Urs Wohler on Destination Management, Leadership and Sustainability

Published 11/10/2018
Urs Wohler interview

Urs Wohler interview

Urs Wohler, CEO of Niesenbahn AG and former director of the destination Scuol Sammaun Val Müstair in Switzerland, in this interview, tells us why political leadership and support at a regional level is essential for destination sustainability, and how mountain destinations can succeed in becoming more sustainable.

Our interview with Urs Wohler is part of a special series of interviews with Swiss sustainable tourism leaders and changemakers.

Urs, you have been involved with tourism and sustainability for many years. Do you remember what first got you interested in the topic?

Yes of course! In 1995 I started working with Graubünden Ferien (GRF) in Chur. Olivier Federspiel was my boss there, and also my role model. He died far too soon. He gave me the Brundtland Report of 1987 “Our Common Future”. He said I had to deal with it; that sustainability would probably become an important topic which would be interesting for Graubünden. He was a visionary who was often misunderstood. Since that time, I cannot let go of the topic.

Having served over 11 years as CEO of the Swiss holiday region Engadin, Scuol, Samnaun Val Münstair, would you say interest in the sustainability performance of destinations has increased? Which market trends do you observe?

Yes, sustainability has become more important. But you have to differentiate: while the topic has definitely arrived at the DMOs [destination marketing/management organizations], unfortunately, it is not yet enough present in regional administrations. Leaders of regions often work politically and not objectively. Their own re-election is often more important than a successful long-term development of the destination.

How has your understanding of sustainability changed since you first got involved?

In the beginning, I understood primarily the ecological development. Then the economic factor became more important to me. And much later I realized that the social dimension is just as important!

Today I see sustainability as much more comprehensive, including the balance of human cultures – in the village, the town, and the region. This includes the locals with their individual lives, trade and commerce with their business, and the visitors with their activities. If the demands, expectations and wishes of these three stakeholder groups are in harmony with what they are doing, then the soul of the place is in balance.

Some of your key lessons learned?

  • Engagement with sustainability within DMOs is good, but it’s not enough. The commitment must be comprehensive, region-wide.
  • Companies can often do the most because their leaders can decide quickly. So the corporate sector is very important for sustainable development.
  • The government can influence sustainable development. One example is the Center of Competence for Sustainable Development in Wergenstein, Graubünden. It gives impetus and supports willing people.
  • Start with yourself: everyone has the opportunity to do something and can add to a more sustainable world.

Under your leadership, Scuol has become well-known as a destination firmly committed to responsible tourism. Why focus on sustainability?

  • Anyone whose advertising involves intact nature must also commit to its protection.
  • If you have the only Swiss National Park in the region, you have to get involved with sustainability.
  • If positioning is based primarily on nature and culture, sustainability is a matter of credibility.
  • Sustainability is an opportunity for differentiation from competitors.

How did you convince stakeholders to get on board?

We just started. Then we looked for partners. Obvious was a cooperation with the public transport providers. Then with some innovative hoteliers and farmers. And of course with partners beyond the region, especially MyClimate, the Center of Competence Wergenstein, WWF and other specialist partners and experts.

Climate change and seasonality are two challenges frequently mentioned in connection with destination sustainability, especially in mountain areas. Do you have advice for DMOs how to overcome those?

There is no simple recipe for success. Developing systems and infrastructure takes time. That’s why it’s best to start with offers and products, the low hanging fruits. Then: work with those partners who want to collaborate – and can.

Anyone who wants long-term success must work together regionally. If the key leaders of a region have the same long-term goals, then this will result in success. I do not know of any region that has mastered this entirely. For me, the Biosphere Entlebuch is the model to follow.

Successful destination marketing used to be mostly about innovative, engaging campaigns and smart pricing. Yet, in times of overtourism and digital societies, it is more and more about brand stewardship and active networking internally. In your view, are DMOs in Switzerland prepared for this paradigm shift – ready to take on a role of facilitator and brand/destination manager, rather than “just” promoter?

I think we need both: on the one hand further development of the system, on the other hand, the promotion and the selling. The problem is that those in charge of funding DMOs (the communities and service providers) want quick successes: more overnight stays, more bookings, higher demand, etc.

But criticism is often faster than success. That’s why always doing more does not necessarily lead to better results. Operational hustle and bustle cannot replace strategic calm. Once again, leadership is needed at the regional level. The DMOs would be ready, but the regions are not. This means that in the regions here in Switzerland we have a strategic problem, not necessarily an operational one.

Together with the University of Lucerne and other destinations in Switzerland you recently developed a guide on how destinations can develop and market sustainable offers. Which recommendations presented in the guide could you share with our readers?

Start first in your own business. There you have “everything” under control. Things like avoiding or minimizing the use of natural resources, striving for climate neutrality, leading the way – being a good role model.

Inform and sensitize. Search for allies and develop a plan. Try to convince the regional leaders. The “how” is simple, and is described in the guide [in German]. You just have to work consistently. Developing a common strategy is much more difficult, especially when it involves investments, as small as those might be.

Accept that the task is demanding. But that also makes it interesting.

All too often tourism businesses and destinations develop well-meaning sustainability strategies but ultimately fail at implementation. To your mind, what does it take to succeed? Which pitfalls to avoid?

It takes many little steps to succeed. If you want too much too early, you fail. Sustainability also takes the support of the superiors, otherwise, it will be difficult. Do not stop informing and sensitizing. You always need majorities to succeed.

You have since moved on to managing Niesenbahn AG, a cable car business. What role do cable cars play in the context of sustainability, in mountain destinations?

The cable cars play an important role because they can decide quickly. At the moment, their role is still modest. It is difficult when a cable car is one-dimensionally focused on the ski business. This business is highly competitive and operates in a shrinking market.

Currently, price dumping is the main issue. Demand and Revenue are decreasing, which is fatal for the cable car business. Nevertheless, if a cable car company wants, it still has many strategic options. Smart technologies and focus on sustainability are among those.

Thank you, Urs.

Connect with Urs Wohler on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

Our interview with Urs Wohler is part of a special series with sustainable tourism leaders and changemakers in Switzerland, supported by Swiss Youth Hostels, Swiss Travel System, Switzerland Tourism and SWISS.

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