Zimbabwe: Stakeholder Engagement – Value, Complexities for Enhanced Tourism

In today’s tourism destination branding development, the ability to collaborate with stakeholders helps to create an awareness of destination marketing and provides an important competitive advantage. As a result, the ability of the Destination Marketing Organisation to interact effectively with stakeholders in the destination is important to its success.

Stakeholders work together because they help to give more power to control the destination development. It is the contention of tourism strategists that forming partnerships among business owners is valuable for all partnerships especially when implementing a product portfolio to spread the cost of marketing activities between several destinations with more efficiency.

Critical elements of Destination Branding and their value and complications

Destinations such as Zimbabwe and its sub-destinations have to project a unique identity and this has become more critical than before as a basis of survival within a globally competitive arena. In this competitive market place, what persuades potential tourists to visit and revisit one place instead of another is the empathy that they have with the destination and its values. It is argued that the battle for tourists in tomorrow’s destination will be fought over hearts and minds signifying entry into brand management through place promotion.

It is important to note in this context that in the field of marketing, brands differentiate products and represent a promise of value. Brands incite beliefs, evoke emotions and prompt behaviours. Brands have social, emotional and identity value to users. They have personality and enhance the perceived utility, desirability and quality of product. When consumers make brand choices about products including destinations, they are making statements about their lifestyle, because they are not only buying into an image but also into an emotional attachment.

Consumers make brand choices or choice selections to communicate, reflect and reinforce associations, memberships and statements. Through associating with selected brands, consumers will be expressing their emotions, personality and roles. It is important to note that travel for leisure is an involving experience which is extensively planned and excitedly anticipated. What it therefore means is that choice of a holiday destination is thus an important lifestyle statement for today’s inspirational consumers and the place where they chose to spend their important vacation time and hard earned income have to be emotionally appealing and have high celebrity value.

With all this highly demanded attributes of a destination, destination branding is a highly complex and politicised activity because countries are much more interwoven and have long histories and associations. They are territories governed by competing interests and political agenda and their marketing has to be a contextualised system. That’s the reason why branding a country is met by scepticism and outright hostility by some scholars.

Complex nature of destination branding

In tandem with the above Morgan (2003) argues that all destinations face peculiar branding challenges because of the many stakeholders involved with management control and often underdeveloped identities. A destination clearly differs from product in that it is not a single product but consists of a bundle of different components encompassing accommodation,hospitality,attractions,arts,entertainment,culture,heritage and natural environments.

Therefore destination marketers have little control over these different sectors and yet this diverse range of agencies and companies are all stakeholders in the destination brand. They include local and national government and their agencies, environmental groups, trade associations, civic groups and the wider private sector.

It is argued that the challenge of destination branders is to make a destination brand experience alive so that visitors experience the promoted brand values and feel the authenticity of a unique place. However, as in the global tourism market place, public sector destinations marketers such as the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority are adversely hampered by a variety of political pressures.

They are found reconciling local and regional interests and promote a destination identity acceptable to a range of public and private sector constituencies. Most importantly destinations marketers have to confront and deal with the culture clash between the public and private sector travel and tourism sectors whose value system are highly divergent.

Martin Sandbach, head of Research at the British Tourism Authority and the World Tourism Conference, contended that the private sector or commercial sector had a short term view of the world and National Tourism Organisations are instructed by national governments to have medium term to long term outlook. The private sector has a nine months long term perspective and 95 percent of their budget are in tactical or short term marketing. He concludes by stating that these were not partners with whom it is easy to create strategic partnerships. This is a reflection that successful destination branding is about achieving a balance between applying cutting edge advertising and public relations approaches to a marketing problem and “realpolitik” of managing local, regional and national interests.

In addition to confronting the politics of destination branding, most National Tourism Organisations have very small budgets with which to create global brands yet at the same time they are competing for the consumer mind share with other competitive brands and global brands.

The power of citizens

A successful destination branding strategy requires ownership and acceptance by the country’s citizens. These are critical drivers of the brand message and brand values. They are the primary marketers of a destination through the inculcation of national values and vision from the education system. Citizens are the prime brand ambassadors at every level and must be conscious of a country’s history, heritage, places to visit and the significance of every tourism destination.

One thing striking about Malaysian tax drivers and the general populace is how they speak well about their country, its history, its tourists sites and heritage. The citizens are effective brand champions who do not castigate their country to a foreigner. Zimbabweans by their nature are quick to speak ill of their country left, right and centre yet we are Zimbabweans.

First and foremost Zimbabwe has more than 4 million people in the diaspora including young people. Zimbabwe has exported professionals and other forms of labour internationally but we do not have a model to turn these people into ambassadors or champions globally or at least some.

The mind-set of a Zimbabwean is supposed to be modelled from childhood, to instil a sense of pride, patriotism and loyalty to the country.

Citizens, it can be argued are key stakeholders for a country despite the challenges associated with their control and management into a homogeneous group with a progressive mind set. Zimbabwe youths are techno-savvy and are all over the world and the advent and expansion of digital marketing is an opportunity that can be exploited by turning some of them into effective brand ambassadors.

Centrality of the private sector in tourism and DB

For an initiative towards branding Zimbabwe, the private sector plays a critical role. They need to be fully and meaningfully included into both domestic and international destination branding campaigns. Not to get involved as an afterthought.

The current good initiative that ZTA is pushing to promote domestic tourism and travel seems not to intimately involve the private sector.

The private sector from independent observation do not own the promotion yet they are the custodians of the provision of hospitality, quality service, accommodation, travel and tour service and many other elements that are critical to tourism enjoyment. Issues of the tourism master plan or revival plan must be all inclusive to infuse ownership into all players. This way destination branding strategy will work. The public and private sector must find common ground to push the Zimbabwe’s destination brand agenda with minimal hitches for the benefit of the country’s economy.

ZTA has done well in projecting Zimbabwe favourably in some markets against minimal budget but working closely with commercial entities can address some of the resource constraints because every stakeholder benefits from such a harmonious working set up. Its Zimbabwe that matters at the end of the day, not sectional interests.

For effectiveness the whole strategy needs to be operator-centric since operators are the implementers of branding initiatives that are directly felt by the tourists.

Government at the macro level sets legislative framework, tourism policy, tourism cite management etc. Definitely government sets the tone, is the chief driver of such mega projects but cannot go it alone.

Customer-centric DB Strategy

Branding initiatives should be customer focused so that tourism products and services are appropriate for different consumer markets and tastes of a discerning customer of today.

Modern global customers cannot be taken for granted. It’s no longer a question of going to traditional source markets in Europe and America and assume that everyone wants to come to Zimbabwe.

Tourist decision making is shaped by lifestyles, age, status, social orientation, tastes and other individualised or group factors.

This therefore means that the destination branding strategy should be outward looking and give attention to the needs and wants of target market and tourism consumers.

Destination branding is not about slogans and public relations, but a carefully planned, research based, all inclusive and action oriented activities. It’s not only about participating at international and regional tourism fairs and exhibitions but a well-crafted, empirically guided, data based activity that should be reflected by a precise and smart web strategy to address customer interest effectively, efficiently and timeously.