Is becoming a social enterprise the next step in sustainable destination development?

As we emerge from the pandemic, more destination marketing organisations are questioning their purpose and how they can best support their community, with more organisations adopting a destination stewardship mandate. However, Vancouver Island has gone one step further and have transformed their tourism marketing organisation into a social enterprise. Before he joins us at City Nation Place Global, we caught up with Anthony Everett, CEO at 4VI, to discover what prompted the change and how they’re navigating the challenges along the way.

I have to begin with the big question. You recently transitioned the destination marketing organisation, Tourism Vancouver Island, to 4VI, a social enterprise. What prompted this move?

I have been involved in tourism in British Columbia for 30+ years and spent most of this time focused on growth and driving revenues. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I realised that my mindset had shifted to focus on sustainability and the impact of climate change and human inequity. I began exploring new models and ideas to renew our organisation and its focus.

In 2022, Tourism Vancouver Island, a sixty-year old destination management organisation, was the first in the world to change to a social enterprise model with a mission to ensure that travel is a force for good on Vancouver Island – forever. We unveiled the change to 4VI in early April.

What does becoming a social enterprise mean in terms of your day-to-day?

We have definitely adopted a new mindset within our organisation. We’re still focused on service delivery of our contracts. This includes implementing the work of Destination BC in the Vancouver Island Region and in several community destination management organisations on Vancouver Island. But, we are also passing everything through a lens of the four pillars of social responsibility. Our work should be generating revenues to reinvest in communities through social impact that support the four pillars of social responsibility – businesses, culture, communities, and environment - and help ensure that a great place to live is a great place to visit.

There’s a move away from pure hard metrics in destination marketing toward ones that measure quality as well as quantity. What does success look like for you as a social enterprise? How are you measuring your impact?

This is a priority for our leadership team and we are continuously discussing how we should be defining success in both the short-term and long-term. Like many in our field, it’s no longer a simple metric or measure of increased visitors or visitor revenues.

As we work through our first year as 4VI, success for the organisation and the region will be defined through the work we are doing. In the years ahead, we intend to issue an annual Impact Report that outlines the successes and challenges of 4VI through the four pillars of social responsibility. We want to report out on how much we have invested in social impact using the UN SDGs (and specifically on 14 - life under water) as a guide.

We also plan to get a baseline for the carbon footprint of travel in the Vancouver Island Region. From tip to tip and coast to coast, and including Vancouver Island and the surrounding archipelago of islands off our coast. This is a part of our Biosphere Certification through the Responsible Tourism Institute and our signing of the Glasgow Declaration.

Other measures we’re exploring include DEIA [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility] and 2SLGBTQIA+ [Two-Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual] key performance indicators, both for our organisation and the region where we live. Are we truly committed to reconciliation with Indigenous people? How we are going to measure all of this will require partnerships and collaboration, which is another factor we’re exploring.

How did you engage your partners in this transition? Was it challenging to bring them along with you on the journey?

Every change brings challenges along with opportunities. The overwhelming majority of our partners and stakeholders understand and truly support our shift to a social enterprise. A small, select group of tourism industry members did begin to criticise the change among themselves and to some of our partners.

My key learning from this situation is that you can never communicate enough, and you need to focus on where you’re gaining support rather than feel dragged down by a small minority. We all know that it is hard to hear people’s critiques. What made it most difficult was that they could have easily come to us to ask questions directly.

What would be your advice for cities or regions on how they can work with other stakeholders to ensure the benefits and burdens of tourism are felt equally across the destination?

The most important thing you can do is show up. Engage with people directly in the community. We spend a lot of time meeting with people and listening to them. Hearing from the various communities in our region shows the diversity of opinion around tourism. Some communities want more visitors; others feel overwhelmed. One of our guiding principles is to build trust and prioritize honest, positive relationships. This doesn’t happen from your desk.

All in all, it seems like a revolutionary approach. It might not be right for everyone given how differently organisations operate, but is there one piece of advice you’d share that you wish you could tell your past self?

I would ensure that when you make a paradigm shift, ensure you have buy-in and understanding from your board (should you have one) and your team. Nothing succeeds when there isn’t a complete buy-in from within the organisation. Any external challenges can then be met.

Anthony Everett will be joining us at City Nation Place Global to share more learnings from 4VI's transition to a social enterprise. Join us in London on November 9-10th to find out more.

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.