PHNOM PENH, 24 April 2023: Destination Mekong could be facing its first serious wobble as it attempts to achieve the lofty membership goals set shortly after registration as a non-government organisation last October.
Established to recruit the support of private-sector travel and hospitality companies in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, Destination Mekong seeks to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors. Its core objective is to generate funds for promotions and marketing activities underwritten by sponsors or grants while achieving an ambitious target of 1,000 paid-up members within three years. But how many members have signed up so far? We asked Destination Mekong’s chiefs, and they are not prepared to hazard even a guess.
Responding to questions from TTRW Destination Mekong chief marketing, Gerrit Kruger comments: “Membership numbers are increasing slowly. This, in our opinion, is mainly due to us not focusing on membership drives enough. We plan to do a member survey to determine what our members need, especially in capacity building.”
Declining to say just how many members the organisation has signed up since it was registered in Singapore and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, he talks about focusing on generating more benefits for members. That includes free event participation, connections to fam trips, and representation at international events.”
Destination Mekong is not alone in facing the challenge of creating value for membership dollars spent. It discovered that, like many fee-based organisations, membership pick-up was slower than anticipated when it progressed from a marketing support role under the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office umbrella to an independent NGO. It is now a standalone, legally registered organisation with a 16-person executive board and full-time staff working out of an operational office in Phnom Penh.
But it still leaves the organisation suffering a wobble recruiting 1,000 members even with the added golden incentive of a bargain discount on the annual membership fee reduced from USD180 to USD60 for the first three years starting in 2023.
On that score, Kruger says: “The fees are very low at USD60 per year, but of course, budgets are tight right now, and we want to be in a position that the benefits are clearly worth the fees before launching a membership drive.”
In the meantime, he points to the launch of its latest marketing programme Mekong Stories, introduced at the end of 2022 and still very successful. But what about the slew of programmes Destination Mekong launched before it stepped out and registered as an NGO? Until the Covid-19 pandemic, it benefited from close links to the MTCO, allowing it to roll out a cluster of Mekong-themed projects – Mekong Moments, Experience Mekong Collection, Experience Mekong Showcase, Mekong Mini Movies, MIST and Mekong Heroes. They are all flagged on Destination Mekong’s website, but visits to the Facebook pages and other social media links suggest the projects could be in sleep mode, waiting for sponsors to pick up the tab.
Kruger hints at the funding issue: “Our challenge regarding the programmes is to raise funds to finance them. We are in the progress of finding a person to help us, and an announcement will be out soon.”
Until that happens, the organisation will focus on organising events to increase value and underpin the membership drive.
“We work closely with the MTCO and support their events with content. The parallel structure of our engagement with the private sector, especially small sustainable businesses, is good. The challenge we face is that we have to establish ourselves stronger separately and provide tangible benefits to the private sector,” Kruger explained.
In her latest newsletter to members and partners Destination Mekong CEO, Catherine Germier-Hamel, focused on just that, reaming off event successes such as the hosting of the Destination Mekong Summit 2022 in mid-December and three digital marketing training sessions in Vietnam in partnership with the Swiss Sustainable Tourism Programme (SSTP).
Last month, DM participated in the Tourism Innovation Summit 2023 and co-hosted the first Destination Siem Reap Networking Day together with the Siem Reap Tourism Club.
It has launched workshops for members, with the first event, “Benchmarking and Goal Setting Through Social Media”, by Clemy Balasoto from Phoenix Lab Asia. The next workshop, “Branding Your Tourism Business For Success in 2023” by Danny Cohanpour from Trove Tourism Development Advisors, is scheduled for 3 May.
Destination Mekong’s CEO will join a panel on Women’s Empowerment – the Center Stage of Tourism Recovery during the Mekong Mekong Tourism Forum in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, scheduled for 25 to 27 April.
Kruger, who is also managing director of Chameleon Strategies and a member of the DM executive board, represented Destination Mekong at FITUR in Madrid last January and ITB in Berlin in March.
But despite the busy calendar and events, it still leaves Destination Mekong with a membership wobble. Until Kruger says differently, the official declaration on the membership drive was delivered last October when the NGO declared it was about to embark on fundraising. At the time, DM founder Dr Jens Thraenhart noted that the immediate task of the newly appointed chief executive officer was to recruit 1,000 members within the first three years.
Thraenhart is now in Barbados, having taken over the role of the CEO of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. However, he remains on the board of Destination Mekong in an honourary capacity as its founder for at least the first two years.
Last October, he identified the financial priority to secure Destination Mekong’s future, approved by the executive board that meets twice annually and serves for two years. That priority identifies a target of 1,000 new members by the end of 2025. Members pledge to pay USD60 annually for the first three years, discounted from the standard USD180 fee that kicks in after three years.
Based on Thraenhart’s original forecast, 1,000 early-bird members could raise USD60,000 a year, enough to cover Destination Mekong’s basic expenses during the initial three-year period before the full fee scale kicks in.
The realities of a post-Covid-19 pandemic which faces all tourism organisations that rely on membership dues and sponsorships, are now causing a wobble that seriously threatens financial targets. Can Kruger and Germier-Hamel, who headlined her recent newsletter “Mekong in Motion, Mekong Emotions”, replace the membership wobble with a bounce that accelerates recruitment? That would be a success story worth talking about.
Last-minute clarification from DM’s CMO
“Normally, we don’t want to provide membership numbers because regardless of paying members, we represent the entire private sector in the Mekong Region. Everyone is welcome to participate in our activities. Members receive additional benefits to non-members, such as free/discounted participation at events and workshops. They have a say in which activities we run and have a vote in the executive board elections. We are still working on increasing the tangible benefits members receive. As you know, micro-, small-, and medium-sized businesses will only join organizations that provide a clear ROI, monetary and non-monetary.”