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Visit Durango leadership defines new direction

On June 14, Visit Durango’s 14-member board of directors and staff gathered in the Oak Room at the Strater Hotel for the annual Board Retreat Strategic Planning. It was a full day of strategizing, education and brainstorming. The main topics on the agenda were sustainable tourism, destination management, equity and inclusion.

The day began with facilitator Tarecka Payne, assistant director of the Fort Lewis College Diversity Collaborative, tackling some big topics. She covered several subjects, including implicit bias and privilege. The group discussed how these matters impact our locals and their potential influence on Visit Durango’s marketing and communications. As leaders in the La Plata County region, board members recognized the importance of these concepts and began learning about ways to better serve as allies for the community.

With ballot measure 1-A’s passing in April, Visit Durango expects about a 75% increase in annual funding moving forward. As the language of 1-A specified, the 55% earmarked for Visit Durango is to be used on “sustainable tourism marketing.” If you have kept up with these Tourism Effect columns, you know that Visit Durango has been in the process of transitioning toward a purpose of stewardship and destination management for quite some time. But with the new funding focus, the need for this shift is more prevalent than ever. For that reason, Visit Durango invited two experts on destination management and sustainable tourism to facilitate the majority of the retreat: Cathy Ritter, former director of the Colorado Tourism Office and founder of Better Destinations LLC, and Barb Bowman, former interim executive director of Visit Durango and founder of Bowman & Associates.

Ritter did a deep dive into what it takes to create a “net positive” visitor ecosystem. She reviewed the concept of a “triple bottom line,” where sustainability ensures a prospering environment, economy and society. She highlighted a quote from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, “Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process and it requires constant monitoring of impacts, introducing the necessary preventive and/or corrective measures whenever necessary.” Things got real when COVID-19 impacts were addressed. While the temporary halt to tourism had some positive side effects, like more parking and shorter lines, the negatives were far more impactful with lost jobs, closed businesses, loss of tax revenue and more.

Visit Durango has already made the choice of quality over quantity, however, the implementation of that philosophy can be complex. Luckily, our destination and the “new traveler” want the same thing. A study from Booking.com found that “53% of people want to travel more sustainably because COVID-19 has opened their eyes to humans’ impact on the environment.”

Ritter also introduced a new concept to the group: “regenerative tourism.” The old philosophy of tourism was what one could call “degenerative.” As of late, as industry professionals refocus, they have shifted toward “sustainable” tourism. But destinations can go a step further if they aim for “regenerative” tourism, which is a visitor ecosystem that contributes more to the community than it detracts. Hence, “net positive.”

With all this in mind for the new era of Visit Durango, the group got to work compiling a list of priorities that could be accomplished with the new focus and funding. The group walked away with seven top priorities:

  1. Off-peak season marketing for a healthier year-round tourism economy.
  2. Programmatic marketing and events/product development (e.g., restaurant week, art month, etc.).
  3. Alignment between Visit Durango stakeholders and partners with city of Durango and La Plata County.
  4. Further partnerships with local and national organizations and campaigns.
  5. A tourism economic impact and quality of life study.
  6. An enhanced resident communication program.
  7. Expansion of international sales programs.

It is clear that the board of directors, staff members and community are in agreement regarding the new more holistic approach toward La Plata County tourism. Only three of these seven top priorities are what the industry would consider “traditional destination marketing” tactics (Nos. 1, 2 and 7). The remaining four are part of destination management, leadership and stewardship of the destination.

The takeaways from the day made one thing clear – Visit Durango leadership understands the importance of sustainable tourism and is committed to creating a symbiotic relationship between our visitors and our community.

Rachel Brown is executive director of Visit Durango. She can be reached at (970) 828-1038 or rachel@durango.org.