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Building resilience into Victoria’s Visitor Economy

Presented by

Felicia Mariani
Chief Executive Officer
Victoria Tourism Industry Council (VTIC)

Dr Joanne Pyke
Victoria University
School for the Visitor Economy

Felicia Mariani

Well, first of all can I just say thank you, and thank you Corrine for the lovely acknowledgement. It's an absolute pleasure to work with your team and and we've had such a long and fruitful relationship and and someone reminded me evidently, it's come full circle that we've landed back at VU so that's quite nice.

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  • Peak Industry Association dedicated to the issues and priorities driving Victoria’s visitor economy
  • 2000 members across the state
  • Represent the broadest cross section of industry across – Events, Accommodation, Attractions, Tour and Transport, Destinations and Tourism Services

Felicia Mariani

I just want to do a really quick touch on in the beginning for those of you who may not know much about VTIC. We are obviously an Industry Association that is a dedicated body to the issues of the visitor-economy tourism events and hospitality industries.

We actually have about 2000 members across the state, and what is unique is that we represent this very broad brush of the industry. So we're not sectorally based, we have events, we have hospitality, we have accommodation, attractions tourism, transport destinations, and, of course, our tourism services, so we cover every end of the spectrum, as well from large to small. So, challenging at times, with that that sort of stakeholder base, but also quite exciting in terms of the challenges that it represents.

The last year is probably a year I think we'd all like to forget, but you know the reality is that our industry was one of the first to be impacted, and this is something we constantly remind government about. We were one of the first to be impacted and we are obviously going to be one of the last to come out of this. You know, clearly, the announcement the other day that borders are shut until mid-2022.

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The pandemic was catastrophic for many businesses, but tourism was affected well before COVID-19 took hold globally

  • Bushfires smashed the peak summer season in 2020, not just in areas of raging bushfires
  • China banned outbound travel from 28 January 2020
  • Australian Government closed borders to China and several other countries from 1 February 2020
  • By mid-March, borders are closed and global lockdown commences
  • By this time, tourism has already had 3 months of disruption and closure.

Felicia Mariani

Our businesses, our industry, are going to continue to feel the pain of this pandemic for quite a long time to come, but let's remember, as Corinne had said, that this started with bushfires in the early part of 2020. We then saw, I don't think any of us knew what covid was at that point, but it was certainly in the news and all of a sudden China stopped sending people.

Group travel was banned out of China in January. In February, we shut borders to certain countries, and by March the whole world had shut down, so it was an incredible year and taught us a lot but I think most importantly taught us about our resilience as an industry as well, and I think it's it's good to remind ourselves our industry pre-pandemic was worth 32.5 billion dollars to the economy of this state and we employed over 250,000 people, 110,000 of those in regional areas.

So there's a great deal at risk here that, yes, there's an economic side, but we are also a critical part of the social fabric of communities and we are what binds a lot of communities together. And I think that's one thing that's come out of this is that people have understood how important tourism is to their local economies. Before that if you asked retailers if they were in the tourism industry they said no but if you go up to Bright or you go up to the Murray now and you ask those people they understand the role that visitors play. It's a shame it took a crisis to get there but maybe you know it's one of the silver linings that might come out of this.

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Fear, confusion and anxiety gripped the industry

  • VTIC set out to help industry navigate the crisis and deliver a single source of truth
  • Information overload from state and federal sources
  • Real need to maintain connections and create safe forums to engage
  • Industry development need morphed and VTIC responded

Felicia Mariani

I think what we saw especially in that March-April period was that very quickly fear confusion and anxiety really gripped the industry.p

I think it was the hardest time of my life personally, because I was talking to so many people every day –  people I've worked with for 20 years whose businesses were you know gone in a flash – and that was just so very difficult,. But one of the things that we saw very early on, and I use ‘we’ because the team has been utterly amazing as well. You know, we have literally, they have worked seven days a week for the last 15 months I reckon.

But the fact is that we saw very quickly there was too much. Everybody was on information-overload, the anxiety levels were really high, there was an incredible sense of 'I just don't know what to do', and there was all this information coming out constantly. I think you remember the Premier standing up day after day after day; there were new announcements, new restrictions, new problems, new issues, new obligations and everyone was just clearly on overload and very quickly on the team just said look we've got to find a way to demystify all this, we've got to find a way to make it easy for people to understand because this is just too much they can't absorb it and we saw a really critical need to step up in that regard. And, you know, I think we we did respond and some of the things I want to share with you today I'm really proud of what what happened. But it has helped us to build issue around the importance of resilience and that's what really came through in all of this.

