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Insights & Inspirations |The Creation of a Fair Diversified Inclusive Destination


Vice Chair of WTA
President and CEO of Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board

Full text:

Dear guests, friends, ladies and gentlemen:

This morning, I’d like to talk about the evolving role of our industry as an incredibly powerful force for change in the world.

For us to engage in this work, we have to do so with a sense of purpose and urgency to confront the moment in front of us. But that also means engaging with each other in dialogue. There is so much that we have to learn from each other.

One of the things we’re incredibly grateful for, is it the roots of our relationship between Los Angeles and China run incredibly deep. For over four decades, we’ve seen firsthand how the power of people to people and cultural exchanges have unified our communities in solidarity. I think now more than ever, we need to recognize our shared humanity and the fact that dialogue and engagement is the key for us to be able to create a better world.

So, we’re also incredibly proud that Los Angeles is the only US tourism office to have our own full-time team members and offices overseas, including four offices here in China. Our office in Beijing that opened over 16 years ago, as well as Shanghai, Chengdu, and, of course, Los Angeles sister city of Guangzhou.

So, when we talk about how tourism benefits our communities, I think often we talk about it in very traditional terms. We always talk about the economic impacts. And just to give you a sense of what it means to Los Angeles, remarkably, even though we’re still recovering from the effects of the pandemic, this year, our local business community will see over $40 billion in business sales because of tourism. In fact, in the state of California, tourism is the single largest service export.

But I think we have to go deeper than the traditional metrics that we’ve always talked about, because we’re really going to engage in our communities. We have to be able to bring it down to a level that every single member of our community can relate to. So, some of the metrics that we’ve started using in Los Angeles. It’s wonderful to talk about the total tax revenues that are generated by tourism, but I think that’s a little too esoteric for someone to understand how does that affect me personally. So, this year alone, every single household in the Greater Los Angeles region will save $950 in total taxes because of the tax revenues that our industry generates. That brings it down to an incredibly individual basis. As a nonprofit membership organization, we have the privilege of representing over 1,000 businesses across the region in travel and tourism.

And yet, when you talk to so many, and you talk about tourism, they tend to think that it’s mostly large corporations. I think most of us would acknowledge that while those large corporations are critical to tourism, the heart and soul of our industry is small businesses, individuals who make up our industry. I think we need to put a much more human face on our industry, so that rather than seeing a corporate logo, they see their friends, they see their neighbors, they see their community members.

Beyond that, I think we also have to stress the fact that tourism does not just have economic impacts, but there are very much community benefits that our industry provides. When we think about Los Angeles, for example, if it wasn’t for the contributions of tourism, there are so many things that we as Angelenos would not be able to enjoy. You’d look at things like the academy museum that motion pictures, you look at things like Super Nintendo World, the Universal Studios, Hollywood, Los Angeles International Airport. Every one of those and so many more, are dependent on the income that tourism brings in to support those projects. We, as residents of Los Angeles, get to enjoy these community benefits. And that’s something I don’t think we talk about often enough.

To me, that’s really led to a very different definition of the role of a tourism board. Now, I will say this is one of those instances where we have so much to learn from our friends in China, Asia, and Europe, because the US is somewhat late to this conversation. But it really is the notion that we are called to be stewards of our destination. It’s not simply enough to promote our destination, our products or services. We are called to be stewards. And the simplest way I can put it is, in communities around the world, we are either viewed as part of the solution or part of the problem to the issues that face our communities. So, I think it’s really a call to action and to being destination stewards.

One of the foundational concepts that we’ve talked about in Los Angeles is the idea that what’s good for residents will always be good for visitors. But the reverse does not always hold true. I think we can all think of examples where there have been things that have been tremendous business drivers for tourism, but it inadvertently had a negative impact on our communities. So, I actually believe that this notion of what’s good for residents is good for visitors has to become the lens through which we view decisions about our industry. And I think that’s probably our biggest obligation. It’s to make sure that we look at major investments in tourism, infrastructure, new projects, that we’re not doing anything that has a negative impact on our community.

