Destination management, the challenge of mediation between all stakeholders
Sandra Bertholet (43 years old, born and living in Luxembourg) has been working in tourism and hospitality since 2001. After graduating from the Hotel management school in Diekirch, Luxembourg (in 1997) with a diploma as “Hôtelier- Restaurateur” and several traineeships in Luxembourg, Switzerland and Austria she continued her studies in Krems / Donau in Austria at the International Management Center (IMC Krems) with a master degree in Tourism Management and Leisure Time economics; specialization topic: “Sustainable tourism development in rural areas”
Her global vision of the tourism planning, having worked at a senior level in the private and public sector, as well as -being closely involved with the associative network follows.
What have been the highlights of your career?
Even though I wanted to deepen my knowledge in incoming tourism and destination management I did not find any first job offer in this area and so I applied- to be the strategic assistant of the two young owners of Luxembourg’s biggest transport and tourism enterprise Sales-Lentz Group.
This first job was incredibly challenging as the family run business was just into a major change management process as the two sons had taken over from their parents. Two years later I got promoted to found, create and manage the RTK International, a joint venture between Sales-Lentz and the renown German RT Reisen Gruppe- which allowed us to benefit from the advantages of a partnership while staying independent. The objective is to secure the continued existence of small and medium-sized travel agencies and support them allowing them to remain independent. When Sales-Lentz Group withdrew from the shareholders board I got promoted Director of the Tour-operator branch at the age of 27.
Finally, in 2012, a job opportunity in the destination management- caught my attention and I applied for being the managing director of the “Mullerthal Region – Luxembourg’s Little Switzerland”. I got the job and -until January 2021 was responsible -with a team of 7 co-workers for carrying out all the work in relation to the missions entrusted to the association by the Ministry of Economy – DG Tourism.
During this time in the Mullerthal Region I got more and more involved with and committed to the formal and informal networks in the rural area development and in the tourism sector. Some of my memberships were directly due to my position as I was representing the DMO within local, regional and even European networks and others were based on a purely voluntary commitment.
In 2016 I bought a 100-year-old Tudor house with a unique tile facade. The house is classified as a “national monument” and is a former railway station. I renovated and transformed it into a vacation rental. Receiving guests from all over the world is extremely exciting and fulfilling. Due to this new venture I also joined the association APTR. APTR is the only national association promoting private holiday homes in historic or rural sites in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
After taking a short break I will very soon start over again as a tourism consultant for small and medium sized tourism associations and enterprises and I will remain assessor of the European Rambling Association and Luxembourgish Delegate at RuralTour (former Eurogites Association). For me networking and supporting each other is the key in our sector, not only now in this difficult COVID period.
Where would do you see yourself in 5 years?
In 5 years, I see myself as a confirmed consultant in the tourism sector. And I would love to pass on all I have learnt through successful and less successful experiences to young people starting in the tourism sector. Being successful in what you do has very much to do with being passionate about what you are doing. Welcoming guests, developing sustainable tourism experiences for visitors, improving the customer journey through networking and collaboration have been are and will always be my personal driving force. Working in the tourism field is for me the most beautiful, enriching and fulfilling duty and pleasure, I could imagine.
Networking and exchange of ideas make you a better business professional
How do you approach challenges?
You often stand in your own way, no matter how much professional experience you bring! New ideas, new projects that raise more questions than answers at the beginning and then you get intimidated, do not really dare and sometimes need the input from outside. So, we would be back in networking: get advice, exchange ideas with colleagues, look for similar projects or solutions on the Internet is and remains the be-all and end-all for me. Especially for the development of tourism in rural areas, which has not yet struggled with over tourism, the European-funded LEADER, INTERREG and FEDER projects repeatedly show that other regions have similar problems and meet similar challenges, and one should and can benefit from this knowledge.
We owe it to our guests to intelligently guide them in our destinations
Do you have any tips for people trying to start out in the industry?
Those who are new in tourism should also travel a lot. This helps to perceive products, processes and destinations from the customer’s point of view. There is a lot to think about in theory; if it remains incomprehensible and complicated for the guest, you cannot hold on to it.
Do you believe that new digital, social and green skills need to be adapted in the management of tourist destinations? What has been your experience in this field?
