Earlier this year, Tourism Vancouver Island evolved into a social enterprise called 4VI that supports communities, businesses, culture and environment. A social enterprise is a revenue-generating business that identifies a social benefit and directs its revenues toward it; in the tourism industry, this is a completely new way to operate.
Even before the pandemic, something felt “off” at the regional destination marketing organization (DMO) formerly known as Tourism Vancouver Island. The 60-year-old Canadian organization had been moving away from destination marketing as other organizations took on that role and was more focused on destination development, destination development planning and destination stewardship. It had also been considering how it could better serve the local tourism community through the lens of its philosophy that “a great place to live is a great place to visit.”
And then, COVID-19 swept across the country. With it came a series of travel restrictions — and in August 2021, a massive influx of domestic travelers visited Vancouver Island, putting a lot of pressure on local communities.
“Through the pandemic, we saw not only businesses but residents asking, ‘How can tourism contribute to making this a great place to live?’” said Anthony Everett, president and CEO of the organization.
It's a question a lot of destinations — and the tourism industry at large — have been grappling with over the last few years: “It’s become increasingly clear that the tourism sector will need to adapt and innovate more than ever before in response to rising pressures on issues like climate change and equity,” said Jeremy Sampson, CEO at The Travel Foundation and chair of the Future of Tourism Coalition. “The old, entrenched systems simply don’t work anymore if the goal is for tourism to deliver outcomes far beyond year-on-year growth in arrival numbers.”
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At a conference in April of this year, Everett announced how Tourism Vancouver Island was evolving in response to this new tourism ecosystem: Instead of a DMO, it is now a social enterprise called 4VI that supports four pillars of social responsibility: communities, businesses, culture and environment. A social enterprise is a revenue-generating business that identifies a social benefit and directs its revenues toward that good; in the tourism industry, this is a completely new way for a DMO to operate.
“With 4VI’s move, the organization can directly contribute to what they value, giving it more opportunity to foster the conditions to create a deep and long-lasting positive impact on its destination — essentially becoming more ethical, resilient and future-fit,” said Jillian Dickens, co-founder and president of travel trade consultancy Bannikin. Dickens grew up on Vancouver Island.
Further demonstrating its commitment to sustainable tourism, 4VI recently received the Responsible Tourism Institute’s Biosphere certification and became a signatory to the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism.
4VI will still manage marketing projects within its region and do advisory work, but these efforts will be tightly focused on the organization’s values of conscientious travel. “We’re making it clear that we are a business; but when we operate our business, all our revenue is going to be invested back into social responsibility endeavors and/or organizations to carry those out,” Everett said.
In its first year as a social enterprise, 4VI plans to invest in UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, Life Below Water — an urgent issue for a destination surrounded by and dependent on the ocean. But, Everett said, this is only the beginning of many new opportunities to turn inward and focus on initiatives that positively impact Vancouver Island. 4VI’s shift in this direction has unlocked partnership opportunities not only with local and regional organizations but also international entities that position the tourism industry as a partner for supporting sustainable development in the communities it impacts.
“The dream was for us to change and help with social responsibility here,” Everett said, “and now people are coming to us and wanting to form meaningful partnerships that I’m excited about; but I’m also a little bit humbled by it.”
The international attention is, in large part, because 4VI has completely turned the traditional DMO model upside-down. “This is a feat, as there are very few shining-star examples of this worldwide, in our industry — especially at the DMO level,” Dickens said.
Sampson, who was present at the conference when Everett made the 4VI announcement, is hopeful this could signal a wider movement within the tourism industry.
“The recognition that tourism is a means to an end such as social impact is already starting to have an impact on how DMOs, and even some businesses, measure success through new KPIs,” he said. “I expect to start seeing these become even more commonplace as travelers, investors, governments and employees start to demand more transparency and nuance on reporting impact — both positive and negative.”
Everett acknowledges 4VI has a lot of work in the months and years ahead as it navigates the tourism space as a social enterprise. But it’s work that, at its heart, truly benefits not only travel-related businesses on Vancouver Island but also the people who call it home.
“Where we saw the best impact for us is to focus on social responsibility for the travel industry on Vancouver Island,” he said. “Our mission now is that it’s a force for good forever.”