By Carl Ribaudo and Lauren Schlau
Travel Analytics Group
Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) have largely been politically neutral, focusing on destination promotion to attract visitation. In today’s politically charged environment, and as consumers increasingly purchase products and services based on values and positions – their own and who they are buying from - is neutrality viable? Why wouldn’t a destination’s political values or orientation also impact consumer choice? Can DMOs still position themselves “beyond politics” or, will they (have to) recognize their destination’s political perceptions are being shaped beyond their control. What options do DMOs have in this arena to successfully sustain their competitive position?
This is the first of four articles from the Travel Analytics Group in the emerging field of social impacts on tourism. In this article we examine the impact of politics on destination choice. In following articles, we will look at the impact of gender, race and age and the role they play in destination selection.
Social impact tourism marks a transition from the more traditional role of tourism marketing, typically set up to just promote a destination based on it attributes like available activities, local culture, attractions dining etc. to today where people and places are being defined by political orientation, gender, ethnicity and to a lesser degree age.
The objective of these articles is to create awareness for the practitioner, be it DMO, hotel, attraction, or local government and to realize these external events are shaping how consumers see each destination and more importantly how their perceptions of a destination are being viewed by the lens of political orientation, gender, ethnicity, and age. The importance of this information not only goes beyond the recognition that these issues exist but also a need to develop strategies to address the inevitable changes that are occurring. It is both opportunistic and threatening at the same time. It depends upon how the practitioner sees the future for their destination.
Inevitably, in our politically fractured county, politics is entering the traditionally apolitical tourism industry. While the world was dealing with the COVID -19 pandemic, and likely as one of its outcomes, the United States was further polarizing around nearly every cultural issue. Red and blue became more vivid, as did black and white, male and female, and young and old.
As divisions sharpen, everyday decisions seem to be influenced by which side of the dividing line a person stands. That is, how much are social issues and political perspectives informing product and brand choices, or as we believe, where people choose to take a vacation? What happens when popular visitor destinations are the scene of political protests and in some cases mayhem?
Given this situation and questions, we launched a study of the extent that U.S. traveler positions on social/political issues, and their perceptions of destination political/socio-orientation align/influence destination visitation decision-making.
Politics of Consumer Choice
Our findings and analysis make sense in today's world. Political orientation (as well as gender, age and race), and the values held among people within these segments are in constant play in the consumer marketplace. Similar to purchasing consumer brands, these values can influence destination choice.
According to the 2020 Consumer Culture Report, "71% of consumers prefer buying from companies aligned with their values. Twenty-one percent of Baby Boomers surveyed say buying from brands that share their values and ideologies is essential; with Generation Xers, this number rises to 50%, and for Millennials, even more, 62% believe it is important." (https://ww.5wpr.com/new/research/consumer-culture-report)
The research highlights the importance of aligning brand, company values, and ethos with the customers businesses seek to attract or retain to remain competitive and relevant.
In addition, where company and consumer values are not aligned, consumers are willing to register their displeasure, including social media and perhaps the most visible, the boycott. Consumers purchase from companies and products aligned with their social or political beliefs, two in three have boycotted a brand from which they have purchased because of its stance on an issue, such as these:
Examples of consumer political boycotts directed at brands
Politics Also Shape Where We Live
Political orientation also influences where we live. A recent study by Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos suggests people live near others from the same political party. Using spatial data computation, the authors present evidence of extensive partisan segregation throughout the country, as depicted in this map of Los Angeles and Orange counties. (Times, 2021)
One potential off-shoot for tourism from homogeneity in political spatial relationship is that like-minded people conversing together are promoting the places they have visited to others, conveying implicit shared aligned values about those places. Hence the effectiveness of zip code marketing.
If political alignment influences the products, we buy and where we live, would political orientation and related personal values influence tourism destination selection?
The Politics of Tourism
Influence of Destination Selection
Our study findings show that as many as 39% of those surveyed politically oriented on the right and nearly 36% on the left indicate a destination's political orientation influences the types of places they visit. Those identifying in the political center were less influenced by their political orientation in terms destination choice yet 22% agreed it would influence them
Question: How much do you agree with the statement: Visit places where I perceive political position or values are aligned with my position/values. (Percentage strongly/somewhat agree)
Political Orientation Influence on Destination Selection
Source: Travel Analytics Group, Social Issues and Values Survey, 2021.
These findings suggest that for a notable share of travelers, especially those on the left and right, political/values alignment is factor in destination consideration if not actual visitation, raising implications for tourism destinations.
Destination Perception Formation
Among the biggest challenges for destination marketing organizations is that others, not the DMO, often control messaging, which then shape visitor perceptions – politically and otherwise - about the destination. Such political perceptions are shaped by those outside of tourism, internally by residents and elected officials, and externally by media and social media influencers.
Examples of this are evident at various levels. At the state level, Georgia consumers and potential visitors have seen the politics of legislative changes to voting regulations. In response Major League Baseball moved the All-Star game; Delta Airlines and Coca Cola, two of Georgia's largest headquarters corporations, criticized the laws publicly, and since joined by many other companies based in and outside the state.
On the city level, how much impact does ongoing protest in Portland influence consumer decisions to travel there or not? The city recently placed a full-page ad in the New York Times and other leading newspapers as part of a wider campaign to right Portland’s reputation nationally and “to inspire overnight stays at Portland hotels and short-term rentals.” It affirmed its position as a place where differing positions are welcome, and please visit.
In the trendy Orange County coastal city of Huntington Beach, where recent anti-vaccination protests and a KKK rally took place, how many consumers will decide that visiting this resort town is not for them? The DMO there decided not to respond and to continue to promote the area as a laid back beach town and as a get-away for visitors to avoid politics, local and otherwise.
DMO Options to Influence Politicized Perceptions
These examples reflect how ongoing politicization, often by messaging beyond the control of the DMO, can influence destination perceptions and decision-making.
Amidst the polarization and politicization, DMOs are still tasked with destination promotion and messaging. While they are crafting inviting messages to visit, some messaging may be undermined by coverage of political events they can't control. Messaging may resonate with some potential visitors, while others may be turned off and tuning out.
DMOs are starting to indicate they want to attract the "right kind of visitors," that is, those aligned with their destination's values. Which side will consumers perceive about the destination positioning from messaging – both the DMO’s and by others?
The question becomes what can DMOs do to meet this new reality? Three obvious choices are: ignore politics and positions and carry on; combat it head-on; or what we see as the prudent choice, for the DMO to take control to establish the destination’s position on the values it stands for and what it wants to be in the mind of the traveler,
In the case of Portland, in addition to the ad, the Travel Portland states on its website: We are a promoter and steward of this evolving city and its progressive values, which have the power to transform the travelers who visit us. At the same time, negative publicity about pushback to the ad may have just added another dimension that Travel Portland may have to – or not – respond to.
As for Huntington Beach their brand position as a laid-back beach get-away is not compromised as that is what the visitor wants and expects to experience while there.
In these changing times, political values and events are shaping consumer perceptions. In the end it seems that the best course for a DMO is to “know thyself;” that is, be clear and consistent about what the destination offers and to whom. Then allow the traveler to decide if the destination is right for them based on a transparent expression of what the destination is and what they can expect to experience there.
About the Authors
LAUREN SCHLAU is a tourism industry market researcher and, known for her expertise and experience in the travel/tourism, hospitality, downtown districts, retail, and cultural arts sectors, related to economic development.
Carl Ribaudo is a thought leader, analyst and strategist serving the tourism industry.