Digital, social and green skills are particularly important for the future of tourism destinations. The coexistence and collaboration of formerly competing destinations will be just as important!
Visitor guidance physically on site, digitally or in advance, is becoming more and more important right now in the pandemic or even when visitor flows will increase again (over tourism). We owe it to our guests to intelligently guide them in our destinations and provide them with unforgettable experiences.
As a destination manager with my team at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020, I too had to react quickly in this area. By working with the national tourism board and all stakeholders, we managed in a relatively short time to prepare all our content available in the database and on the Internet also in an app, which enabled our guests to inform themselves on site and in real time, as many guests could travel again in summertime but were fearing to enter the physical tourist information centers.
The free providing and exchanging of information is the great learning from the COVID pandemic. That is why it is so important to agree on common data standards, so that no matter which companies and systems you work with, the error-free data transmission and the smooth functioning of the interfaces can be guaranteed.
How important do you think the commitment to environmental sustainability is in the tourism sector and in your job, and do you think this commitment will grow in the future? describe your experience as assessor of The European Ramblers’ Association (ERA)
The first time I met the European Ramblers Association was when we applied for the label “Leading QualityTrails – Best of Europe” as Mullerthal Region with our main hiking trail Mullerthal Trail. We got this label in 2013 for the 112 km long hiking trail of the region. We stayed in contact and used the exchange with other European hiking destinations and hiking managers to discuss problems such as nature conservation, visitor management, garbage problems, digital apps and the like. As a destination manager of a hiking destination, sustainability has always been a great focus. Since I wrote my diploma thesis on this subject back in 2001, this responsibility, never let me go. Guests who are on holiday in rural areas want to get to know people, nature and culture. Guests who are on holiday in rural areas are ready to protect this “temporary place of residence”. And it is incredibly important to preserve our natural, cultural and historical space and, in the interests of sustainability, to find or create a balance between the economic, environmental and social aspects that a tourist destination inevitably brings with it and the needs of the resident population.
From your experience, which are the skills that will be most demanded in the future when running a small or micro tourism service like B&B or holiday homes?
Digitization will play a key role in the selling, promoting, and marketing of your property and/or destination. Having an efficient channel management system to allow flexible pricing and real-time occupancy updates in diverse online platforms is especially important. Even though the tourists are looking more and more for “retreat” like holidays in the rural area and cutting off from being (online) available 24/7 during their stay; the online presence and requirements play a vital role when it comes to “being found” and “being booked”, so during the prevacation phase.
Which is the role that professional associations can play regarding training needs and implementation?
Professional associations can act on two levels:
First of all, the contracting: It will be much easier for a SME entrepreneur to join a professional association as it will help in facilitating the search and choice of sales channels and of management solutions. Because professional associations have technicians with specific training dedicated exclusively to these tasks, unlike a typical SME entrepreneur. Meaning, when a professional association is joined their local, regional or national association has made the inventory and discussed framework agreements with some of the sectors key players.
Then the training and experience exchange: being a platform for the exchange of good practices and offer e-learnings to their members.
How could these skills be trained best?
Via e-learning and/or in class training with a “Train the trainer” concept:
inside the association you have one expert who is continuously gathering all information, trends and tendencies and delivers them in a “digest” format to the member entrepreneurs. Newsletters and “on demand live chat” can furthermore complete the support from the professional organization to its members. The trainers themselves need their network too, here Ruraltour can play a very important role as being the umbrella association of all regional or national association working in the rural area in tourism.
What are the opportunities and threats for micro-services like yours in the context of the overall global tourism sector?
In some countries we can notice an over-aging among the owners of the tourism accommodation in rural areas. Some accommodations will simply close and go off the market whilst others will be transformed and added to the housing market. Younger people entering these micro-services enterprises in the rural tourism often are very enthusiastic and just start. Soon they get confronted with a huge amount of regulations and tax related issues, they did not imagine, as they have a more “start-up” mind. So, one threat is to ease the access to the status of being a “micro-entrepreneur” to avoid the loss of this accommodation form in rural areas. Financing is a big issue as well: if the housing market gets a better return on investment than the vacation rental market it is often difficult to get the needed financial support from your bank. And the COVID crisis did make this situation worse. So, there must be a clear political will for this form of tourism and the politicians responsible have to show their support by easing the access to state support, guarantees and grants.