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Leadership: How to Bend Without Breaking

By Matthew Landkamer

Leadership is hard enough when everything is going according to plan. When something unexpected happens, or when something you need as a leader doesn’t materialize, it can be downright tough. Resiliency is a hot topic these days in business circles, and for good reason—with increases in the speed and complexity of markets and geopolitical forces, as well as an increase in extreme weather events, organizations need to be prepared to bend, not break, when they encounter the unexpected.

We asked four travel & tourism leaders how they cope with the unexpected, whether unplanned negative events or when they have an amazing opportunity. 

Participants:

 

 


When the Unexpected Comes to Visit

You could say that Chuck Davison saw it coming, but he and his team at Visit SLO CAL had no way to imagine the scale of a surprise they were in for. As he recalls, “In 2016, we began developing a detailed countywide Crisis Communications Plan which identified almost 20 specific crisis situations, including a mudslide and closure of Highway 1, and how to react in the most strategic way.” They figured they had it covered when a landslide happened in November, at first covering only a small stretch of Highway 1. But Mother Nature had more in store—bad weather piled on top of bad weather led to the largest slide on record in California, incredibly adding 14.5 acres of land to the California coastline. The reality of the situation began to set in for Davison and his team, but even then, they didn’t understand the full scope of the disruption. “When the Mud Creek Slide occurred, we knew we were in for a long and extremely challenging year, but we had no expectation then that the road would remain closed for 20 months or more,” said Davison.

When the hit television show Portlandia debuted on IFC in January of 2011, Travel Portland knew immediately that this was something they could take advantage of. Greg Newland  remembers that, “[We] embraced the show pretty early on. We created some guides to filming locations; those proved popular. We also aired some TV spots in conjunction with the show.” Despite recognizing its potential, there were probably very few people—in the television industry or otherwise—who would have predicted that a quirky send-up of a city’s culture, fronted by a comedian and rock star-turned-comedic-actor, would last for eight seasons. Newland added, “It’s fair to say that Portlandia’s longevity and impact exceeded our expectations.”

In February of 2017, responding to Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s intent to have the national designation rescinded for the Bears Ears National Monument, The Outdoor Retailer trade show announced that it would no longer hold its events in Salt Lake City as it had for more than 20 years. Scott Beck, President and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, knew exactly what this meant in terms of what the trade shows contributed to the local economy. “As a community, we knew the direct economic impact of the attendee spending for each show. The last three years the average spend by an Outdoor Retailer attendee was $943 per show. With over 40,000 annual attendees at the two shows, we knew that the annual impact of the direct attendee spending was nearly $40 million dollars annually in our city, county and state. Alongside the direct impact, we could also use the same economic modeling to show the induced and indirect impact of the delegate spending as well, bringing the total annual economic impact of the two OR Shows on our state and local economies to nearly $150 million dollars.” It wasn’t just an impact in terms of visitor dollars, either, as Beck recounts, “It was emotionally very hard to envision not working with the team from Emerald Expositions (the parent company for the Outdoor Retailer shows), and not hosting the Outdoor Retailer attendees, who had become friends to many within our destination,” said Beck.

Guðrið Højgaard knew she had to create her own disruption. Højgaard, the Director of Tourism for Visit Faroe Islands, couldn’t get the tiny North Atlantic country on the map—literally: “The Faroe Islands are so small that they many times are not even visible on the world map. And as Google today is synonymous with the world map and we weren’t listed on Google Street View, we thought that we should make a funny test to see if they would respond. David versus Goliath.” They didn’t have Google Street View, but one thing they did have a lot of was sheep—lots and lots of sheep (more on that later).


Responding as a Team

For these leaders, responding to the situation they found themselves in meant recognizing and leveraging the strengths of their organization, finding creative approaches, or working hard to strike a balance.

At Visit Salt Lake, Beck’s team hunkered down and started immediately working on filling the near-term gap that the loss of the Outdoor Retailer show created. “Because it was an unexpected—or at least an early departure for the show—we were faced with a need for a short-term focus of our direct sales efforts. We re-deployed two positions, allocating some of our funds to go toward cooperative sales and marketing efforts with our major hotel partners to strategically target individual property level or short-term business,” said Beck.

Greg Newland recalls that his marketing team looked for ways to capitalize on the show’s success without putting all their eggs in the Portlandia basket: “We trusted that our customers would get the jokes. So, it wasn’t a situation for us to address; rather, it was an opportunity for us to leverage. That said, we knew we also needed to tell lots of non-Portlandia stories, because Portland is not just one thing (even if one of the things is a popular sketch-comedy show). And we continue to look for ways to celebrate the current moment, but not fetishize it. We can’t get too precious with it, because Portland will continue to change, as it always has.”

For Chuck Davison, it meant he and the rest of the Visit SLO CAL team needed to spring into action. “In the weeks that followed [the landslide], our team made over 120 in-person visits to hotels, vacation rental management companies, B&Bs, RV Parks, Chambers and Welcome Centers, delivering laminated re-route maps and directions along with talking points to assist in correct and consistent communications. We developed a landing page to house all of the information and updates. We provided digital copies of the documents that partners could use in communications and on their websites and pushed the materials through our DMO and Welcome Center partners as far south as Anaheim and as far north as San Francisco. We launched co-op marketing to showcase the destinations along the north coast of Highway 1 as open and accessible.”

