One Researcher’s Experience in the Peruvian Amazon Illustrates Positive Community Branding

INTRODUCTION

All researchers realize early in their careers that they stand on the shoulders of giants in their field. The field of tourism is no different. No matter how effective I am in accomplishing my goals as a tourism researcher, I will never be able to distinguish my successes from those whose work I continue. In regard to tourism, all of us who work in the realm of destination management are continuing to build upon historical knowledge bases. As tourism is an amalgamation of many distinct fields (e.g. business, sociology, economics), we are not only building on existing knowledge stemming from a singular discipline; we are building knowledge in our field of tourism while standing on the shoulders of giants from many disciplines. This includes anthropologists.  

ANTHROPOLOGY AND TOURISM

I met Dr. Amanda Stronza while working on my PhD at Texas A&M University. Dr. Stronza served officially on my PhD committee and less officially as a mentor. She is a Stanford-trained anthropologist focused on a niche area of her discipline: tourism. Specifically, she believed that ecotourism could move wildlife and human habitats from a juxtaposition to a mutually beneficial relationship. This is often called ecological modernization in environmental sciences. But what Dr. Stronza had that captured me was her focus on people, from their hopes and dreams to their feelings of community and inclusion. An enormous amount of research in the sciences is focused on wildlife, biodiversity, and the environment in general. Anthropology by definition includes people as a focal point. Too often, humans are subjugated to second-tier status in human-environment relationship research. And when humans are the focal point, it is more often economics or business-related research. Dr. Stronza’s research included people and the importance of a sense of community.

I began building a research acumen in applied biodiversity sciences, or the blending of humans and their communities, by working with First Nations People in the Peruvian Amazon under Dr. Stronza’s tutelage. During multiple visits, each for a period of more than a month, I began to understand the positive impact tourism can have on local communities.

Numerous positive outcomes stemming from tourism were identified through Dr. Stronza’s work with the Ese’Eja people in the Peruvian Amazon. Dr. Stronza identified the pride the Ese’Eja people felt based on how tourists saw and understood their culture. Prior to tourism being an integral part of their community, they were cited as often being embarrassed of being First Nations People. These feelings have changed with tourism. One of my favorite quotes from my time spent onsite with the Ese’Eja came from a parent in the community. When asked what they wanted for their children, they responded that they wished them to be a doctor, lawyer, or tour guide. In the United States these occupations are not normally on par with each other societally, but the Ese’Eja community see them as more similar. This is at least partially because tour guides are the keepers of indigenous knowledge who share their community’s history with interested tourists from western countries. When their community is of great interest to others, in this case tourists, it instilled a sense of pride.

ANTHROPOLOGY AND COMMUNITY BRANDING

The aforementioned is tourist-driven anthropological research that offers us insights into the sense of pride possible when tourists appreciate a culture and community. As I wrote in the introduction to this article, we can stand on the shoulders of those who we learn from and apply those learnings within the communities we serve. Specifically, I want to focus on something called community branding. Community branding can be understood as an emotional connectivity an individual feels to a geographic community. There is extensive alignment between anthropological ideas of community branding and the work of Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs). 

DMOs have their plates full of responsibilities. One such responsibility is to brand geographic communities as “destinations”. When DMO team members are understood as simply marketers for a destination, we may stop at branding for tourists. But “DMO” can also be an acronym for Destination Management Organizations. Management brings our responsibilities one step closer to community distiller instead of only a marketing agent. We are agents of change in our communities; and we can lead our community members to increasing pride in our local culture.    

DMOs exist to help the community reach its potential. Tourism dollars and the businesses that operate effectively due to tourism are the obvious industries that benefit. Benefits go beyond direct tourism dollars spent in the community as well, and include socio-cultural impacts. Festivals, marketing campaigns, education programs, and other strategies DMOs develop for use as outreach can also be conducive to positive feelings within the local community.  

