By Colleen Dalton, Special to Moonshine Ink
As this paper goes to press, anxiety about wildfire danger rattles our community. It’s a numbers game: more people, more likely the risk of wildfires. July peak period visitation is upon us. Our beaches, trails, parking lots, stores, and restaurants are full. With dry forest conditions, the U.S. Forest Service fields questions such as “Are tiki torches allowed?” while residents seek to understand 36 flavors of fire restrictions (see p. 20). Visitors are directed to a “Truckee Travel Alert” webpage that includes a matrix of legal/illegal campfire situations and links to Know Your Evacuation Zone and Nixle Alerts.
Protecting our community by managing tourism messaging is a day-by-day play for Visit Truckee-Tahoe, the new tourism authority. (Tourism was formerly a Truckee Chamber of Commerce committee). The group just launched visittruckeetahoe.com, replacing truckee.com, as the official visitor website. With 40% of the website dedicated to Sustainable Truckee and Made Naturally (nature, wildlife, cultural history), the intention is to encourage like-minded travelers who value responsible recreation and respect the local community.
But the long-term question is, what’s the game plan for protection and promotion in ways that will create a consistently healthy tourism economy AND a thriving (vs. surviving) community? How will we smooth out shoulder-season troughs and midweek dips that are most likely to return as the world reopens?
Taking a deep dive into these questions is Visit Truckee-Tahoe, the new 501c6 tourism organization that began operations in August 2020 with a seven-member board including a Town of Truckee seat. Born from conversations about changing an outdated paradigm from solely promotion to protection, community well-being, and economic balance, VTT started with a clean slate, unencumbered by legacy governance, structure, and outmoded strategic plans.
While this is good news, it also fosters deep philosophical debate about the roadmap ahead, which is exactly what the VTT Board is grappling with. Dynamic conversations are leading to a new glossary of terms, new objectives, and new metrics for community wellbeing.
In fact, tourism organizations around the world are soul searching — asking what is the purpose of our organization? What business are we in? Who are our customers? How do our actions impact the community? What does our brand, our place, stand for? Are the right people, skill sets, beliefs, and values on board the bus, from staff to board members?
Let’s break this down and take a look at what Visit Truckee-Tahoe is doing today, which reflects the massive paradigm shifts happening in the tourism industry around the world.
SERVING OUR LODGING MEMBERS
First, the primary purpose of a tourism organization is to collectively do what individual business owners cannot do for themselves. For Visit Truckee-Tahoe, our members are lodging business owners who pay a Truckee Tourism Business Improvement District (TTBID) tourism fee of 1.25% on every room night. Ensuring member success is how the VTT organization fiscally exists. In addition, Truckee lodging businesses pay 12% in Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) — the third highest revenue source for the Town of Truckee, which contributes funding toward housing solutions, Keep Truckee Green, the police department, animal services, and much more.
COLLABORATING WITH PARTNERS
Second, while so many Truckee/Tahoe organizations (nonprofits, government, districts) do a fantastic job “in their lane,” collaboration and cross-jurisdiction conversations are more critical than ever. In the old model, Destination Marketing Organizations (DMO) drove revenue in a vacuum. Today, Destination Marketing and Management Organizations (DMMO) are collapsing the separation of promotion and protection by recognizing the very place that we “sell” is at risk, from housing shortages to lack of employees. This requires a whole new level of resources dedicated to collaboration and community input. To name a few, VTT participates in the Mountain Housing Council and in Nevada County Supervisor Hardy Bullock’s Triple CCC (Champion, Convene, Catalyze) leadership group focused on peak-period, negative-impact mitigation.
Third, VTT launched the Sustainable Truckee initiative in order to create alliances, programs, and services that address summer impacts (for starters). This included $30,000, in addition to $5,000 from Truckee Fire Protection District, to launch the Truckee Trail Host Ambassador and Trailhead Signage programs, plus Sawtooth Trail infrastructure improvements that support the forest service.
Management for the trail-host program is handled by the Truckee Trails Foundation, an organization that welcomed VTT to help solve trail usage challenges. VTT also joined forces with Supervisor Bullock to create the Sustainable Truckee — Outdoor Recreation Partnership (STORC) a public/nonprofit partnership funded by VTT, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District, Truckee Donner Land Trust, Nevada County, and Town of Truckee. STORC provides an expert facilitator who convenes local and regional stakeholders to focus on tactical solutions for trash, wildfire, user conflict, and more.
PROMOTION WITH PURPOSE
Fourth, everything VTT communicates must be within the context of sustainability. We focus on creating content based on four communication pillars: safety/security, inclusivity/welcoming, education/awareness, and engagement/reward. For example, Hannah Thornton, a local social media influencer with 60,000 Instagram followers (@HannahBrie) and member of the GoPro social media “family,” had quite a different experience in Truckee/North Lake Tahoe. Instead of the usual approach to hosting (wine, dine, activity), her visit included dirt work with the Truckee Trails Foundation, an E-Bike ride on the Legacy Trail with stops at historical markers, talk about trash in Big Blue, and conversations with extraordinarily “green” Truckee businesses including Alibi Ale, Drink Coffee Do Stuff, and Tahoe Food Hub.
SUSTAINABILITY & ACCOUNTABILITY
Last, VTT has embarked upon a multi-year vision for Truckee to achieve a globally recognized Sustainable Destination Certification. Walking the talk involves the whole community and reaches far beyond protecting the natural environment, as demonstrated by mountain towns who have earned such designation including Breckenridge, Jackson Hole, and Vail.
There is no playbook for flipping the tourism model, nor do we want to jeopardize a $149 million annual Truckee tourism economy supporting our small businesses and an estimated 1,400 jobs*. But there is also no going back. Like any movement, this paradigm shift is going to take courageous leadership that is willing to debate, make mistakes, learn, adjust, and stay the course for a truly sustainable Truckee/Tahoe.
~ Check out the people behind the brainstorming at visittruckeetahoe.com/board.
* Statistics from Dean Runyan, 2019 Economic Impact Report, Truckee California
While it is good to see that people are aware of the tourism problems in the area and are making noises about “sustainable tourism”, I feel that there is a fundamental problem which will doom these efforts to failure.
Tourism is a Dirty Business
Transportation: Everyone drives and/or flies here causing environmental damage. Once here they “recreate” by driving around in cars and boats, releasing more pollution.
Even well behaved tourists leave trash and waste food.
Community: The presence of hoards of tourists damages the community. One would like to walk around town or trails, go out to dinner and come across your friends and neighbors. Instead, there are a bunch of random people and all of your friends are in hiding.
Jobs: People always tout jobs as a “benefit” of tourism. Most tourism jobs are low wage, temporary, seasonal and do not attract solid community members.
Business: The only people who benefit are business owners who get to charge high prices and try to maintain composure despite the lack of good employees and wild variations in demand. Wouldn’t they be happier with a lower level of steady year round demand?
The “solution” is to discourage tourism and instead try to attract year round community members. I think the recent influx in people who can live here, work remotely (not dependent on tourism) and become part of our community is a good thing.