It's time for change in regional Australian tourism

As Tilma Group’s 10th birthday celebrations come to an end Tilma’s Managing Director Linda Tillman would like to share her views on regional tourism trends and what needs to change in order to see success in our regions into the future.

Be warned! Some of this is blunt and perhaps what some regions and industry bodies would prefer to keep under the carpet, and many may not agree, but Linda wanted to end the party on a high and tell you what she really thinks!

I have worked in the industry for 15 years, and in this time I have worked with regional and rural communities across many parts of Australia (Tennant Creek, Ballarat, Orange, Alice Springs, Cape Tribulation, Goomeri, Kingaroy, Warwick, Tenterfield, Phillip Island, the Southern Highlands, Felton, Longreach, Winton, Blackall, Deniliquin to name a few from 2018 alone).

I get to see many state and regional structures and strategies. It always boggles me to see so much duplication and inefficiencies going on in regions, so I think it’s time for me to share what I believe needs to change…for what it’s worth!

1. Do we need Regional Tourism Organisations (RTOs)?

Why do we have the middle man when we are constantly talking about how to make the industry better, how to change, what the role of RTOs is, etc? There is nonstop debate and debacle about RTOs across most states, but no one has been bold enough to say (well, not in my time anyway), do we actually need this layer to our industry? What positive impact are they having at the moment?

Should Local Government be resourced to play a stronger role in tourism? In the past 12 months I have been working much closer with many regional and rural councils, supporting them in strategic planning and activation of a sustainable tourism and events economy.

If we can get Local Government making better decisions and resource them with the right personnel (that are not distracted by politics…haha), then surely this could be a consideration???

Maybe if we push the responsibility for tourism in this direction and provide incentives, we may also start to see more funding models that involve levy systems and/or user pays contributions.

Imagine a strong Local Government tourism department working alongside an industry body to drive destination development and marketing. Maybe… What do you think?

2. No more wastage!

The industry is wasting so much money, time and human resources duplicating, tripping over each other and talking rubbish!

How many plans does each state and region have piled up in their offices? I would love to know how much money has been spent on strategies and plans in the last 12 months alone…It would have to be millions!

And what about the multiple destination websites…

Let’s not mention the multiple industry bodies in one region all trying to achieve the same thing…

We need to get our act together and stop wasting resources unnecessarily. I would like to see less talk and more action - collaborative action! Rather than justifying your existence with another strategy or plan, focus on doing and activating existing plans and strategies to drive results.

3. Power to the industry

Stop holding back entrepreneurs and operators that want to invest and do great things.

There are so many amazing people in regional and rural destinations that are ready and willing to take risk to create great experiences. Imagine if funding programs like the Building Better Regions Fund was open to these entrepreneurs, instead of only funding not-for-profit organisations…wowsers, now that’s a novel idea!

Let’s not talk about compliance and red tape…and the egos of way too many government departments…OMG!

If we started saying yes more than we say no, our industry would see more and more exciting and vibrant projects coming to fruition. Guaranteed!

4. Get over yourselves, people

Why are we still having conversations about the need to collaborate and overcoming parochial nonsense?!

This one makes me want to jump in front of a truck, seriously! As a mum of two primary school kids, I can’t believe how childish our industry can be. My kids play nicer in the sand pit than many adults in regional tourism.

It’s time to stop thinking about yourself and to think about the industry. What will give the best outcomes? The answer will often be support a neighbour, partner with the ‘enemy’, or invest in a marketing campaign that does not mention your town name.

We have been talking about collaboration and resource sharing for years, but it has progressed so little. What do we need to do to break down this barrier!?

5. Bring in some fresh blood

We need new leaders, we need to get more youth in senior positions, and we need to fire all of those who say ‘But we have tried that in the past…’

We see it everywhere – leaders that are past their used-by date but are too selfish to move on. Job security is important, but if you really want the best for the region you need to realise when your time is up and move on.

Then we have good old politics – personally I am not interested in this, but many are. We see way too many Local Government Tourism Managers constrained by local politics, which burns them out and squashes their creativity and enthusiasm.

We need fresh new blood in many of our regions, so how do we encourage tourism graduates and young entrepreneurs to make their way into regional tourism?

6. Listen to your customers and take some risks

Yes, you all say that you are doing this, but we know that politics, personality and job protection get in the way.

7. Membership-based organisations need to visit Burning Man and put themselves out of their misery

Seriously, why do we still have membership based organisations? What a waste of time and money.

These poor organisations spend 80% of their time recruiting members and the other 20% justifying their existence to said members.

Maybe we need fewer industry bodies and more agile and efficient industry bodies?

The best thing I have seen in years is the new Destination Network model in NSW. I know this is dependent on loads of State Government funding, but it goes to show the impact that can happen when you remove membership.

8. Capacity-building should become the new destination marketing!

We can’t build and market sustainable destinations without solid foundations, so why is so much time, energy and $$ going into destination marketing when many of our regions aren’t even able to deliver on the expected experience when visitors arrive?

It’s time to shift the focus from destination marketing to capacity building in many of our regional and rural destinations.

But, let’s not just roll out the same-same bootcamps and training programs. Think masterminds, coaching, incubator programs, camps….there are so many fun and effective ways to learn these days.

A couple of examples are the Guest Experience Map (GEM) for marketing and rEvents Academy for event committees.

9. Support events

Events are huge drivers of visitation, but they are still expected to operate on volunteer resources. Really?!

Most regional destinations across Australia have a level of reliance on a festival or event to help create brand appeal and drive visitation….and many of these events’ committees are really struggling.

It’s time to stop drip feeding destination events with marketing funds and to show some serious support in the form of human resources to allow more festivals and events to realise their full potential.

10. Regional Australia is more than a couple of hot spots

…the Great Ocean Road, Blue Mountains, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Alice Springs, Kimberlies, Barossa…

Yes, that’s right – Australia is full of untapped rural destinations that need support to realise their potential as visitor destinations. I know our State and Federal bodies need to reach KPIs and it’s easier to do this by focusing on the regional hot spots, but all this does is create overtourism in the perimeter of Australia and a continued struggle for everyone else.

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Wow, it feels great to have that off my chest as we wrap up another year

I hope this has stirred you up a little, created some hot debate, and made you think a little differently.

I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings for regional tourism – I’d like to order some change please!

A big shout out to our US colleague Bill Baker from Total Destination Marketing who has been a great sounding board and has provided insights into his observations during a major review of regional tourism in NSW in 2013. Stay tuned for Bill’s new book that will feature some input from Tilma’s Linda Tillman!

If you enjoyed this read and would like to chat regional and rural tourism with Linda …or perhaps you would like to debate the ideas expressed here, why not connect with Linda on LinkedIn or pick her brain via PiiQQA.

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