THE APPLICATION OF COMMUNITY BRANDING BY DMOs  

Reading about how anthropologists can work in collaboration with DMOs for the betterment of a community may be interesting, but realizing how to apply best practices and learnings from anthropological insights is even better. We can improve the communities we live in and serve as DMOs by operationalizing these anthropological learnings. Specifically within the guise of community branding, we can leverage DMO operations for the betterment of community.

I have been researching the application of community branding by DMOs for approximately a decade, much of this stemming from my early years working with and learning from Dr. Stronza. My research is a collaborative effort of anthropological, DMO/tourism, and business research. I begun to stand on the shoulders of other giants as I aim to build a robust research agenda for the betterment of DMOs and the communities they serve. For example, I have enjoyed following Richard Millington’s work on community branding. In one of my favorite models of community branding in the context of DMOs, Millington (2018) identified four elements to effective community branding: Engagement, Evolution, Expansion, and Transformation.

Engagement: Individuals who already perceive themselves as community members should be provided information they consider to be relevant, useful, and entertaining. This group should be surveyed annually to ensure they are finding DMO activities to be relevant, useful, and entertaining. 70% or more of this group agreeing that each of these three items is 8/10 or higher on a survey is a good benchmark.

Evolution: Individuals who already perceive themselves as community members should be introduced to additional DMO resources and associate DMOs with community productivity and enhancement. The idea is to include the existing community members as much as possible in DMO activities. Volunteer activities and quarterly holiday celebrations are excellent ways to succeed in the Evolution area.

Expand: Many members of a DMO’s geographic region do not feel they are community members. The barriers should be identified and brought down. The most common barriers are age range, language, and unique professional needs. DMOs should realize which barriers they have to reach the community and overcome these. For example, by offering free education members may seek (e.g. language, certifications through a local college) the community can be reached. A simple, cost-effective approach could include sponsoring a youth sports team since teenagers and parents with teenagers are often difficult for DMOs to reach.  

Transform: DMOs need to constantly survey the marketplace and their community and adapt to changes. For example, social media is no longer the future but is already here. All DMOs should have a robust webpage as well as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook accounts. ListServs, a type of email communication tool, should also be used weekly. But what comes after social media and ListServs? That is the real question.

CONCLUSION

DMOs exist for the betterment of community. Anthropologists study communities. We can learn a lot from the field of anthropology. Furthermore, some anthropologists are specifically researching the effects of tourism on communities. If we follow these studies we can learn how to be a positive impact in the communities we serve. 

While much of anthropology is seemingly academic and not necessarily applied, a critical lens taken to the data tells a different story. When I worked with Dr. Amanda Stronza in Peru, the research was undoubtedly academic. Yet, it was also applied. I was able to take away a treasure trove of knowledge when I returned to the USA and apply it to existing DMO strategies. Community branding is one example. 

Community branding is a way of having the community we serve feel connected to us as their DMO. This essay outlined the four areas of effectiveness for DMOs that work in a community and accept a community branding strategy. My hope for the future is that DMOs are understood as more than marketing arms but rather leaders of the entire community and region they serve. Community branding is a likely effective approach to accomplishing this goal. 

Dr. Justin Taillon
Dr. Justin Taillon

Professor and Department Head
School of Hospitality & Tourism Management
Highline College

Justin Taillon worked for eight years in the hospitality industry, culminating in an AGM role at a Hilton owned and managed property in Houston, Texas. He then moved into academia, where he began by working toward an MBA at the University of Guelph and a PhD at Texas A&M University. His research focus is market-based socio-cultural conservation; he has completed projects in thirteen countries. He is currently the Global Director for HFTP (Hospitality Financial & Technology Professionals) and incoming President of the organization.

REFERENCE
Millington, R. (2018, May 29). What should a brand community ultimately become? Feverbee. Retrieved February 4, 2021, from: https://www.feverbee.com/brand-community/

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