Governance for Tourism Boards and Destinations
Welcome to Tourism Upgrade, the podcast unpacking marketing trends from travel, tourism, and marketing leaders. I’m your host, HollyG, and today we welcome Airbnb expert and host and governance and strategy consultant, Jodie Willmer. We’ll be having a discussion on governance for tourism destinations and specifically talking about some issues impacting marketing activities.
What is governance, and is why is it something that tourism destinations need to have on their radar?
Jodie Willmer: Sometimes people think governance is actually something that’s quite complex and a bit ethereal and difficult to understand, so part of my passion is to help people, make it clear and simple and give them the tools and the confidence to be able to do things better. In a tourism context, there are already existing structures for organisations. For example, there might be a local Chamber of Commerce, there might be an incorporated association and there’s also regional tourism bodies that might have representatives from different parts of the region or some specific skills. That regional tourism organisation might have the overall responsibility to market the destination outside the region and have cooperative partnerships with destinational marketing state bodies as well. There are already a number of organisations who have boards and committees. Essentially governance is actually the way that organisations operate lawfully, transparently, and accountably to achieve their strategic goals.
“Governance is actually the way that organisations operate lawfully, transparently, and accountably to achieve their strategic goals” – Jodie Willmer
If we think about it quite simply, members to a regional tourism organisation are like shareholders or stakeholders, and so when they pay their membership fees, they’re paying to contribute to a number of functions. That could be professional development training. It could be advocacy or representation. It could also be cooperative marketing. We’re actually entrusting those boards and those people employed in those organisations and volunteers to use that money wisely and also make decisions that are in the best interest of the greater good and not for specific individuals’ benefit. Governance is really about the systems, the processes and the activities that help people make really transparent and accountable decisions and that help them achieve their goals.
Governance is not just about lots of meetings and I’m not sure if you’ve been on any committees or boards, Holly, but I know a lot of people who I work with feel a huge sense of frustration about meetings that are unproductive, that are unfocused, strategies that people don’t really embed and understand. What I like to do is help them make it simple and clear and so that they can navigate through all of those concerns and actually achieve the goals that they want to achieve.
HollyG: I think it’s a great way to look at it. What sort of work have you been doing in this space?
Jodie Willmer: Just recently, we’ve conducted two governance evaluations of different types of tourism marketing organisations. There’s different structures obviously in different states and territories across Australia, but the most common ones are an incorporated association or a company limited by guarantee. That has to do with different regulations and different types of liability. Essentially, the work we’ve been doing is working with the boards of these organisations who are in tourism marketing to focus in on what are the things that those board members need to be doing in their role of governing the organisation and bringing their experience and their networks and their skills to that organisation. That includes looking at their strategic direction, understanding the board’s discussions about risk and compliance and are they in fact aware of the things that they need to comply with? Are they paying their BAS on time? Are they making sure that the work cover is being paid for the employees? Are they doing things lawfully and in accordance with different standards?
We also look at finance. Are the financial reports clear? Are they being reported to the board in a timely manner? Basically, we look at a range of different areas of responsibilities that boards have. What we’re not looking in at is say the marketing activities and … But we’re actually focusing in on what are the outcomes of that work and how is that being reported back up to the board to help them be assured that they’re actually on track?
HollyG: Yeah, because I know from my experience of being on some regional tourism boards that a lot of people including myself at that time … You’re coming in with not that sort of experience. My experience and others’ experience is about running a business or being able to market something. People on tourism boards and I guess especially in different areas, they might not have had that experience in understanding their responsibilities and what’s required.
Jodie Willmer: Yeah, I think it goes vary and it varies for a range of different reasons. Most people have had some sort of exposure to committees and boards, so they might work in an organisation and they report up to the CEO and the CEO deals with the board, so they’ve had a bit of a at an arm’s length involvement. Or they may have seen and heard about boards but not really sat on one themselves, so I guess in a part of my role in working with boards is helping them set people up for success. One of the ways that that can be done really effectively to help people who may not have had any board experience is to have a fantastic orientation or induction process for the board members. I’m just in the middle of doing a board evaluation for a very well known and well regarded regional tourism organisation at the moment. People, as part of this evaluation, do speak very openly and frankly, which is fantastic. A number of people said, “It took me probably 6 to 12 months to just get my head around all the acronyms that people were talking about and trying to understand who’s who in the zoo.”
