Pre-trip email communication with clients. Placards located at attractions in a destination. Photos matched with captions running through an Instagram feed.
Every day in countless ways, tourism professionals’ work is intricately woven with stories. Communicating is an integral part of everybody’s job, whether their job title specifically states it.
Storytelling means using narrative to communicate and engage with an audience. That audience includes everyone from colleagues to prospective clients. And that narrative can be made up of words, images, videos, diagrams and graphs, or any other medium being used to convey a message from one person to another.
It can be a bit intimidating to think that most of us spend a good portion of our day in some state of communication, especially if you don’t consider yourself a good communicator or storyteller. There is good news, though, as we’re all storytellers, and four key characteristics of storytelling already work in your favor.
Nonetheless, storytelling is like all skills in that there is often room for improvement. When service providers and destinations embrace more responsible, strategic, and intentional storytelling skills, they are primed to attract the right kinds of travelers, create better travel experiences, and support sustainable development.
It is promising that an increasing number of tourism professionals recognize the importance of storytelling in their work. However, as I work with more of these professionals in master classes and one-on-one capacities to build these skills, a few key points have surfaced that are important for anyone embarking on a strategic storytelling journey.
#1: Building storytelling skills is a journey.
In the tourism industry, we have become accustomed to delivering stories a certain way. However, these common practices and these common stories haven’t necessarily benefited the environment, people, destinations, or the tourism industry as a whole. In order to tell stories that support a more equitable, safer, and sustainable tourism model, we need to break old habits and build new ones. This requires unlearning and relearning, and that can be incredibly hard.
You communicate every single day, but intentional communication takes practice. This isn’t a one-and-done habit you need to build. Because storytelling is infused throughout all aspects of a business as well as the customer’s and traveler’s journey, putting these skills into practice doesn’t just happen in a day. The goal is to build skills that make it easier to recognize opportunities where storytelling can be used in a more strategic and meaningful way.
#2: Disrupting storytelling is part of decolonizing travel.
Travel is largely defined by people who are white, Western, and wealthy. “Wanderlust” drives privileged people to take happy, picture-perfect vacations in someone else’s backyard on land that is sacred to people who have likely been silenced. The act of sanitized and two-dimensional travel centered on travelers has historically meant to make this dominant culture feel comfortable and coddled to the detriment of local residents and the environment.
If the tourism industry is committed to inclusivity and equity — and that’s a big if — it requires deconstructing the systems in place that commoditize and exploit people and their culture for the enjoyment of privileged travelers. A big part of that deconstruction process requires disrupting dangerous storytelling practices that have upheld those systems of oppression and reinforced destructive narratives.
#3: Storytelling is a multi-faceted skill.
When learning the specifics of storytelling, there is no single thing to learn. I frequently have people ask me about what words they should or shouldn’t use in a travel-related context, and while particular terminology is one aspect of responsible storytelling, it is only one aspect.
Storytelling cuts across all aspects of the travel experience, is used across a myriad of platforms and in various contexts, and has a variety of purposes. Using the skill strategically requires building an awareness of everything from power dynamics and personal bias to human psychology.
#4: Storytelling is most powerful when it is accessible and personal.
Nailing down a brand’s stance and then standing by it is more important than ever. Learning to tell that story is something else altogether. If there’s one thing the tourism industry seems to like, it is the ongoing debate about terminology. Every single travel company and destination should be crystal clear about its sustainability story, but dragging their audience through murky word soup while trying to tell this story is counterproductive. Most companies need to do a better job at clarifying and communicating with people about sustainability issues in a more accessible manner.
Beyond the sustainability story, though, there is a huge opportunity for travel providers to do a better job of using relatable examples, finding key moments of personal connection, providing a variety of entry points into complicated topics, creating space for personal reflection, and surfacing solutions to offer a pathway for further action. Moving storytelling from a macro skill to micro moments is a key piece of building this professional muscle.
Step up your travel-focused storytelling skills. I offer a four-part strategic storytelling master class series that helps tourism professionals build their skillset. Sign up for the waitlist so you are the first to know when enrollment opens again.