A new path to destination organization leadership

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The face of leadership at destination organizations around the globe has been changing, slowly but steadily.

T1206BARNES_C_350X200 [Credit: By Karyl Leigh Barnes]

Karyl Leigh Barnes is the president of Development Counsellors International, which has helped more than 500 worldwide destinations position themselves as hubs for tourism, talent and investment since its founding in 1960.

I'm not talking about the appointment of more Black or LGBTQ CEOs, although it is essential that the travel industry start to make progress on these fronts. I'm not even talking about how women have been reshaping the male-dominated C-suite often found at destination organizations.

The shift I'm addressing is the path they are taking to leadership. 

Destination organizations are finding themselves on the forefront of brand management, helping to position the places they call home not only as a haven for travelers but as a place to live and work.

The new executives taking leadership roles -- people like Kristen Reynolds, CEO at Discover Long Island; Maureen Haley Thornton, the new CEO at Visit Franklin (Tenn.); and Wendy Haase, the new president of Travel Santa Ana (Calif.) -- have one thing in common: Their leadership skills have been forged in the fires of marketing communications roles, where creative and holistic thinking is paramount.

Historically, destination organizations and tourism boards focused on hiring and promoting those who came from a hospitality sales background, where dollars are the bottom line. For decades, I saw those who had mastered the hotel sales role in a community transition into sales at a destination organization or tourism board. Over time, those leading destination sales executives would arrive at the C-suite and assume a CEO role. 

But the rise to CEO isn't as linear as it once was.

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It's not just the pandemic that changed the way things are; this evolution has been happening for years. But the pandemic has expedited this transition toward a more inclusive CEO, toward someone who is not only focused on filling hotel rooms. Today, CEOs are the custodians of destination brands, and a hospitality sales background is no longer the golden ticket to the top.

We're seeing a rise of a different type of CEO, someone from a marketing or communications background who may never have walked the sales path at all. Destination organizations have started to take on the role of managing the destination brand not just for travel but for other important purposes, including attracting talent to fill the countless open jobs in communities nationwide and attracting business investment. It's not a far leap to transition from creating a positive, inspiring place to visit to creating the same sort of place to live and work.

It all comes down to understanding and succeeding at communicating that message better than ever before.

Today's CEOs are building deep connections within the cultural community and not just the hospitality community, ensuring that communities reinforce that they are good places to live. They are invested in the local education community, preparing the next generation of workforce and encouraging talent to stay local when launching their careers. And they are reinforcing connections to the broader business community, making certain they are working in tandem with local economic development organizations and the businesses they serve.

It's not an exact science, and every destination will have its own needs. Across the board, however, the bottom line has shifted. No dollar amount or convention center revenue can encapsulate how successful a destination truly is. Talent recruiters and search committees across the North American market are realizing this just in time. 

As these new communications-centric CEOs rebuild their communities following the global pandemic, they are keeping the community at the heart of every decision, making sure to communicate inclusively every step of the way. And with this shift, the travel industry is witnessing stronger representation in the C-suite. 

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