Tourism Collaboration Should Be Easier – 5 Reasons To Collaborate

Remember when we were children? Our mothers worried about how to get us to play well together, to share toys and to cooperate. There seems to be some natural inclination among humans to compete. But even as children we found ways to overcome the tendency and collaborate. We built sand castles on the beach together, snow forts in winter and leaf forts in the fall. We played team sports and joined Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts who emphasize working together.

A Civic Tourism Conference in Rhode Island took participants to area attractions to better understand their role in the community experience.

A Civic Tourism Conference in Rhode Island took participants to area attractions to better understand their roles in the community experience.

So why is it so hard as adults to do this? There are great buzzwords for the dysfunction we often see and experience. “Silo Syndrome” or “Stovepipe Syndrome” describes a tendency to communicate up and down the organization or department but not outside of it. Some corporations and businesses have it internally and certainly we see it in large government agencies and communities. Individuals or organizations may belong to collaborative groups like the Chamber of Commerce or Convention & Visitors Bureau, but when it’s really time to do things together, they become guarded and proprietary. They often don’t show up at the meeting places and opportunities provided for collaborative thinking.

And yet there are many great reasons to collaborate internally and externally in communities, parks, zoos, agencies and organizations. Here are just a few to think about:

  1. The public sees our communities and organizations holistically. If one volunteer, partner or neighbor offends or mistreats a tourist or client, they might all get the blame. People don’t often notice when they cross boundaries or see a new type of nametag. They just know they are in Yellowstone or Sedona and organizational lines are blurred. Meeting regularly with logical partners and collaborators will help create new and expanded opportunities for guests/tourists with positive benefits for everyone. Training together helps to build a stronger sense of community among organizations that makes it easier to meet and discuss the potential for collaboration.
  2. Tourists seek interesting, quality experiences and usually that includes attractions like parks, zoos and museums, food providers, lodging and specialized transportation. When those are thoughtfully packaged and planning is collaborative, the experiences are better, more memorable and likely to make a lasting connection with the guest.
  3. Most organizations have a brand or image with a message that must be consistently delivered to connect and resonate with guests. If marketing folks, interpretive guides and public relation specialists are not working in concert, they step on each other’s messages and create dissonance for guests. Planning those messages, strategies and tactics should include the varied communicators working collaboratively.
  4. Partners can share costs as well as benefits. Whether buying transportation systems, advertising, market research or training, it is all less expensive with more partners paying the total cost. When partners invest in plans together, they are more likely to support the common vision for success that is developed. When partners/collaborators apply for grants together, the funder pays more attention.
  5. Collaboration builds a sense of community. Meeting regularly with partners and other stakeholders builds stronger personal relationships that make compromise and collaboration work. Staying in “silos” talking to those of a like mind may be easier, but it keeps an organization and individual from learning and growing. It also makes it harder to dismiss others as being wrong or misguided when there is a shared understanding of motives and the desire to collaborate.

41eulYJlfoL._AA160_Collaboration should be easier, but it requires commitment, planning and thoughtful communication. We wrote about Greensburg, Kansas, in our book, Put the HEART Back In Your Community, to share their amazing story of collaboration. In 2007 the small city in the plains was smashed by a tornado and through collaborative strategic planning, they grew back greener than their name. They proudly state they are an “authentic sustainable community.”

Many communities and organizations know they work in “silos,” but may find it difficult to employ the tools needed to collaborate. We recognize that it may not always be easy, but it’s well worth the effort. We’ll be sharing some recommended tools in future blogs. Maybe some will work for you.

– Tim Merriman

The Ethics of Interpretation – Choosing to make a difference

There are 33 elephants a day poached in Tanzania, a chilling indication of the threat to the survival of elephants.

There are 33 elephants a day poached in Tanzania, a chilling indication of the threat to the survival of elephants.

A friend and colleague in Panama recently posted a question that caused me to think more deeply about a conservation issue. It seems a private zoo owner had attempted to move about ten percent of the remaining animals of a rare and endangered species from their natural habitat in Panama to his zoo collection in Dallas, Texas. Local people refused to allow the exportation of the animals, thereby thwarting his plans. Will that be the end of the story? Maybe, but maybe not. Until my friend advised me of the situation, I had no idea this was happening.

Another friend just posted an article from the Sudan that explained that President Obama has been asked repeatedly to take action to help the people in the Nuba Mountains who have been under attack for years, forced to live in caves or attempt to leave the region and go somewhere safe, if they can find such a place in this ravaged area of Africa. Although some people understand what’s happening, most in the United States would not be able to find Sudan on a map, much less know about the daily peril in which these people find themselves. Until someone made me aware of it, I had no idea this was happening.