Beyond that, one of the things we’re incredibly grateful for in Los Angeles is the remarkable diversity of our community. Angelenos come from over 140 different countries, speaking over 220 different identified languages. So, in that diversity, there’s tremendous strength and unity. But if we don’t engage with our community, if we don’t engage so that residents have a positive view of our industry, this notion of “everyone is welcome”, which is really how we position Los Angeles, we will never realize that. “Everyone is welcome” cannot just be a promotional tagline. We have to be so deeply rooted in our community that every resident of Los Angeles welcomes visitors with open arms. Otherwise, the visitor experience simply won’t be what it needs to be.

I’ll tell you that when China started to become a dominant marketplace for Los Angeles, in 2016, for example, we became the first US city to welcome more than 1 million Chinese guests in a year. In the years leading up to that, we created a “China Ready” program, so that all of our 1,000 number businesses understood the unique needs of the Chinese guests. And as a result, our community embraced and welcomed them. So, I think the promise of the positive visitor experience is directly tied to how we engage with our community.

From that perspective, the WTA has actually created the perfect framework for it. When you think about the notion of creating a better world and a better life through tourism, they’ve already captured beautifully everything I’ve just talked about. And I will admit, we may have borrowed a bit, because over the pandemic, we redefined our mission statement for Los Angeles tourism. Put simply, it’s to improve the quality of life for all Angelenos.

Some of the traditional models we’ve used, I think the pandemic really laid bare that there is some foundational structural issues that we need to fix, and the only way we can do that is to be totally clear-eyed about it. What that means is we have to confront some of the most challenging issues. The good news, however, and this really does require tourism boards to take a different look at the role we play. There are issues that historically haven’t been the purview, especially in the US of the tourism board.

But thankfully, there’s a framework for this. I think we have a tendency in our industry to create new things that are only specific to tourism. But given that we’re talking about the mission of creating a better world and a better life through tourism, I would suggest that the UN Sustainable Development Goals actually create the perfect platform for us all to engage in the issues that are most pressing in all of our respective communities. So, I just want to give you a few quick examples.

First one, in case you can’t read it, you see, I’ve pulled out the first three UN SDGs, No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Wellbeing, are very consistent with the WTA mission. Well, during the pandemic, we had so many people in Los Angeles, elderly, those were homebound or those who had illnesses, who didn’t have ready access to healthy affordable food. So, our industry rallied. And across our 1,000 members, from our convention center to local hotels, restaurants, transportation companies, the community came together and delivered over 3 million meals to the elderly and those in need. That’s a tangible way that supporting the UN SDGs, we can make a difference.

Similarly, there’s been a lot of talk about workforce development. We’ve heard it from some of our panelists this week. What I would maintain is that the issues that created today’s labor shortage already existed before the pandemic. The pandemic simply accelerated the pace at which those became evident. So again, when you think about quality education, when you think about opportunity and economic growth, and when you think about reduced inequality, and the positive side of that is a more equitable and inclusive industry, we have a huge opportunity to think long term about how we can foundationally shift people’s expectations that tourism is one of the industries where you can have longevity, and incredible career, and even without a college education.

Certainly, things like clean mobility solutions we’ve talked about fit the UN SDGs. But the one that I really like to talk about is this notion of “we have to increase the resilience and the viability of our industry”. I think one of the greatest fallacies that we’ve heard over the course of the pandemic is the statement that no one could have seen this coming.

It reminds me of the saying, the time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but if you didn’t, we’d better start now. So, I think we have to be our own disruptors. We have to start to proactively look into the future, and think, what are the things that could potentially disrupt our industry, because there are so many. But what makes me excited about it is that if we collectively work together to identify those issues, I believe, there’s nothing that we can’t accomplish as a group.

What it really reminds me of in closing, and when I think about WTA is mission and vital work, is an incredible quote by the noted anthropologist and humanitarian Margaret Mead. She said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I look forward to partnering with all of you to bring about that change in the world.

Thank you.