Making the economic argument for sustainability: Interview with Tim O’Donoghue

Tim O’Donoghue is the Executive Director of the Riverwind Foundation. Tim provides training and technical assistance services for businesses, organisations, and destinations that wish to incorporate economic, social, and environmental sustainability into their planning, operations, and staff training. Tim is also leading the collaborative stakeholder and sustainable community development efforts of Teton County, Wyoming through the Jackson Hole and Yellowstone Sustainable Destination Program.

In this interview, Anula Galewska speaks to Tim O’Donoghue, who shares his wisdom and knowledge about developing a successful destination management plan and how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced Jackson Hole.

Anula: You are the executive director of the Riverwind Foundation, can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your position and the foundation.

Tim: We actually established the Foundation in 1999, and the original purpose original of the Riverwind Foundation, which still continues to this day is to provide programs that help to educate, train, and provide technical assistance to businesses, primarily, but also to organisations on different policies and practices for sustainability. And we did a good number of workshops over the course of the early 2000s, and then in 2006, I became director of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and, and I believe one of the reasons why I was hired by their board of directors is to bring into the conversation, the environmental and social responsibility, opportunities, and that we have here in Jackson Hole, in addition to our interest in economic health, and job creation and so forth. So, I helped the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, begin a conversation acuity about the triple bottom line and I was in that position from 2006 to 2012. And then when I retired in 2012, one of the last projects that the Chamber of Commerce began was to apply for and we were one of the six selected by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council in 2012, to adopt what was then the first set of destination criteria for sustainability. We were one of the first six early adopters. And what we received from that project was, from the first time ever a baseline from a third qualified party of how sustainable we were in the areas of environment, community economy, and then destination management. And one of the key findings from that experience was that despite all the efforts that are going on in Jackson Hole in terms of environmental and conservation, in terms of community and cultural projects, as well as the economic vitality, that Jackson Hole has really never been absent for decades now, due to the growing tourism economy here. Despite all the efforts going on, there was not an organisation or program that was working to unite all these efforts toward common community goals for sustainability and international standards for sustainable performance. And so that was the beginning of the Jackson Hole, Yellowstone sustainable destination program that my organisation has been the key management entity or coordinator of and basically, we implement projects that are destination management-oriented and have been doing so since 2014. So, for the last seven years, we have been implementing specific projects to help with moving our destination toward what goals we have set for ourselves for sustainability, as well as increasingly meeting international standards for sustainability at the destination level. And a milestone in our performance was the certification of us as a sustainable destination in March of 2020 by EarthCheck, so that was a milestone as well as is the National Geographic World Legacy Award Finalist, as well as the World Travel and Tourism Council, finalists award for destination management as well. So, we’ve been meeting milestones along the way, and we have a lot more to do.

Jackson Hole and Yellowstone Sustainable Destination Program

Anula: Since you have started, what have you seen changing in terms of the stakeholder’s approach but also customers in seeing sustainability or the demand for sustainable tourism?

Tim: Leading up to the pandemic, what we have seen is that the business community is becoming more receptive, interested and actually more engaged in training that primarily my organisation offers, as well as pursuing certification and other forms of recognition for sustained performance, those are for our higher, more top performers in terms of sustainability. The business community has become increasingly aware of and engaged in our sustainability and destination management program. My team and I have worked with close to 400 different businesses here in Jackson Hole since 2014, providing training and technical assistance. And that work continues to this day, through various programs that my organisation
is managing.

Anula: What happened during COVID, probably it was a roller coaster? What has been going on there? How’s the situation right now and what is the learning through this?

Tim: In the United States, we have a large domestic travel market, and that travel market has just blown up in terms of the amount of people. Americans that decided they’re not going to be travelling internationally during the pandemic, or they just could not, have decided they are going to travel, they’re going to travel with the United States. And so last year, at this time, in June, we had below normal visitation. And then in July of 2020, we had about the same amount of visitation that we had in 2019. And then in August, September, and October, we broke visitation records, more and more people felt more comfortable to travel and wanted to escape to wide-open spaces like here. Now that sounds wonderful and it’s great from an economic perspective, however, we are still in the pandemic situation, even though that is easing in some countries like ours, and we have primarily workers that come just for the summer season, our peak season, and that has historically been the case. And we have been relying increasingly on young European workers, including from Russia, to come to the United States and work and Jackson was one of the places that we got these workers to come. Well, what has happened because of the pandemic, these workers have not been able to travel last year, where we had record-breaking visitation. So, we had businesses that did not have enough staffing, enough employees to support the business’s operations with all these visitors. And we’re expecting this to be the same situation again this year, perhaps even worse, in terms of the amount of visitors coming, but a shortfall in the amount of people who are working for businesses.

