The COVID-19 pause and pivot offered an unexpected opportunity to delve into the authenticity of Harriet Tubman’s legacy in the Finger Lakes Region. When the Cayuga County Tourism office identified that Harriet Tubman, as an internationally recognized symbol of freedom, could be a significant travel motivator, thus began an initiative that would help ensure that DEI is authentically integrated within their organizational structure.
Though this positioning had not been previously utilized by the tourism office, it ultimately transformed the vendor relationships, marketing efforts, and visitor experience offered by the Cayuga County C&VB, Inc., making Cayuga County a more authentically inclusive destination for all.
An Inclusive Strategy
An all-encompassing approach was taken to ensure that the Cayuga County tourism office addressed internal principles, their community, and their outward marketing efforts. Firstly, an advisory council of community leaders and organizations who have not been brought into the tourism conversation was formed to guide messaging and monitor/review results. A series of meetings involving the community was planned to educate and gather feedback on the new direction. This helped incorporate the initiative into their 5-year strategic plan to not only stimulate new visitation but also increase DEI in action in Cayuga County.
"Internally, we integrated DEI principles into our operational documents so that the DNA of our organization would be changed for the better," said Karen Kuhl, Executive Director of Cayuga County C&VB. "We recognized this as a major change for our community and residents. Our goal was to encourage pride in living in Harriet Tubman’s chosen hometown and put the focus on minority and black-owned businesses."
One way they achieved this was through a grant system for events supporting tourism and the spirit of Harriet Tubman’s legacy. The grant program supported 17 events in 2022, and 17 in 2023.
Marketing efforts came last, which included a new website with her name in the navigation, and new collateral for the Underground Railroad “Freedom Trail” app creation, which offers a Driving Tour experience of the Underground Railroad sites in Cayuga County.
Additionally, a new PR effort was created to specifically tell Harriet Tubman’s story and reach a new audience. With previously increased visitation, they allocated funding to support local events that promote, share, and inspire in the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman and equal rights.
Underground Railroad “Freedom Trail”, app creation, which offers a Driving Tour experience of the Underground Railroad sites in Cayuga County.
Results & Community Impact
Cayuga County Tourism's PR and marketing efforts have garnered 23 million impressions and 58 placements, including features in major publications. The community pride campaign distributed 500 lawn signs, with a digital component featuring interviews with residents and sharing their hometown pride, which is a difficult hard measure but gained a lot of community support and increased shareholders.
Their office positions itself as a resource for partners, and as this resource, they have sponsored three individuals to complete a Certified Diversity Travel Professional program, increasing the awareness of the importance of DEI in our industry.
Spearheading A Future for DEAI in Tourism
The next steps and goals for the Cayuga County Tourism office are to continue supporting their tourism partners by continuing the sponsorships of DEI training and certifications, which are now built into their budget and our committee plans. To be able to financially continue PR outreach and marketing efforts, they will continue to apply for special funding releases and contract research to understand their DEI index. This will help calculate user reception to digital DEAI marketing.
"As the last few years have been specialized and focused, we plan to continue this messaging and integrate it into future marketing plans and the new 5-year strategic plan," said Karen. "With new employees in our economic development agency, we will partner to understand better how to use the feedback and research conducted that showed a lack of diverse-owned businesses and how to attract and retain those businesses for future economic development."
Advice for Those Beginning their Tourism & DEAI Journey:
This effort to include DEAI in your tourism strategy needs to start from the very beginning and be incorporated into the DNA of the organization or business that is embarking on this journey. "This work needs to be inserted into each part of the organization from the handbooks and policies to the leadership and employees and hiring process, to the vendors and contractors selected, and more," said Karen. "We learned that this is a slow and organized process that can bring challenges that had not been thought of – but if you are prepared and have the right voices at the table and stakeholders in the room then the road is much smoother."