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.