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This is not a tourism conference: How European cities step out of their comfort zone to create change

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The Pre-Conference, on September 16, gathered experts of data, trends, marketing and decision-making that helped answer many questions for what’s next.

The European Cities Marketing (ECM) Autumn Conference which was held online on September 23-24, 2021 with a pre-conference on September 16, was the opportunity for the 300 registrants from European cities and beyond to listen and be inspired by the 80+ speakers coming from many different circles (city design & development, learning from nature’s genius, e-gaming, education, creative studio, podcast, art...). “This is not a tourism conference” focused on setting new agendas, taking time to ask the difficult questions and discussing some of the uncomfortable truths that are needed to create change: climate crisis, social tourism & citizen empowerment, racism & stereotypes in tourism, destination wellbeing, new business of events, attractivity of the tourism career path…

After the Pandemic: the Whats and Whatnots
The Pre-Conference, on September 16, gathered experts of data, trends, marketing and decision-making that helped answer many questions for what’s next. The fast-paced exploration started with the fresh ECM Benchmarking Report results, demonstrating the immense impact of the pandemic on European city tourism with cities more impacted than nations in term of bednights in 2020. Then, attendees dived into what data can tell us about the next normal of travel behaviours and patterns: the short-term rentals industry has recovered worldwide with good occupancy rates (40% in 2021 vs 48% in 2019) and an increase in the length of stay (+39% 2021 vs 2019), thus creating more visitors’ expenditure. Outdoor activities are also on the rise, more and more last-minute trips’ planning, and hotel occupancy rates slowly grow back.

#ThisIsNotATourismConference: This is just the Beginning...
This is not a tourism conference, because how could it be in this VUCA times, how can we talk about tourism as an isolated phenomenon that needs its own conference when we are facing complex challenges across all kind of sectors, across all aspects of life where either we all win or we all lose. It is a conference about the role, impact and responsibilities of tourism in our societies, cities and our communities.” began Signe Jungersted, Conference Lead Moderator.

The conference explored the beginning of the era of hybrid crises – pandemics, climate emergency, political unrest, social instability, to name a few. It was about the challenges we face and the action and changes, we can and should make: From DMOs taking climate action, to behavioural changes and new technologies, from acting against stereotyping and empowering citizens to develop new models of collaboration to build community and strengthen destination stewardship – attendees were in for a full day of challenge and inspiration.

How fast we act on climate change will determine the future that we get” claimed Rodney Payne, CEO, Destination Think.

Regarding the importance of socializing tourism, we should think in term of local cities and local ecologies, and no longer of hosts and destinations. The DMO should be more than ever integrated in the local community, have a place for visitors to get them thinking they have a role in the system. “To socialise tourism is to make tourism responsive and answerable to the society in which it occurs. It involves putting tourism in its proper place; at the service of the local community” said Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management, University of South Australia Business.

About stereotyping and racism in tourism, Stephanie M. Jones, Founder, National Blacks in Travel & Tourism Collaborative concluded: “When we know better, we should want to do better and make a conscious choice for change, a change that can be sustainable and beneficial to everyone. We must not ignore people because of their social economic level or because of the colour of their skin, but to recognise that every single person in our destination adds value and makes us a stronger destination for people who want to come, visit and really have an authentic cultural experience”.

The first day finished off by exploring humour as a tool to face the most serious questions ahead with Ed Gillespie, ‘Insultant’ from the podcast The Futurenauts.

#ThisIsNotATourismConference: The Art of Reframing
Attendees also made sense of their changing businesses, people and cities. They explored new business models of events and the different demands and possibilities for host cities (e-gaming, hybrid meetings…). Participants debated the imperative of always learning, discovering, and adapting, discussed the most important lessons of the past and how they could shape the renaissance of tourism.

Reframing is definitely essential for the tourism and meetings industry to survive, adopting a true learning mindset. Avinash Chandarana, Global Learning and Development Director, MCI Group also warned that “Half-life of skills is less than 5 years, it means what you learned 10 years ago is obsolete and half of what you learned 5 years ago is almost irrelevant today and that is speeding up in times in terms of diminishing skillset over a short period of time […] It doesn’t matter how much expertise you have, you should always continue to learn and grow”.

In a horizon panel, four tourism experts (Nick Hall, Dr. Stefan Hartman, Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir & Doug Lansky) came together to discuss what the renaissance could, would and should look like.

We’ve been driving the tourism bus using only the gas pedal, by that I mean using just marketing. We have used marketing as a control mechanism, and I don’t think our chances are great at success because we just set the things up wrong. We need to aim in the direction of a new success measure which is visitor experience, local life quality, environment sustainability, and the local economic impact of the tourism spends. And we need to prioritize those things, not just “more visitors”. Only then, I think we’re going to get on the right track and to do that I think we need a management mechanism.” explained Doug Lansky, Travel Writer, Author, Destination Development Advisor.

To the question on what destinations should do, using their leadership, to come back more sustainable and more competitive than ever before, Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, Owner, Speaker & Consulting, Inga Hlin Consulting answered: “We need to show that we care for the local community, we care for the visitors, and also we need not to forget that there is going to be another crisis, not to forget to take a learning point from this crisis because we have the climate change crisis going on and like April Rinne (Ed. Founder & Chief Change Navigator at April Worldwide) said: “The time to prepare for change is not when it hits. It’s before it hits, and during times of relative calm.”, and I think we need to be the change”.

Finally, Carmelo Ignaccolo, Project Lead at MIT, explored how we can make sense of our cities and destinations in new light and perspective: how it is possible for a city to be both a tourism attraction and a nice place to live. How we can build back more socio-economically resilient cities and a happily ever after with tourism.

I am so very moved and inspired, this is the first conference in 'forever' that has had the courage to focus on the questions, the really hard questions. We are so used to being fed answers but a sustainable future of tourism can only be achieved if we ALL start asking the right, hard, reaching questions... NOW!” said David Peacock from Simpleview.

As a note to the conference debates and themes, Petra Stušek, European Cities Marketing’s President, said: “After 18 months of uncertainty we needed new perspectives, fresh ideas, we needed to challenge ourselves, we needed provocation and we needed to learn from the past to walk with intentionality towards a different future. This ECM Autumn Conference #ThisIsNotATourismConference was all about stepping out of our comfort zone, taking inspiration from outside our normal circles and thinking differently! To me, it was THE most important conference in a long time and I am really proud of all the content and inspiration that was shared between the speakers and attendees”.

The conference was moderated by Signe Jungersted, Co-Founder and CEO of Group NAO, ECM Meetings facilitator together with Peter Rømer Hansen.

The whole Pre-Conference is available to all for free on europeancitiesmarketing.com/ecm-pre-conference-after-the-pandemic-the-whats-and-whatnots/. All Conference’s registrants have access to over 24 hours of content with the Conference’s recordings on the event platform until the end of December 2021.

During the conference it was announced that the next ECM International Conference & General Assembly will take place in-person in Hamburg on March 30 - April 2, 2022. Digitalisation is here to stay, but, in this increasing virtual world, we need to meet physically to work together and get inspiration.

Face-to-face meetings are extremely important. This has been impressively confirmed by the pandemic. ECM is one of the most inspiring networks in this industry to exchange trends, leadership, inspiration and knowledge transfer. We are very much looking forward to welcoming the entire ECM family to Hamburg for the International Conference & General Assembly 2022. We will use the opportunity to convey the special Hamburg spirit.” concluded Michael Otremba, CEO, Hamburg Tourismus.

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