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Surviving 2020

Felicia Mariani

I love this one. We've really spent the last 12 months, 15 months literally hanging on by a thread.

I mean, it is an industry that has been on the edge for a very, very long time.

How we manage, and I said this to someone today, how we managed, here we are today somehow, some way we've made it through. And a lot of it we do have to attribute to both the state and federal support packages. JobKeeper has sustained so many of us around the country, not just here in Victoria, and it has been a life saver for us, but somehow, miraculously, we've gotten to the point we are and many of us are still here and still standing and hopefully the  programs that we implemented over the last 12 to 15 months did help the industry to survive did help the industry to hang on.

But that's actually not good enough, and that's really what this piece of research is about today. These crises are just going to be, they have always been, a part of our tourism industry. I can remember this; it's been going on for decades, it doesn't go away, but, unfortunately, we don't really improve our ability to deal with them. And I think that's what's been highlighted through this research, is what are the things that we actually need to do to build the capability and the capacity of the industry to respond.

With all due respect – we all love marketing, I come from a marketing background, I've been a marketer for 20 years – but we fail abysmally at really supporting the industry and growing the capability and capacity of the industry to be great at what we do we deliver great experiences. But when it comes to risk planning and all the stuff that's involved in a crisis, it's really hard to get the industry to focus on that when everything's gone, it's going, well. But I think what has this has shown us over the last 12 to 15 months is that we must be better prepared, and this research has really thrown a spotlight on where all of the gaps are.

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Green shoots of revival

Felicia Mariani

We're really relieved that, of course, we are now starting to see green shoots of revival.

It is a two-speed recovery. However, and my favorite expression is 'every child is not winning a prize', here as much as we would like to think that we're recovering, the reality is that there are still parts of our industry, certain sectors, that are really hurting, and particularly those sectors reliant on international tourism, and our capital cities and, of course, our business events sectors. Those are probably three that really need a whole lot of focus and attention right now. And again, I think what this helps us to understand through the research that we've done is how can we work with those people who are most exposed. How do we help them to – I hate the word pivot – I don't say that word, but how do we help them to reimagine what they do in order to be more competitive and to respond to what's happening around them.

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The road to recovery 2021

Felicia Mariani

So, certainly the job is not done we said back in April, May of last year. This was going to be a three- to five-year recovery plan and without a doubt it will be.

And I think it's really important that we continue to remind people of this, because we are seeing that things are going really well in Regional Victoria and there's a sense of, you know, 'it's all fixed' and it's not. We, as I said, we still have lots of sectors that we have to deal closely with, and I know Carl is here, and he would have tons of information to tell you exactly how bad it is in certain situations, and we just shared some of it over the weekend. But we have to work together and we have to continue to do the things like we're doing with VU to draw attention to those areas that need special attention.

One of the things I did want to note, and again we've talked about this before, but I think as the saying goes they say 'never waste a good crisis'. And you know we've certainly had a beauty over the past year. We can't let this go to waste; we actually need to learn from this, because we are going to go through this again and we need to ensure that our industry is resilient and prepared.

I guess one of the things that came out, I love this one as well, because we're actually not really an industry that asks for help well. You know we love helping people, but we're not really good at saying to someone I need help and I guess that was the one thing that that we saw really quickly was that we needed to create a safe haven for the industry. We needed to create a place where they could come together share stories support each other. So we did that really quickly and we pulled our all of our industry panels together we worked you know across the board; we worked with every one of our members as much as we could. And what was really gratifying for me personally was watching I knew some of these people were on their knees they were losing everything – but their ability and their desire to help each other was incredible, and we felt like we needed to step in and make that bigger and bolder and better.

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The journey through 2020

VTIC was successful in a grant application to focus on industry development and support for a 6-month period.

  • Used these resources to support the industry
  • Developed programs specific to the needs of tourism operators
  • Collaborated with partners and specialists to support industry
  • Real need to maintain connections and create safe forums to engage
  • Information overload from state and federal sources
  • Used VTIC channels to improve connections between industry and government at this critical time

Felicia Mariani

And what we ended up doing was we put in a submission to government where we outlined all of the stuff that was coming out of these conversations we were having across all of our industry roundtables and sectors, and we identified some key areas that needed help. And we put a submission to government and we were incredibly fortunate that we were the recipient of a grant to be able to allow us to do everything we've done over the last six months, because we could never have done it on our own. And the reality is our members weren't in a position to pay for this stuff any longer, so we had to find another way and, you know, we're really pleased.