I’ve had the pleasure of traveling on and leading photographic safaris several times in East Africa, yet few of my guides there have chosen to share the horrific truth about poaching and the very real danger of losing Africa’s elephants within the next decade. This is a story not just about elephants but about what happens to the east African economy if the wildlife disappears and what the money from poaching activities goes to support and how it affects every American. What better place to garner support for anti-poaching efforts than when you’re faced with a herd of elephants going about their business yards from your Land Rover, so close you can hear them breathe?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the daily decisions interpreters and guides make in their work. It’s easy to identify places, people, animals, and objects for others. It’s trickier to relate them to a bigger picture, to put them in context, whether historical or current, to help people gain both awareness and understanding of the complexity of the issues that surround us every day and the implications they have on our daily lives.

When I train interpreters and guides, I try to help them understand the importance of what they do. Unfortunately, some people interpret that statement as meaning that they should feel self-important, or that their passion for their job should be enough. I hope everyone is lucky enough to find a job that makes him or her feel good about what they do. But I also hope that those who choose to interpret our global heritage resources realize the enormous responsibility that comes with that profession.

I agree completely with the social science research that suggests that people must first become aware of something and then question and think deeply about that subject before they can formulate attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to it. I do not think it is ever an interpreter or an agency’s responsibility to tell someone what to think, only that they should think about it and come to their own conclusions. I also think it is imperative that interpreters provide some suggestions of positive actions that can be taken if someone concludes that action should be taken and they want to know specifically what they can do, because that’s where the chain of change often breaks down. People who know about and understand the situation, whether it about sloths or the Sudan, may want to help but they don’t know what to do.

To me, that’s the ethics behind interpretation. It’s important to present accurate information in relevant ways and to be passionate about the job. But if we stop short by only identifying things instead of providing context, even if that context makes us uncomfortable or challenges our own beliefs, we have failed. Freeman Tilden said as much with his fifth principle: Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

Don’t miss the chance to tell a bigger story by assuming your audience wants only a light, frivolous treatment of the subject because they’re on vacation. They may not want to read the entire book on the wall or have it shared with them by their guide, but they certainly can handle more than a name they likely won’t remember tomorrow. Your message (theme) may linger, causing them to think more deeply even after they leave your place of business.


We live in a complicated world, perhaps made more so by the availability of too much information from too many sources. It can be difficult to even make sense of what remains after separating fact from fiction. Interpreters can help by making people aware of what’s happening and explaining things in relevant ways to build understanding. Delivering a message doesn’t have to tell people what to think, but hopefully, it will get them thinking and wondering what actions they can take. By crafting that message carefully, interpreters can choose to make a difference every day on the job.

– Lisa Brochu

Running of the Bulls in the U.S.?

I was 22 and dressed for running at the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

I was 22 and dressed for the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

I will never forget a sunny Tuesday in July four decades ago in northern Spain. We drove into Pamplona at daybreak and gathered in the street by the town council building with hundreds of other young men in white outfits with red sashes, berets, zapatas and other adornments. José, my Spanish compadre, and I wolfed down a bag of churros and a liter of cold milk. Most of the crowd had been up much of the night drinking wine and snacking on garlic. We were there for the “incierro,” running in front of the bulls, a part of the Fiesta de San Fermin.

When the cannon sounded, we ran with the crowd up the street toward the Plaza de Toros, the bullring. In what seemed like less than a minute I heard the pounding of hooves on the cobblestone behind me and I quickly plastered myself in a doorway along the narrow street looking backwards as the two longhorn steers (the guides) and eight fighting bulls stampeded by us. It dawned on me just then that you could get seriously hurt doing this and in fact, 37 were hospitalized the very next day. Like most young people who do this, I remember the event with some sort of silly pride at having survived it. I was terrified at the time, but of course, had to act like it was no big deal. In Spain and many other nations the running of the bulls provides a way to transport the bulls from the railroad to the bullring. The fact that people willingly get in the way has resulted in a longstanding tradition particularly associated with Pamplona.

Recently, I learned that ten communities in the United States are hosting the Great Bull Run in 2013 and 2014 along with a Tomato Royale battle. Richmond, Virginia hosted the first one in August 2013 at a motorsports park. When I first heard about this, the lack of traditional context or purpose made little sense to me. Merging the running of domestic bulls with a tomato fight like the one seen in La Tomatina Festival of Buñol, Spain, makes even less sense.

Dasha crews dance and sing during an evening parade of the dashas in Fujinomiya as part of the Mount Fuji Festival.

Dasha crews dance and sing during an evening parade of the dashas in Fujinomiya as part of the Mount Fuji Festival in Japan.

Community events tied to community traditions (like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Mount Fuji Festival in Fujinomiya, Japan) are a part of the fabric of the community and add to the rich cultural heritage of the area. Events that encourage positive health and recreation benefits or stimulate public consciousness about a cause (such as Tour de Fat by New Belgium Brewery or the Sustainable Living Fair in Fort Collins, CO) can be great fun and serve a purpose at the same time. But creating events that are designed simply to make money, simulate danger or have the potential to cause harm to animals in an urban setting seems particularly ill conceived. Copying events from another community is rarely as good as creating something unique that ties to local cultural traditions or positive objectives to improve health or raise awareness of local issues.

