Government response to DMO review in England published

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The long-awaited Government response to the De Bois review of England’s DMO has now been published today.  The Government has accepted some of the recommendation’s made and has allocated up to £4m (against the original De Bois aspiration for full implementation of £51m over 3 years) to fund a VE run, DCMS overseen, accreditation scheme for what is likely to be a relatively small number of “national portfolio” DMOs, henceforth to be known as Local Visitor Economy Partnerships (LVEP) (page 6, recommendation 1 paras 6 to 13).

Interestingly the funding will also include: “provision to recruit regional resources to support and account manage the national portfolio” (para 10). That seems to suggest a number of regionally based VE representatives?

One LVEP will be selected and funded from within the £4m pot to pilot the recommended concept during what remains of the current 2022/25 funding period. (page 8, recommendation 2a, paras 14 to 17).

From my reading of the response, it remains very unclear whether the De Bois recommendations for a hub and spoke of second tier accredited DMOs/LVEP approach has been full accepted and critically, whether initially at least, accreditation is limited to the top tier only, outside (or even inside?) the chosen pilot area?  It matters because the response makes it clear that, post implementation, Government and its agencies (VB and VE) intend only to deal and work with and through the national portfolio of accredited DMO/LVEP’s (para 11). Which DMOs and at what level have a chance of being accredited and what are the real or unintended consequences for the (many?) who aren’t given the “status”

The criteria for (top tier?) LVEP status suggest that many important, well-functioning if not somewhat pressured DMOs may not (will not?) be accredited (para 9 and in particular second bullet point). Some of those destinations by happenstance or geography won’t necessarily fit neatly in to a larger area LVEP, so how do they fit in to the national network or work with or to VB/VE and Government (on tourism matters)? There are likely be many other similar anomalies and gaps and as yet no indication how these might be addressed, if at all.

The criteria for becoming the single “regional” pilot suggests that it remains anyone’s guess as to who might (or is already in the frame to be?) selected (para 16). It might be anyone’s guess but the response has been so long in coming that a fair number of potential candidates have already second guessed the response and have touted their suitability for the crown. In some cases, without necessarily properly engaging their potential partners in the process.  I would hope that there would now be an open and fully transparent selection made, even if that then dragged the process out for even longer than it has already been unofficially running.

There are a further 10 recommendation (12 total) of which the first 6 are for Government, 4 for DMOs and 2 for LEPs (a now seriously threatened beast) and local authorities. Between them the responses contain a lot of detail. When taken across the piece some of that detail is somewhat contradictory and some of it, to my mind, ignores the reality and what is and has, through necessity, long been working on the ground.

Moreover, if left undisturbed or not deliberately destabilised, then in likelihood, most DMOs would continue to function adequately and far better than the potential alternative which in many destinations could be, little or nothing.  The response and to a lesser degree the original recommendations, seems to me to ignore that tourism management and to a lesser extent tourism marketing are largely organised and delivered at the point of consumption. I.E.  in the destination itself with the businesses and customers in situ and not at some, often remote regional, area or City centre.  Destination management and marketing occurs and occurs where and how it does, usually for very good practical reason.

I would recommend that colleagues in England scan the report, at least once, and then reread it again in full at your leisure.  Some of the words and phrases are open to hasty interpretation and some of the key earlier responses are potentially tempered by the content of later paragraphs.  It actually needs to be read and reread until fully understood.

My immediate thoughts are that unless you happen to be working in an organisation that has a realistic and justifiable ambition to become a top tier LVEP and/or, thus, have a punt at pilot status, or you are a one of a number of destination likely to become collateral damage in the almost inevitable bun fight destine to occur in some regions or areas over who gains LVEP status for what purpose, I would simply sit tight and await a great deal more clarity on what HMG and VB/VEs actually have in mind.  Trying to predict the immediate consequences for the majority of destinations and DMOs, could, at this point, just be a wasted effort and an untimely distraction from the day job (it being timed nicely for the start of the summer school holidays!). 

I would also urge caution about being persuaded to make significant decisions, in haste. If you can afford to wait for greater clarity from DCMS/VE, then do so before agreeing irrevocably to anything of consequence, for example, by overly keen regional partners, who might have an eye on the possible benefits to them of LVEP status or to you and them of becoming the pilot. The devil, as ever, will be in the detail. Despite the long wait thus far, it is almost certainly now worth waiting a little bit longer until that detail is clarified.