Claire Phoebe was supposed to be here this evening and she hasn't been able to to come along, but I think they're, you know, we have a big debt of gratitude I have to say because much of what we've done over that last six- eight months could not have happened without their support so I just wanted to acknowledge that.

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The journey through 2020


Accommodation association logo

VTIC insight series

Felicia Mariani

I just want to quickly run through a few of the things that we've done that I think have really helped to shape a lot of the information that went into the research as well.

We actually conducted a whole series of what we call our insight series. We brought special guests in, we brought people from within government, we brought in external specialists, but we actually did. We had how many of these, 16 of these, we ran. I had to look at that for a second between the period of April to November and we were really doing them on a fortnightly basis. But again, it became a really great tool for information sharing and it helped us to understand where the industry saw the gaps and what else they needed to learn. So that became a really a tremendous way of us bringing the industry together.

We averaged about 185 people over the course of all of them, but some of those sessions actually had over 400 people on the call. We had to go buy the bigger version of Zoom because we were we quickly learned we didn't have we didn't have the right version so but that was a real that was a great

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The journey through 2020

VTIC Industry Support Hub

Covid-19 Business support resources to guide your planning and response.

Felicia Mariani

We also created in this piece I'm really very proud of. Our industry support hub. A bit to that point about people who are on information overload: don't know what to do, don't know where to go, don't know how to translate all this. We set out very much to become the one-stop shop for information, and the support hub was absolutely the way that we would do that essentially everything went on here.

Every time there was a rule change, every time there was a new release, anything that came out, we put everything into the hub, but what was good was we actually broke it down also by industry sector.

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VTIC industry support hub

[Icons with representing the following with text description]





Food & Beverages

Tours & transport

Industry guidelines

Bushfire preparedness

Mental health & wellbeing

Felicia Mariani

So you could go in and you could find out things specific to the attraction sector or touring transport of the event sector. So this has been a real Godsend for us, and I think also for the industry, but it gave us a good repository as well for us to continue to put all of our information into. I became a prolific writer.

I have to say you know those years in studying journalism didn't go to waste, and we actually put out a whole range of information across chief executives reports and and business updates as well. So we ended up putting out 56 pieces of communication over the period until December so it was quite an amazing time of really sort of circulating information. We also ended up doing a number of training programs.

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The journey through 2020

Covid-19 Chief executive’s update VTIC

Covid-19 update for business

Tourism Recovery Consultations

90-minute sessions with an experienced tourism industry consultant from September to November 2020.

✓126 consultations conducted with industry

✓97% participants rating the service as either excellent or very good

Victorian Tourism Digital BizKeeper Program

In partnership with Tourism Tribe, the program was designed to help businesses boost growth by using digital marketing and technology

✓ Interactive course designed to support tourism operators without in-house digital expertise

✓ The Program was open to 50 businesses and was oversubscribed.

Felicia Mariani

I'll just quickly go through those, but one of the ones I do want to draw attention to is the tourism recovery consultations those were actually really effective.

Operators had a 90-minute session with an individual to be able to talk directly about problems in their business, and that's where we learned so much because people will share in a one-on-one environment that they won't share anywhere else.

Mental health, and Jo I know you're going to spend a bit of time talking about this, but that was actually one of the key things that we saw evolving out of this was just the severe impact that this was having on the mental health and well-being of our industry, and Jo's got some some quite telling statistics in in her research, so I won't steal the thunder on that, but we actually now have again through another government grant we actually have a mental health specialist that's embedded with in VTIC.

So they work as part of our team and the industry can actually pick up the phone and ring and have a session with these people and counsel with them. Not only on emotional, but also financial issues as well because those two things are so critically linked when it comes to mental health.

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The journey through 2020

Mental health

Felicia Mariani

One of the things is that we work very closely. Jo sits on our Policy Advisory Council, but also sat on our recovery task forces we created and delivered to government a visitor economy recovery plan that we actually did a part one and part two one was before lockdown 2.0 and the other one was afterward. But I'm really pleased to say that this in combination with the submission that we made into the regional tourism review has actually really helped to inform the government's budget allocation in October, but also recently, which I think I've got that as the next slide.

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The journey through 2020

$633 million investment from Government in a Visitor Economy Recovery and Reform Plan for Victoria 

Felicia Mariani

The 633 million dollar package that was announced by Minister Pakula at our conference recently, which really is the government's visitor economy recovery plan, but a lot of what we've put into those submissions which was built directly with industry has been really effective in informing some of that work.

