Partnership with a Purpose: Takeaways from the Power of Partnership Summit

Last October’s Power of Partnership Summit wasn’t just an event; it was a collaborative accomplishment, dedicated to exploring the intersections among culture, climate, and community within the realm of travel and tourism. Held in Richmond, Virginia, the conference was a joint effort by the Cultural Heritage Economic Alliance, Inc., Tourism Cares, The Travel Foundation, and the U.S. Cultural & Heritage Marketing Council. The goal among the attending industry leaders, visionaries, and change-makers was to amplify multicultural experiences, leverage cultural assets, and propel accelerated climate action. Jonathan Tourtellot, CEO of the Destination Stewardship Center, and Alix Collins, Director of Marketing & Communications at the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) share some of their takeaways.

Seleni Matus leads a panel discussion on destination stewardship.

Tourism Must Aim to Benefit All Community Members

“Build it for the community first.” – Richard Peterson, U.S. Cultural & Heritage Marketing Council.

Adam Burke, CEO of LA Tourism, described their community-first approach, including adopting a new mission statement that puts the community at the forefront (“To improve the quality of life for all Angelenos through the economic and community benefits of tourism), creating community welfare initiatives (such as creating a multiblock community mural initiative), and implementing a 30-person community advisory board independent of the DMO.

Kelly Galaski, Tourism Specialist at The Travel Foundation, mentioned the need for destinations and tourism practitioners to “challenge the assumptions of the way things should be done” when it comes to destination management “because it leaves a lot of people out.”

Understanding and celebrating the whole story

“Cultural heritage tourism is understanding the story of a people.” Paula Robinson, Bronzeville Community Development Partnership

Bobbie Chee Bigbee, a PhD student, spoke of “Indigenous resurgence” and the use of “toxic tourism” as a means for highlighting the issues indigenous communities are facing. Multiple panelists also discussed the imperative of understanding the story of people in cultural heritage tourism, steering away from exploitative narratives.

While discussing a project in Taos, New Mexico, Wes Espinosa, Executive Director of CREST, observed that “destination stewardship is a tool for community empowerment.” As for the planning process, “allow for lofty notions,” he urged, but then “focus on the do-ables.”

In a DEI session, J. Dontrese Brown urged using tourism as a way to engage youth and preserve oral history: “Once the old person’s stories are gone, they’re gone forever.” Many locales have untold stories, he argued, and the name of his website makes his point: “Hidden in Plain SiteTM”

Sustainability must be inclusive, not additive

“Don’t think of sustainability as an additional burden in your job. Think of it as part of your job.”

This was a common theme throughout the week. This work we are doing, to make the travel and tourism industry more sustainable, cannot be additive. Sustainability has to be woven throughout the work, not relegated to a niche within the industry.

Additionally, we need to be holistic in our sustainability efforts – we can no longer think of climate change, cultural heritage, diversity, equity, accessibility, or inclusivity as separate issues. We must understand that they are interconnected and the best solutions are the ones that treat them as such.

(Back left to right) Kelsey Wermager, Wesley Espinosa, Samantha Bray; (Front left to right) Jonathan Tourtellot and Alix Collins

Placemaking is a way to bring the community and visitors together

“Placemaking is a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize our shared value.” – Ethan Kent, PlacemakingX

Ethan Kent, PlacemakingX CEO, articulated a comprehensive approach to placemaking, urging collaboration and shared ownership. “Place tourism is moving beyond consuming places”  to actively becoming part of and even contributing to them. He outlined five steps for successful placemaking: collaborate on community evaluation, compile short-term experiences, agree on a vision, identify spaces for placemaking, and define the place with local ownership. Success, he said, should be measured by “place capital,” encompassing economic, environmental, physical, and cultural values.

The need for different metrics

While there is some discussion in our industry that focusing on metrics is reductive, especially at a time when regenerative tourism is gaining popularity, the reality is we still need to measure success. How, then, should we be doing that? We need better metrics, especially ones that focus on the quality of life of residents, the quality of experiences for visitors, and the health and well-being of the environment and local culture.

Marco Lucero offered two sample metrics from his work at Cuidadores de Destinos in Chile that go far beyond the customary key performance indicators: The percentage of women who feel safe walking at night and the diversity of bird songs in the environment. Another speaker mentioned measuring the increase in conversations and connections happening within a community.


Those are just a few takeaways. Numerous stimulating sessions addressed  African-American Heritage, climate and community, DEI (Fort Lauderdale slogan: “Everyone under the sun”), funding via Federal grant-giving programs, better uses for lodging taxes, and much more. Attendance even on the final day was robust, always a good sign.

For Visit Lake Charles, DEI is about Building Stronger Communities

Why does diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) matter for destinations and what can DMOs do to better integrate DEI principles into its work? A Southeast United States destination shares its story – Chi Lo, Travel Unity’s Resources Director interviews Visit Lake Charles’ Chief Marketing Officer, Timothy Bush about employee and community engagement and how building an inclusive culture is contributing to destination stewardship. 

A welcoming destination for all

Amidst a backdrop of civil unrest and global change, the summer of 2020 catalyzed Visit Lake Charles’ foray into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. As the nation delved deep into discussions on race, identity, diversity, and equity, Visit Lake Charles (VLC) recognized the call to action to assess the organization’s role in creating inclusion and welcoming within its community. As a destination marketing organization (DMO), that meant an internal examination of its policies and workforce management, as well as content creation and ensuring intentional inclusivity in marketing.