Unless there is a marked over reaction and significant knee jerk changes are made immediately to try and position regions/areas so that they are in with a chance at being the pilot, or if not, so they are oven ready for what may or may not occur during the 2025-28 funding round, nothing much of consequence is going to change, if at all, this side of 2023 or even 2024.  The only significant changes will occur if you happen to end up in the pilot “region”.  As yet it isn’t clear how high or through how many hoops the as yet to be accredited, selected LVEPs and its all of its nominated partner destinations will then be required to jump to obtain as yet unspecified financial or other benefits. 

There is currently no guarantee that the pilot, let alone other LVEP’s, will be able to access funding from 2025 onwards. There is therefore a significant element of risk involved, should the new working practices or preparations to adopt them, serve to disengage destinations from current practices and funding mechanisms. In particular, I am thinking of local Government core funding and direct or indirect service provision. 

There are of course almost as many bespoke and potentially fragile (jenga like) arrangements that need to be carefully nurtured, as there are “DMOs” of all types and sizes. For example, Tourism/Destination BID based DMO’s are legally obliged to deliver to their manifesto and to the requirement of their levy payers and not to the direction or requirements of some wider regional based management approach that lies outside the BID area.  The De Bois recommendations were, I believe, based on building on the existing networks and not on trying to replace them, as the Government’s response to it may (may not?) be hinting?  I would be far less concerned about the potential for “babies and bath water” if there was more obvious support in the response for, and certainty around, adopting the hub and accredited second tier spoke approach. Acceptance of such an approach tacitly confirms the requirement for much of the existing layered and largely location-based approach to tourism management in England and indeed used in the rest of the UK.

Like many of you, I have seen a succession of well-intended changes to the destination management structures and network. Every one of these to date serving, unintentionally to further disengage those who are, or were previously, actively engaged, usually for very good reason and with no compensating improvement or benefit, or at least no benefit that was then sustained beyond the next funding cycle or change of administration. We can’t afford this new and, let’s be totally honest and frank about it (however unpopular this might make me) grossly underfunded and therefore potentially half-cocked attempt to do much the same again.

We are in a bit of a mess now because of what has previously been done to destination management structure, not because nothing was done. Doing something more but doing it badly or without an eye to the unintended consequences, is likely to have much the same result. It is happening regardless, so let us jointly make sure it does what is needed for the mutual good of the all English destination (and by default the rest of the UK) and not just for the good of either a few destination management/marketing organisations, or simply for the sake of spending what little Government are currently prepared to allocate to this.

Meanwhile, it is also worth remembering that the Westminster Government and Treasury, in particular, remain focused on investing only in to growing international inbound tourism, regarding public intervention specifically in the domestic market as unjustifiable displacement activity.  That should beg the question not only of: what are the benefits I might be excluded from having access to from DCMS VB?VE, but also, in my particular destination’s circumstances, are these benefits really worth all the effort of obtaining? 

Much will depend upon the reality of the sticks and carrots that DCMS and, in particular, the wider Westminster Government, attach to the new proposed structure, once successfully piloted and rolled out post 2024. Are DHULC really not going to give, say a large struggling seaside resort town, funding support for tourism infrastructure project because the town’s DMO doesn’t meet the DCMS/VE accreditation criteria or fit neatly in to some lager area LVEP arrangement? I can’t be certain but I seriously doubt it.

We should also be mindful that a year plus after the recommendation and several months after the response was penned, the political landscape in Westminster is suddenly undergoing upheaval of almost unprecedent scale which in turn will change some if not all of key characters previously involved and alter many of the policy presumptions that both the recommendations and response were framed around. For some destinations getting on and doing the job well for yourselves, largely unsupported as you have done for years anyway, may on balance turn out to be the best option?

For ease of access, I have added a pdf copy of the response to the same “National strategies & Policies +” page on Britishdestinations.net as the original review recommendations.  If you have the time, it might be useful to remind yourselves of what Nick De Bois, actually said and the detailed rational underpinning each of the 12 recommendations.  Both documents can be accessed at: https://britishdestinations.net/strategies-and-policies/tourism-industry-strategies-policies/review-of-destination-organisations-in-england/

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