There are some really good solutions to help people be more effective in their decision making and to bring those talents and skills to the board more quickly, by having a stakeholder matrix that helps them understand who are the different tourism and other stakeholders and how does the organisation interact with them and then how do people keep in touch and communicate. There’s very essential, basic tools like that that if you induct people well in the beginning just as you would an employee, those board directors or committee members can really hit the ground running. I think you made a great point there about your experience, Holly, about running a business. What I like to equate it is that if you run your own business, you want to keep an eye on cash flow, you want to make sure that you’ve got a marketing plan, that you’ve got budgets and that you’re actually being effective in evaluating your work. It’s really much the same sort of work being on a committee and board. Sometimes people say that, “Oh, I’m not a committee person. I’m a business person.” What I like to encourage them to do is say, “Well, wear your business hat and how would you run this business if you were actually responsible for all aspects of it?”
HollyG: Yeah, great. So many good points there.
Are there any specific governance issues that impact either social media or marketing specifically?
Jodie Willmer: Many organisations, especially if they are quite small, may not have the written policies about dealing with the media to start with, so mainstream media and social media. They might not have business continuity planning. For example, if they’re in a bush fire prone area and they might not have a written document that says, “This is what we’re going to do to prevent any issues for people working within the organisation or say volunteers at the visitor centre or even our visitors and guests in the region.” Where I see a lot of difficulties occur from a governance point of view is that sometimes there’s just a lack of written policies to start with. That can be a reputation risk for the organisation. It might mean that there’s just a lack of communication when it’s appropriate and when it’s needed and in a timely way. It could also be there might not be clear standards that are set out to employees and volunteers and board members about their use about social media or speaking to the media representing the organisation. I see there’s huge benefits of having very simple documents that explain to people what their responsibilities are, but also who are the designated people who are authorised to speak to media, because especially if there’s a crisis, there can be some terrible things that can be reported because the person who’s dealing with the media might not have the training.
HollyG: Are we seeing any changes in governance over time moving into incorporating more corporate social responsibility in that line rather than just the economic side of things?
Jodie Willmer: Yes, absolutely. I think in regional tourism organisations, there might already be established relationships with charities or for-purpose organisations, environmental groups, landcare, that sort of thing. I’m saying that there’s a little bit more of a focus of how can we bring in these non-traditional partners and engage with them in a meaningful way that is of benefit to the broader community, but also helps people establish new types of relationships and new types of experiences for the visitors coming to the region. Traditionally, many non-profit organisations don’t tend to partner with other non-profits in a corporate social responsibility sort of way, because really what they’re doing is already providing some sort of community benefit. I am saying particularly marketing organisations think about how they can provide meaningful opportunities for their employees to engage with non-profits or charities, and especially millennials who are looking for different types of employment objectives. They’re looking for generally – I am generalising – but many people are looking for some sort of corporate social responsibility commitments from their organisation they work for.
One of the organisations I did a governance evaluation for, which is a regional tourism body, actually have two charitable partnerships with two organisations that are aligned with their purpose and that provides a great opportunity for their organisation’s members who advertise in different publications for tourism to also contribute donations to the charity. It’s quite interesting to see the different types of partnerships that are evolving.
HollyG: Yeah, fantastic. Is it different in different countries or is it quite similar say between Australia and the US in terms of governance issues?
Jodie Willmer: I think the main difference between say Australia and the US about governance is there’s obviously different types of regulations. In Australia, there’s different types of the Corporations Act and the Australian Charities Not For Profit Commission and then there’s state-based incorporated associations as well. In the US, what I see is that the boards tend to be bigger. It’s not uncommon for a non-profit board in the US to have up to 20 directors.
