Parks pilot program there is also a visitor management strategy in development that addresses overcrowding, capacity and redirects from a conservation and cultural/social/environmental and economic perspective.”

Organization Structure and Governance

As a non-profit organization, TOTA functions under an elected Board of Directors comprising of 15 stakeholders, who represent the regional and community tourism industry. A nominating committee develops a slate of individuals to run, and elections take place electronically online to allow for maximum participation. The Board acts on two-year terms, and only half of the board is up for reelections each year. The term limit for a board member is 4 years. The chair, who is elected by the board members, has only a two-year term. After the board’s chair has completed their two-year term limit, the chair must commit to a “past Chair term” of up to 2-years, which assists in succession planning. The board authorizes the CEO, who holds final decision-making authority. The Annual Budget and Business Plan must be developed and approved by both the TOTA Board and the CEO of Destination BC.

The TOTA staff consists of a core team with full-time support, and at times, with additional contractor and grantee support for key initiatives. No one individual is assigned to oversee sustainability, as this idea makes up TOTA’s core strategy. TOTA sees that every initiative taken by the council follows the guidelines of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They have created an interdepartmental committee that includes representatives for all 17 SDGs.

Mission Hills Winery, Kelowna. Photo: Destination B.C./Tanya Geohring

Funding

TOTA’s base funding comes from the Destination British Columbia, with whom they have been in a formal funding partnership since 1995. TOTA actively applies for provincial, federal, and corporate grants. In addition, TOTA has formed joint funding partnerships with organizations such as go2HR (tourism human resources) and ITBC (Indigenous Tourism British Columbia) to jointly fund office positions for key projects.

TOTA’s stakeholders provide another source of revenue. Initially, TOTA lost between $100 to 200 thousand when they dropped membership fees and switched to the stakeholder-based model. To offset this loss, TOTA began charging an administrative fee on project and marketing initiatives, along with money raised from training and the RTI Biosphere Adhesion Program. They claim that there is no barrier to accessing the marketing campaign, and the fee is solely for those who buy into the program. After TOTA removed the membership barrier to entry, this administrative fee has actually more than doubled funding.

Measures of success

Guided by their ten-year plan, TOTA prepares an extensive annual business plan and budget. Within this document, TOTA outlines annual performance metrics, including from project implementation, new revenues and investments, and ongoing support of strategies with specific marketing targets and outcomes. In addition, TOTA’s  Biosphere Tourism Certification measures 137 indicators and metrics within the destination each year, with the requirement of continual progress. The indicators address all 17 themes under UN Sustainable Development Goals. As of 2018, TOTA has implemented an 11-question survey of stakeholders to better understand how tourism entities of the region were performing.

My Commentary

TOTA proves that marketing-oriented DMOs can make a successful transition toward not only management, but holistic stewardship of their destinations. They have managed to push the conventional limits of a DMO without any major structural overhauls, but by dedication to creating positive change in their region. It’s rare to hear of a DMO responding to a community-based push for sustainability, let alone making it a requirement and getting all stakeholder approval. The level of on-the-ground local engagement and commitment seems almost unprecedented.

CEO Glenn Mandziuk has clearly been the driving force behind this visionary transition.       While we cannot undervalue his hard-working support system, it is possible that TOTA would not have developed into what it is today without his leadership. While a sole visionary leading-champion can leave long-term sustainability at risk, TOTA does appear to have enough foundation and stability as an organization to stay the course should  changes in leadership occur.

        On the other hand, while TOTA executes loads of community outreach, they still seem closed to allowing nonindustry stewardship representatives on their Board of Directors. While there is logic in restricting the Board to dedicated, industry experts, and while TOTA clearly makes it a point to listen to the needs of the community, holistic governance should invite a variety of local stakeholders into the organizational structure.

Additionally, while TOTA’s corporate website includes thorough information regarding the DMO, the consumer-facing Thompson Okanagan site does not provide visitors with the typical resources to guide their choices of accommodation, attractions, restaurant information as one might see in a typical DMO. The Route 97 website does a little of this, but it does not cover the whole region. While it is commendable for TOTA for proportioning a majority of its funding away from solely marketing, as we see with typical DMOs, we cannot undervalue this necessary aspect to tourism development. Perhaps Destination B.C.’s information is considered thorough enough to suffice.

        Even with our research, still many specific aspects require further investigation.  How much clout does TOTA’s interdepartmental committee on the 17 UN SDGs actually have? Additionally, given the geographic location, extractive industry and land use problems must surely plague some areas within TOTA’s jurisdiction. While it’s confirmed that TOTA has mitigated some impacts of tourism-related land issues, such as ATV traffic on non-motorized vehicle trails, the power that they can play in mitigating external threats remains undetermined.

Ellen Rugh

About Ellen Rugh

Destination Stewardship "A2" Councils Project Manager. I am the Program Associate at the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), with a dual MA in International Affairs and Sustainable Development.

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