Mama Reta’s Kitchen, a family-owned local restaurant serving up authentic creole classics. [Photo courtesy of Travel Unity]

Now, three years later, VLC – the DMO for Calcasieu Parish, which has the second-largest budget in the state of Louisiana – has matured in its DEI journey. It helps that the organization’s staff is more diverse than ever, with a workplace culture that fosters welcoming and belonging. Timothy Bush, who joined VLC as Chief Marketing Officer in 2022, describes the workplace culture: “The ability to show up as who you are, as an individual, and to be seen by other people in the organization,” aligns with VLC’s vision for the destination to be a welcoming place where all visitors feel comfortable. “Authentic kindness” is one of the three values of the organization, “In all our endeavors, we exercise intentional care and compassion.”

Beyond pandering: The importance of authenticity

VLC emphasizes consistent and authentic messaging. For instance, the organization recognizes that Pride is not just for June – awareness and advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights must be communicated throughout the year. Bush cautions against focusing on LGBTQ+ rights only during Pride Month simply because it sounds like the right thing to do. “Not necessarily,” he says, “because at that point, it becomes pandering, and we don’t want to pander to our audiences.” He goes on to elaborate that marketing to LGBTQ+ travelers doesn’t mean just showing the gay club, for example, it means recognizing that gay men are travelers with diverse interests such as golfing, dining, and relaxing by the pool – just like other travelers.

Bush also understands that marketing the destination to LGBTQ+ travelers solely in June is insufficient from a DEI perspective if the destination is not welcoming year-round. To bridge this gap and ensure alignment, VLC has, with guidance from Travel Unity, developed a comprehensive DEI Plan, serving as a blueprint for their goals in the coming years. Some specific action items from the plan include reviewing the employee lifecycle through a DEI lens, conducting an analysis of internal documents to emphasize welcoming and belonging within the team, and planning constant communication with employees about DEI topics at team meetings.

The Visit Lake Charles team. Diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives support strategic and effective management. [Photo courtesy of Travel Unity]

VLC currently has a team of 23, with an intentional representation of different races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, and gender expressions. “We have a very good diversity of staff, and what that diversity should do for us is give us the real perspective to be able to make thoughtful decisions about how we’re doing what we’re doing,” explains Bush. Their marketing reflects this diversity, by showing people of various skin colors, family statuses, abilities, and sexual orientations.

VLC is also intentional about featuring Black, Latino, and LGBTQ+ businesses in its marketing collateral and deliberate about representation in its media, as evident on VLC’s Instagram account. Crucially, there is no explicit messaging in marketing copy, but representation alone speaks volumes.

Uncomfortable conversations: The importance of community engagement

These creatives are done in tandem with the community through conversations with Lake Charles residents from underrepresented groups such as the LGBTQ+ community and the accessibility community. This continued engagement through activities such as quarterly hotel meetings, resident sentiment studies, and industry surveys allows VLC to uncover weaknesses and opportunities, and foster connection, awareness, and community, helping VLC build sustainable practices and communication.

Ongoing stakeholder engagement has uncovered workforce issues and staffing shortages, which has led to the creation of a Hospitality Career Fair hosted by VLC in partnership with the City of Lake Charles, the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, the Southwestern Louisiana Community College, and Louisiana’s regional Workforce Development Office, run by the Louisiana Department of Labor.  This was a successful event, with more than 50 partners and 75 participants, 21 of whom left with new job offers, and another 10 with second interviews scheduled.

Timothy Bush, Chief Marketing Officer for Visit Lake Charles. [Photo courtesy of Travel Unity]

According to Bush, “Everybody has a place to start within their own communities.” He suggests understanding the experiences of wheelchair users by promoting local accessible restaurants where they feel comfortable, or supporting LGBTQ+ frequented places and understanding why they visit. He elaborates, “If you are a person of the LGBTQ+ community, where do you feel comfortable going where you can be yourself? Tell us the places you are going, and tell us why, and let’s build messaging and support those places that are already doing these things.” VLC believes it all begins with local community conversations.

VLC has also incorporated accessibility into its DEI and stakeholder engagement strategies. While Lake Charles currently lacks accessible beaches for wheelchair users, the destination is working to showcase other accessible attractions and raise awareness among other industry partners such as the new children’s museum currently under construction. Bush acknowledges that there is a lot of work to be done and they won’t be able to challenge everything, but, he says, “We will take it in blocks and move the needle on as many of those things as we can to build a better community. We’re focused on talking to our partners and understanding where our accessibility challenges are.” He adds, “I’m still learning like everybody else is.”

Not just for show: Promoting DEI internally

Bush not only leads VLC’s internal DEI committee, but also co-chairs the EDI committee for Destinations International, and the DEI committee for the Louisiana Travel Association. His passion stems from his own qualifications and lived experiences as a Black, gay man. He has learned to speak up and create awareness because people don’t always consider the many challenges visitors may experience in their destination. His advice to other destinations? Open the dialogue, and get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. He adds, “That is the only path forward with this work. You have to be willing to do the work; you have to be able to have the conversations; you cannot be afraid of those things.”

He adds, “We have to put resources toward our priorities. For organizations that believe DEI is a priority, then how do we get that done?” This may mean reallocating budgets, hiring external consultants, or bringing on a Chief Diversity Officer, whatever it takes to realize those DEI priorities.

Local live music at the Rendezvous South event in Lake Charles. [Photo by Kathryn Shea Duncan]

What Bush most wants people to know and understand is that DEI, when done with real intention and heart, is a continuous effort to build better, stronger, and more thoughtful communities. He says, “When people are able to see themselves in that, then you’ve created not just a place people want to visit, but also a place where people want to live.”

And that is why DEI matters to destination stewardship.

For more insights about Visit Lake Charles’ approach to DEI and more tips about building DEI in a DMO, read VLC’s blog article, “Creating Welcoming & Belonging Through DEI,” written by Angie Manning, VP of Communications at Visit Lake Charles.