It also meant that Visit SLO CAL needed to reach out beyond the organization to organize the response: “I focused on doing the work that others were not prepared or able to do. I began advocating for our region and worked closely with Visit California. I conducted outreach to our regional elected officials, and began working with their staff to amplify the issue. I met with our Assemblyman, Senator and Lt. Governor, sharing with them the negative economic impact the closure was having on tourism, our local partners and tax revenue. I asked for their assistance with encouraging Caltrans to work faster and more efficiently to rebuild the road; we also discussed the importance of working to announce a plan and timeline for the re-opening.”

Meanwhile, on the Faroe Islands, they began strapping cameras onto sheep—if they couldn’t have Street View, they reasoned, they would create Sheep View, and they began mapping the island using these ruminants as their guides. The Sheep View campaign went viral, resulting in the Faroe Islands getting a lot more attention than just Google’s. As Højgaard put it, “We managed to get Google’s attention and we have been told that 30 Google employees got involved in the project and five of them came to the Faroe Islands to help out with the recordings. We got more than two billion media impressions in the whole world and probably almost 100 million dollars in PR value. On top of that, we have also won around 35 awards [from around the world].” 


Leadership’s Role in Dealing With the Unexpected

Effective leadership means picking up leadership lessons as you go—and moments of unexpected turbulence are fertile ground for leadership lessons. We asked each of these leaders what they learned.

At Visit SLO CAL, Davison realized that he needed to be able to redirect human resources in a more nimble fashion in any future situation like this: “As much as we were prepared with a plan of action, we were missing the personnel resources that needed to be devoted to this project, while still allowing us to advance other priorities in our plan. Staff time had to be diverted, which cost us traction in other areas. In the future, I would look for opportunities to offset delays through contractors or project-based employment. We did a great job collaborating across multiple agencies, strategic partners and associations, but I always believe there is opportunity to do it smarter, better and faster.”

It also forced Davison to reckon with the changing role of the organization he leads. “Destination Marketing Organizations are being forced to transition into Destination Marketing and Management Organizations. Visit SLO CAL has been structured and operating as a DMMO for years, but situations like this force organizations to evaluate that management role at an even deeper level.”

Scott Beck led his team to respond to a situation that could have been panic-inducing with calm focus. “A challenge shouldn’t change an otherwise strong strategy, it should create an opportunity to re-assess the situation with an eye to the future. So, it was not about changing, it was helping our community stay focused on the positives of what we were able to build during our 22-year relationship with the OR Shows. We stayed focused on the message of how far we had come, and how much we had grown up because of the OR Shows. In short, it was making sure people knew the 22 years we hosted these shows prepared us for their departure, and the process of finding new and exciting business for our community,” he said.

Greg Newland, in reflecting on the Portlandia phenomenon, has begun to envision a completely different role for the marketing team at Travel Portland: “We’re thinking a lot about how we can become more nimble and responsive to cultural moments, and how we can be better partners with Portland brands, bands, makers and other cultural vanguards. We’re also thinking a lot about content—and our role as creators, gatherers and disseminators of Portland stories. Clearly, works like Portlandia and Drugstore Cowboy came to life without any help from us. But what is the next Portlandia? Is there an opportunity for Travel Portland to start acting like a studio that actively pitches, concepts and develops Portland-focused documentaries, TV shows and other entertainment?”

Guðrið Højgaard is more prepared than ever to take risks and work with partners to make the impossible possible: “I continue to believe in my gut feeling. As a leader, you need to dare to take risks in order to gain results. We had not bought any advertising in connection with the campaign, so everything was left up in the hands of the international press and that they would think that this was a story worth [telling]. We put our money into planning and production and hadn’t enough money to also buy ads. That was a risk, and we could have been left without anything. The project was conducted in collaboration with our local airline carrier Atlantic Airways and they invested half of the money which I am them truly grateful for. They weren’t guaranteed any results but decided to take the risk together with us.”

What would she change if she could do it all over again? “Probably nothing, when you think about the results!”


The Takeaway

How can a leader prepare their organization and their team for what is by definition not predictable? In our experience, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Have a plan, but be prepared to deviate from it
    We believe every organization should have a strategic plan, but we also believe that a strategic plan should never be a straightjacket. Hold quarterly meetings with your leadership team to review your progress against your objectives. If you aren’t meeting your goals, investigate why—perhaps a course correction is in order. You don’t need to review your mission very often, but you should be reviewing your strategic initiatives frequently to make sure you are doing the most important work for your organization.
  2. Monitor signposts for signs of change
    Understanding where your biggest risks lie and watching for warning signs will enable your organization to respond quickly when a situation unfolds, rather than be caught twiddling your thumbs. Keep a shortlist of your most important risks (and opportunities!) and assign somebody on your team to monitor them.
  3. Have the resources to respond
    If you need to lead a response to a disruption, you will have to support that response with financial and personnel resources. Are you able to flex your budget mid-year? What work can be de-prioritized if necessary? Can you augment your team with contractors? Having answers to questions like these before you need them will ensure that you’re better positioned to respond.
  4. Be a leader who is willing to take risks
    Playing it safe is sometimes one of the riskiest moves you can make—if you aren’t stretching out of your comfort zone, those who are willing to do so will eat your lunch. When the unexpected comes to visit, you’ll need to be ready to take intelligent, strategic, and appropriate risks.

 

click here to learn more about Matthew Landkamer

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