Sustainable tourism at Grand Teton national park

Anula: So first of all, what is the destination’s marketing strategy? Are there any goals in terms of who to market to? Is there any limit to how many people can you accept?

Tim: To answer your second question, we don’t have limitations on the number of people that come here, we do have limitations on the number of people who can stay overnight because of the amount of accommodations that we have, which is quite extensive, over 7000 beds. And we do have campgrounds that are on a reservation basis.

We are at the very beginning of the process of creating a destination management plan that works together with our destination marketing. And our destination marketing up to now has been done primarily by the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board. It’s a board of volunteers that are appointed by our local elected officials to develop marketing strategies and campaigns that hopefully are in alignment with the values that our community has, environmental values, as well as social responsibilities. We have over 200 non-profits in our little community that are focused on environmental, conservation, health and human services and other social missions. So, our marketing at the destination level has been primarily one of creating a high-level campaign in terms of the messaging with the hopes that individual businesses that are also doing marketing, at least for themselves, as well as possibly for the entire destination, are going to coordinate the messaging that they send out with the messaging, that our Travel and Tourism Board has provided. And with different degrees to success, some businesses readily adopt and work with our travel and tourism boards, destination marketing campaigns, others just do theirs on their own. So, we do have room for improvement, and how we unite as a collection of stakeholders. Not just businesses, but also our non-profit organisations who are providing some of the messaging for how to behave responsibly in an environment that is very wild compared to most places in the world, in terms of wildlife, and just unpeopled land. We do have room for improvement, and that’s mainly in the area, not devising strategies on trying to reach the, you know, responsible traveller, but about how do we bring together all of our various stakeholders, which are many to work together with a common high-level messaging, and then individual businesses can tailor that messaging for their own purposes. So that’s, that’s where we are now in need to strengthen our coordination, and then have that work with our destination management policies and practices, which are at the very early stages of developing.

Anula: What’s your advice for these destination managers who are at the beginning of their sustainability journey?

Tim: I think the first step for any destination of any size, in any culture, is to understand where they are relative to sustainability standards. I think it’s important to pick sustainability standards and criteria from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, that is a good place to start. And then there are, of course, bodies that the GSTC has recognised or even accredited, based on their sustainability certification programs. I think the first step is to create a baseline of performance and take a sustainable standard, and do an assessment, either a self-assessment or get an outside party who’s experienced and doing assessments to come in and help that destination. And then the next step in the process is to say, where do we want to go? Who are we? Who do we want to be as a destination? In the case of Jackson Hole where a community where our economy is based on travel and tourism, we are both a community and a destination. And what goals and milestones do the stakeholders and the public that make up the destination want to set for themselves and create a plan from going from where they are to where they want to go, from A to B. And that plan ideally has a vision, it has goals, has strategies on how do we go from A to B, and then specific actions and projects to help them go from A to B. And then very importantly, as you can’t manage what you do not measure, it is very important that they have key performance indicators to measure their progress toward these goals and how successful strategies and actions are being implemented. In other words, create a destination management plan. I think it’s very important that any destination at any level of maturity has such a plan once they’ve established where they are and where they want to go.

 

Grand Teton National Park
Anula: For young people who want to build a career in sustainable tourism, what are you doing today, what does your day look like?

Tim: I would encourage young people to become experts in specific areas of sustainability. But don’t forget to develop the skills, the social skills in a way on how to bring people together, how to inspire them, to develop your leadership skills, to create these collaborations and these partnerships, that are very difficult at times because of political reasons, because of ego reasons. People want to create their own turf in the territory, where they don’t want anyone outside going into and they forget that they can become more prosperous and fulfil their mission and can actually working together rather than competing. So, we need people who really see that the opportunity is to go from competition to collaboration. So that would be my, my plea, as well as encouragement for young people to develop those program management and social skills, as well as their specific technical expertise.

To learn more about the Riverwind Foundation, visit them via:

Website: The Riverwind Foundation
Facebook: The Riverwind-Foundation

About

As Executive Director of the Riverwind Foundation, Tim’s efforts include leading Teton County’s participation as one of six destinations selected worldwide by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council to adopt the world’s leading sustainable tourism destination criteria. Both this program and Jackson Hole were selected by the World Travel and Tourism Council as Destination Finalists in the 2018 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, as well as by National Geographic as a Destination Leadership Finalist in the 2017 World Legacy Awards, and by Green Destinations as a Top 100 Sustainable Destination in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

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