Jodie Willmer: I used to be a CEO reporting to a board. My board, we had 12 people. We did a governance review and then we had 8 positions. Generally, in Australia the mantra is a little bit less is best, but in the US, the governance function of those really big boards is often a bit more of an advisory process and they tend to be made up of various stakeholders, where in Australia, the boards, especially in tourism, tend to be representative of different parts of a region and then maybe some individual skills-based appointments. What we’re seeing in Australia emerging more and more so in tourism boards is that there are independent chairs that are appointed jointly from the organisation and from government, especially if there’s government funding. That’s quite different, where we’re seeing I guess more of a sophistication and professionalisation of these boards.
HollyG: I guess I’ve got two final questions. I’ll ask them both and see. Would you be encouraging people who work in the industry to get board experience or to participate and do you need to have done a certain course is there any sort of things if people are thinking about getting more involved, what would you say that people should be doing?
Would you be encouraging people who work in the industry to get board experience or to participate?
Jodie Willmer: They’re great questions. I’ll tackle the first one first about participating on boards. I would definitely encourage people in the tourism industry to think about ways they can contribute above and beyond their day job. A nice way to start, to dip your toe in the water, might be to volunteer for a local sporting club that you’re passionate about. It could be a welfare charity. It could be doing something like some sort of food bank type thing. It doesn’t need to be tourism related and I think doing some sort of voluntary work to start with helps people get in the mindset of being of service. Doing something that’s unpaid and doing it for different types of motivations. When I do governance evaluations, I always talk about the importance of understanding people’s individual goals and how can we help develop them to be the best board members they can be. It’s holistic. It has to be about the whole person.
If an individual person has some ambitions and career goals to one day be the CEO of a regional tourism organisation, well, one of the great ways to build that knowledge and expertise about dealing with boards is perhaps to be on a board. That’s actually what I did. I got out of the tourism industry, got onto some boards, built that experience and expertise, and then came back in as a CEO of a non-profit in the tourism industry. The pathway isn’t linear and I think people can really benefit personally. When I say benefit personally, I mean in terms of skills and experience, but also in terms of building their networks and relationships. Especially regional tourism organisations might be part of a leadership programme where that’s people from local government and other types of industries who come together, even doing a leadership programme like that is a fantastic experience that can help build your skills and experience to identify potential opportunities.
Jodie Willmer: Second question was about courses and pathways. I guess the benefits of being on a non-profit board is that there are fairly low barriers to entry, but that’s also a disadvantage. As a basic first step, I would recommend if people are really serious about getting onto boards to do a Certificate IV in Governance is a fantastic course. I did it myself and I thoroughly enjoyed, but I’m a bit of a governance geek. If people are serious about doing particularly high level government appointments or large organisations doing the Australian Institute of Company Directors course. It’s more costly. It’s more involved, but again, the best experience is the practical experience. We’re always learning and growing and if we’re not, then we shouldn’t be in the role.
HollyG: Yeah, good point. Jodie, thank you so much. I think it’s fantastic and I didn’t even know about the cert four in governance and I think that could be definitely a good starting point. I love the idea as well as maybe starting just to be a volunteer in something and using that as a bit of a stepping stone to get into that mindset of contributing. I think that’s a really really good point as well.
Jodie Willmer: Yeah, and it’s also a great thing to discuss with your employer. I spoke to a lady a couple of days ago as part of governance evaluation I’m doing of a regional tourism board. She said that the way that she got onto the regional tourism organisation was talking to her boss and having it built into her performance and that professional development plan and her boss leveraged some relationships to introduce her. Now, she still got onto the board with her own merits, but she recognised that there was some things that she really wanted to learn, particularly for her about finance. One of the ways she could do that would be to be on a board, so be open with those conversations with people, whether they’re at service clubs like Rotary or whether it’s somebody who you know in your own networks, because most people would know someone who’s looking for someone on a board.
HollyG: Great. Now, where can people find out a little bit more about you and connect with you?
Tweet me with any comments or feedback @hollygalbraith or email is good too holly (at) hollyg.com.au
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