Events are a part of the intangible heritage of a community. They can strengthen a sense of place if they make sense within the context of the community or they can create dissonance if they seem out of place. Is this ten-city running of the bulls really a good thing for an urban community? Will the event become a valued part of the intangible heritage of the community? I will hope these bull runs and tomato battles will be short-lived, but who knows? American culture often is a hodge-podge so we will see. If it works for the promoters, perhaps a new tradition will be born, whether it makes sense or not.

Communities and institutions always have the opportunity to create events that recall their traditions, culture and real stories. We are at our best when sharing authentic or near-authentic experiences that reinforce the sense of place and promoters can still profit – a true win-win situation. When we create “real fake” experiences for fun and commerce as a community or institution we likely accomplish little of value other than to enrich the event organizers. Participating in the American Great Bull Run costs $60 a ticket in 2014. Who knows how much will be spent by the participating cities for extra security and other public services? Participation in Pamplona is free, considered part of a community festival. These large events require community cooperation. I hope that most communities learn to just say NO when this kind of idea arrives. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s what I should have said when my Spanish friends suggested that we run in front of the famous fighting bulls of Pamplona, but there it is a tradition and I  chose to run.

– Tim Merriman

Professionalism – Six Ideas to Consider

Ange, a professional guide in Rwanda at Nyungwe National Park, also works with young people learning about birdwatching and guiding.

Ange, a professional Certified Interpretive Guide in Rwanda at Nyungwe National Park, also works with young people wishing to learn about birdwatching and conservation.

Several years ago we were in the Galapagos Islands leading an ecotour along with our local guide who grew up on the islands. He admitted to having some interpretive training but it was not evident in his performance. He glibly told us the names of things with no explanation of their role in the ecosystem and no attempt at a thematic approach. He walked way out in front of his much older clients and returned to the panga well before we did, anxious to get back to the big boat. He never emerged into public space on the boat to chat with us unless leading us on a specific hike or snorkel, and then he refused to answer any questions that anyone had already asked, berating those who apparently didn’t listen. He told us up front he was tired from a long sequence of tours so we shouldn’t expect too much from him. He was obviously bored with the subject and his guests, giving only the bare minimum. By the time we’d spent ten days with him, we were just as bored with him. His tip reflected that unprofessional performance as most of us left less than we would have had he done his job well or even pretended to enjoy his time with us.

One of the common definitions of a professional is simply someone who is paid to do a skilled activity as compared to an amateur who does it for fun. Was our guide a “professional” because he was paid full-time and knew the wildlife? I think there are a few ideas or “principles of a professional” that go way beyond payment or full-time employment. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 250,000 docents and volunteers who interpret nature, history, science and space at museums, zoos, aquariums, nature centers, world heritage sites, science centers and historic homes. Many are well trained and do their jobs as well as anyone who gets paid as a “professional.” Tens of thousands of seasonal interpreters and guides work at those same sites, but are considered “professionals” for just the season.

I have some other ideas about what makes us professional. Here are six points to ponder:

  1. Professionals do the job when it needs doing – Whether we’re on duty, on lunch break, going off duty, or on a day off, if we can help someone in our area of expertise, we do it cheerfully.
  2. We are committed to life-long learning so we keep up with recent research and new books and participate in advanced training events. Our knowledge of both content and process grows throughout our careers and we seek opportunities to learn more instead of declaring that we’ve been so well trained there is no room for improvement.
  3. Pros get involved in learning networks and associations to share what they know and learn from others.
  4. Professionals seek credentials, certifications and degrees that demonstrate advanced competencies whenever reasonable and possible.
  5. We behave ethically in all situations, understanding the complex responsibilities of representing an organization, caring for the resource and taking care of clients.
  6. Professionals work toward a balanced life of intellectual and emotional pursuits personally to be healthy, fit, and prepared for daily responsibilities.

I could not in good conscience put “being paid” in this list of principles. I’ve known volunteers who perform as professionals every day in every way. I’ve heard so-called professionals grouse about their jobs to the public, ignore visitors while they were at work, behave unethically and pass up easy opportunities to earn a credential or learn more out of sheer laziness or arrogance.

Professionalism is a personal choice. I’ve known talented people who never make the effort to learn from others or participate in professional networks. Some very talented natural communicators never reach their full potential because they stay out of the “profession,” viewing themselves as professional because they get paid. We can choose to behave as professionals or simply settle for being a paid worker in our field. I think the rewards of professionalism are continuous and powerful, but you have to show up and take responsibility for yourself and your actions.

– Tim Merriman