We had the opportunity to sit down with President & CEO of Southeast Tourism Society Bill Hardman for some Q&A on his organization as well as the tourism industry in general.

Q: Competition in the tourism industry continues to increase. There are many choices for travelers to choose from when planning their vacations.  As the industry and travelers’ habits change, how important is continuing education for DMO marketers, and how has the STS played a role in providing educational resources for their members?

A: Continuing education is vital to the success of any destination marketing organization and marketers today must be current, and better yet, have the ability to see future trends and how they may apply to future opportunities for marketing their destinations. Perhaps the most visible example is the rapid change we continue to see in technology. The role of technology in a marketing strategy, for example, can provide a major advantage in gaining a competitive edge over your competition. For that reason, STS has placed a great deal of focus in its curriculum in the area of technology and its application in the marketplace.

Since its inception, STS has adjusted to industry trends.  Whether it’s shifting demographics, change in travel patterns or the rapidly changing trends in technology, STS takes note. The delivery vehicle has clearly been STS educational programming like Marketing College® and our membership meetings. In fact, 2018 will offer additional opportunities for education. Making certain that educational content is always relevant and timely is critical.

Q: Our industry is being threatened these days by legislative and political pressures (i.e. Visit Florida).  What can we do as DMO leaders to keep the focus on the economic benefits of the industry in our local regions and how can we be prepared for local political changes that negatively affect the industry?

A: I am a real believer in being connected locally. Ignorance of local issues has consequences for our communities and the need to be connected at the local level is more relevant than ever. Our DMO leaders must play a central role in advocating for their local tourism industry and educating elected officials and local community leaders. It’s also a never-ending process.  Elected officials come and go, and with that transition comes the continued need to educate and inform them on the value of tourism in their community.

STS is committed to empowering local tourism leaders to speak up on the issues that matter and build relationships with key elected officials. Tourism is essential to the economic vitality of states and communities across the Southeast, but we recognize that you can’t assume the elected officials get that. They have to be educated that tourism doesn’t just happen. And you have to build relationships to tell your success stories. If you wait until your work or your budget is under fire, it’s too late. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously observed that “all politics is local” and he is right. Elected officials don’t want to hear from national associations or out of town lobbyists that tourism is important, they want to hear from their constituents that tourism matters in their communities. The case for tourism has to be more than visitation numbers and ROI. It needs to include the many ways that tourism impacts a community. One way we encourage our members to think broadly about their impact on the community is by producing Tourism Works! biannually, a compilation of community-level success stories. It documents tourism’s impact on communities throughout the Southeast and is a vehicle for sharing those stories.

Q: What overall effect do you feel the STS has had on the tourism industry in the US since its beginning in 1983 and how do you see the STS role playing out for the future?

A: STS is unique among industry associations. There is really not another multi-state regional organization in the US like STS.

STS was created to fill a significant gap in a major industry that is highly competitive. It provides a venue for the diverse segments of the tourism industry to come together to collaborate on strengthening the economic vitality of the region and elevating the talents and strategies of tourism organizations and individual professionals. It is a model for partnership that is often cited but has not been replicated, which makes STS a regional organization with national reach. I expect that STS will continue to encourage the industry to remain competitive and innovative and look for ways to collaborate in order to elevate public awareness of tourism’s economic importance and to strengthen the local communities and small businesses that are the heart and soul of tourism.

Q: The four pillars of the STS are Education, Advocacy, Recognition and Networking. How is the STS having an impact on Advocacy in the tourism industry?

A: For more than 30 years, STS has organized a summit as well as a congressional fly-in to Washington D.C. Through the years, the name, format, and location has changed but one thing has remained undiminished:  STS provides an unmatched platform for frontline tourism leaders to speak up on the issues that matter.  Among the issues that STS has championed, including convening the first White House Conference on Travel & Tourism, improving the way the National Weather Service announces weather crises, like hurricanes, and establishing and funding Brand USA. One indicator of our impact on advocacy is that we were asked by the U.S. Department of the Interior to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the federal agencies that have a dedicated tourism program.  We have used that MOU to build relationships and leverage information into programs, such as the Federal Tourism Directory, which maps the scope and range of federal tourism programs, as well as the Capitol Hill reception, which brings together tourism leaders, federal agency partners and the membership of the Congressional Travel & Tourism Caucus for a networking event like no other.

Q: Your passion in the tourism industry is very evident.  What drew you to the industry and why do you do what you do?

A: I grew up in a “tourism family” – my father was the first Director of Tourism for the state of Georgia and was an early pioneer. My mother was the first Director of Sales for the first new convention hotel to be constructed in the early 1960’s in downtown Atlanta in decades. So, in many respects, my passion developed from a young age.

Outside of my parents, an early influence and continued mentor is Spurgeon Richardson, longtime president of Six Flags over Georgia and later the president & CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. Spurgeon’s passion for tourism was infectious and he continues to be a major influence in my professional and personal life.

I learned early, working on rides at Six Flags Over Georgia, that travel was a force for good. It brings families together and created joy. It also connects people from different cultures. Frequent travelers often reflect on a new perspective of the world and its people when they travel. Travel breaks down barriers and opens the mind to give a perspective they may not have seen otherwise. I enjoy being a part of an industry that can have that kind of impact.

Q: Tell us about the TMP (Travel Marketing Professional) certification program that you provide through the STS Marketing College and who does this program benefit?

A: Marketing College® is a three year program and its TMP certification has become valued and recognized throughout the southeast. More than 1,000 tourism industry professionals have earned their TMP certification. I like to refer to it as applicable education that can be applied in the workplace as soon as you finish your first year. Another unique characteristic is its affordability. Our partnership with the University of North Georgia and our relationship with industry professionals who serve as instructors provides a level of affordability and reaches deep into communities large and small.

Q: What has been your proudest moment? 

A: This one is easy! The STS Marketing College® has meant so much to so many.  When you consider the impact this program has had on our communities around the southeast year after year, my proudest moment is graduation day at the STS Annual Membership Meeting for the Marketing College students who have earned their TMP’s. Their excitement and enthusiasm spills over and I feel their pride every time. When you have made a contribution to one’s ability to affect positive change and generate economic benefit in their communities back home…well there’s nothing that makes me feel prouder.

Q: I know you work hard year-round, but you must have a favorite vacation destination. Where is your vacation happy place?

A: The mountains of North Georgia, where we have a second home in Dahlonega, provides the serenity and beauty that is relaxing and can really put things in proper perspective. I love the simple things like sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs with friends and socializing. Throw in a little red wine and its all the better. I also have a fondness for the Golden Isles of Georgia. I have spent much time on the coast around Jekyll Island, Saint Simons and Sea Island where there are a lot of fond memories and an environment different from the North Georgia Mountains, but equally tranquil and relaxing.