Rodney Payne on City Branding, the Climate Emergency and Destination Sustainability

Rodney Payne is an entrepreneur, business leader and the CEO of Destination Think – a leading agency and consultancy helping destinations around the world with their identity and positioning. We caught up with Rodney to pick his brains on the company’s recent work with Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. He also shares his thoughts on what it takes to build and maintain a successful city (or destination) brand and what the climate crisis means for the tourism industry and the future of destination branding.


Rodney, what was your inspiration behind the Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland city brand?

Our process is all about co-creation. The brand rests on the truth of the city as expressed by residents. We planned the project in collaboration with Auckland Unlimited and guided the development. But places aren’t products for marketers to invent, which is why the brand was made using an inclusive, holistic method where the inspiration always comes from locals.

We’ve had this holistic mindset since Destination Think began about a decade ago. One outcome is the development of our Place DNA® methodology. The DNA is the truth of a place – its identity. This evolves slowly over time. But a place brand is what people hear about that identity, and this is where places and destinations have some choice.

Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s brand was built on the foundation provided by Place DNA® – an ideal scenario. That foundation ensured that the brand project was a collaboration with residents and supported by local communities. In this case, the co-creation included collaborative workshops, focus groups, and engagement with Māori community members. The amount of outreach in this project was thorough.

Place branding is complex for many reasons, but especially because it reveals many of the ways residents, visitors, cultures, and the environment are interconnected. A tourism destination is not separate from its place, a destination is simply the tourism sector of that city or destination. More destinations are realizing this as the industry experiences shocks like the pandemic.

What can we learn from the pandemic as place managers or marketers? 

Many places have seen how quickly their communities can respond to a global emergency when there are life-and-death stakes. Responses to COVID-19 have been messy and inequitable, but it is generally encouraging to see that the world has a great capacity to mobilize against threats to human well-being.

During the pandemic, we have also seen that tourism is extremely vulnerable in some places. Air travel and cruises can be cancelled at a moment’s notice. Long-haul travel is very much at risk. Places with diverse visitor mixes and economies have thrived relative to those that depend on one market.

The tourism industry has ridden a big wave for two decades with rising visitation – a trend that could not continue forever. In the wake of the pandemic, and facing the climate crisis, leadership has a responsibility to think about resilience. Climate change is a massive blind spot in our industry. Travel and tourism are at risk of lagging behind and losing the social license to operate. We need to ruggedize the industry.

There has been some progress, but more destinations need to acknowledge the integration of place and destination because tourism is becoming a service that often needs to be managed more than promoted in traditional marketing terms. This has become painfully obvious in fragile locations like Venice, or in the overcrowding of national parks in North America. But the climate crisis is global, and no place can escape the responsibility to manage visitation.

What should those responsible for destinations and places do to build resilience? 

Places and destinations need to protect the best interests of their residents. This was true before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has highlighted the need for destination management organizations to support resident safety and quality of life. Places with a wildfire risk are another example. Tourism marketers have to account for the real-time threats to visitation.

Economic diversification is part of the equation. Within tourism, this means building industry not solely dependent on international visitors. In the medium term, we’re looking toward a period that is more focused on near-in travel. We’ve seen many destinations with a balanced visitor mix, and places with diverse economies, thrive in the past year.

And there is so much more. Paraphrasing Zita Cobb, a social entrepreneur on Fogo Island: To find resilience, places need to build a dome of protection over their communities.

What does that dome of protection look like?

It means doing the opposite of extractive tourism. A place could start by reducing tourism leakage. Leakage happens when the money spent during a trip leaves the destination instead of staying with local people. In some places, leakage can rise to 80% or more, which impoverishes the destination while often sending money back to the international headquarters of a global chain based in the traveller’s home country.

Income inequality and a lack of affordable housing are two issues that come up in many of our workshops with residents. There are legitimate concerns that, as tourism makes a place more desirable, rents and property values rise, driving locals away from their neighbourhoods. Displacement like this damages local culture and ways of life.

Tourism also needs to protect and regenerate the natural environment. Many places are beginning to encourage visitors to travel responsibly, for example. Education is a good start, and this can improve visitation at the local level.

The far greater challenge, though, is climate change. Tourism cannot continue to send the environment the bill for its activities. Much has been written on this. But places, and therefore destinations, must immediately begin learning how to measure and reduce their emissions from tourism, including the stage 3 emissions that result from transport to a place. It’s important that every place becomes part of the solution. And, as more governments begin to mandate emissions reduction, the places that anticipate the change and act early will have an advantage.

What are some of the risks you’re seeing?

Global climate change and the loss of biodiversity will have localized effects that are increasingly unpredictable. The extreme heatwave across the west of North America in June has been just one example. As these events, unfortunately, cause losses of life and damage communities and habitats, they are awakening people to the dangers posed by inaction.

Environmental dangers will continue to disrupt tourism. Climate-amplified wildfires, for example, change travel patterns and cause last-minute closures, cancellations and itinerary changes. Destinations in this situation risk losing the natural splendour that drives tourism, and might also find that lingering smoke drives visitors away or places them in danger. In some places, there are concerns about safety, and residents might wonder whether visitors are helping or hindering an emergency response.

When communities face disaster, they will focus on survival and resilience. It is difficult to prioritize tourism management when under evacuation orders. Civic and marketing organizations that fail to both mitigate the potential damages and contribute to climate solutions will lose public support. Even without a natural disaster, your community will backlash against tourism at some point if the industry isn’t working for the locals, but is instead causing hollowed-out neighbourhoods, poverty, and natural degradation. These factors will all have an enormous effect on a place’s brand.

The good news is that residents will tell you how they feel about tourism if you ask them. They will let you know what to protect and where your place’s vulnerabilities are. The Place DNA® process I mentioned from our Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland project is the way to find out. In many cases, it has been the missing link for community planning and brand planning.

How do you measure the success of city branding?

Public sentiment is critical. A place brand is the sum of the experiences people have and the stories they tell. Word of mouth has an enormous effect on a place brand, which is why we built the Tourism Sentiment Index (TSI). Many destinations are using TSI to measure sentiment toward places and tourism experiences by analyzing online word of mouth. Our team developed TSI in 2018 and it has since spun off into a new company that now provides TSI Live, which is a real-time dashboard for sentiment analysis specific to destinations.

Beyond sentiment, we push our clients to expand definitions of success to include social, cultural and environmental values. The real value of tourism improves a place in all these ways in addition to meeting economic goals. We are also considering new metrics destinations will need to use, as the carbon footprint per visitor dollar, for example.

Which cities would you consider good examples to follow for their innovative and successful approach to city branding?

Amsterdam is one. Its city council made a new regulation capping tourism to 20 million stays per year while also setting a minimum target of 10 million. This reflects strategic concepts from doughnut economics, which aims to work within ecological limits as well as prioritize local well-being.

Valencia, Spain has become the first global destination to measure and verify its carbon footprint from tourism, and it has a commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2025. Auckland has also recently measured its tourism footprint to set a baseline for emissions reduction.

Norway is one of the strongest examples of a place that cities could learn from. They have released a very strong National Tourism Strategy 2030 with firm commitments to sustainability and reducing emissions.

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

The world can’t wait any longer for your ambitious, creative, and courageous leadership. Place managers and destination marketers need to do what is important and what is right. Travel is built upon privilege, and that privilege needs to be used to collectively improve the places we represent and care for. The time is now.

Thank you, Rodney.

Connect with Rodney Payne on LinkedIn or visit destinationthink.com for further insights and advice on how tourism can lead to a better future.

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