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This has shown without a doubt:

  • There is a need for strong industry development programs in Victoria
  •  VTIC collaborated with Victoria University on a dedicated research project to understand and quantify the depth and need for programs to build resilience

Felicia Mariani

I think that through all of this what's it shown without a doubt is that there is a real need for strong industry development in this state, and we do really need to pump up the volume on what we do and how we support the industry to be as resilient as they can through what will be continued crises without doubt. So it's my pleasure now to introduce the lady in the other green shirt. I said you know we're going to play in a rock band when we leave here.

Dr Joanne Pyke

Absolutely, but you'll be the lead singer. I'm on the drums. Okay thank you.

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Research Team:

VU: Joanne Pyke, Gabrielle Lindsay-Smith, Terry De Lacy, Ancy Gamage.

VTIC: Felicia Mariani & Chris Porter

VU PhDs: Van Khanh Nguyen, Salsabil Shaik.

VTIC logo | The New Way To Do Uni logo

Dr Joanne Pyke

Thanks Felicia that's fantastic. That's really important context for what we for this report and what we've done.

Already it feels a little distant, but it was just such a a year from hell last year, and it was particularly bad for our industry.

And I just want to reinforce as a member of VTIC and on the policy advisory committee the incredible leadership that Felicia and her team showed to the industry was just amazing and I don't think anybody who knows Felicia will disagree with that. And it was just an incredible source of information and support, and responsible for a lot of collaboration that would wouldn't have happened otherwise, I think so thank you for that. Fabulous thank you all for coming tonight it's great to have a room full of industry partners and colleagues and students.

Corinne said earlier 'oh I didn't think you'd get so many on a Tuesday night in winter' but this is what happens when you have partnerships and so I welcome all VTIC members and VU people as well so I hope you get to network.

I also want to acknowledge our research team. I'm not going to talk for very long because the report is on our website at the moment so you can see the details and you will have an executive summary and you will know where to find me if you want more details so I won't dwell on the on too much on the details, but I just want to say acknowledge our research team. This project was one of the more, I mean I do love research, but this is a terrific team, and I think we all really enjoyed it. So all of us worked together really well. I just wanted to particularly thank two people: one, Chris Porter from VTIC who did come to our meetings every week, listen to us boring academics, and even looked like you're enjoying yourselves, but you made it a really a real industry collaboration, which was particularly important in the context of the disaster that 2020 was. Because one of our real issues was trying to talk to industry when people were so disrupted, and so  you know it was a very sensitive time, so having VTIC there as partner meant that we ame as a trusted partner to the to the industry so thank you for that.

And I also want to acknowledge Gabby Lindsey-Smith as well. Because Gabby was employed as a research fellow on this and she's the one who kind of lived and – oh there you are – lived, embraced it and coordinated everybody's contribution and did a lot of the writing in the data collection and so a shout out to you.

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Aim: To investigate the impacts of crises on the Victorian visitor economy and develop strategies to build resilience to future crises and shocks.

Based on:

  • Collation of reports and media;
  • State-wide survey of VTIC and RTB members (323 respondents);
  • Two case-studies – Bright & Echuca (33 stakeholder interviews & 2 focus groups).

Framed by the Destination Sustainability Framework (Calgaro et al, 2014)

Dr Joanne Pyke

So, the aim you know as you know was to investigate the impacts of covid we wanted to investigate the dual impacts of both these two major events that happened, as well as to develop strategies to build resilience in the long term. So we did use the mixed-method approach.

We did the academic and literature review, and as Felicia mentioned there was so much stuff coming out last year, just every day, the media was really hard to keep up with. A lot of it was guesswork because we were in uncharted territory. But it was really important to capture that. We did a statewide survey of VTIC members and regional tourism board members. We did two case studies, one in Echuca, one in Bright. We picked both of those because they'd both been affected badly by both events but in different ways. So Echuca, obviously was really affected by border closures, while Bright was directly impacted by fire, so they were a really good contrasting set of case studies. So mixed methods. What it did was to help us to quantify the impacts, but also to explain how and why those impacts were being felt on the ground.

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Destination vulnerability framework

[Infographic showing interaction of various factors with arrows]


Resilience factors

System adaptiveness

Tourism systems

  • Tourism specific
  • Environmental

Human and social e.g. connections, support, knowledge and skills)


Economic Governance

Dr Joanne Pyke

But, just briefly, this is the approach that we use.

We use the destination-vulnerability framework originally developed by Calgaro and applied to look at climate change adaptation, but we've used this framework a number of times now and sort of massaging it as we go along. But basically it understands tourism as a system, with a range of component parts that are variable in their resilience to shocks.

So, basically, it says that the how robust the system is depends on human social, financial, physical and environmental capital. And in turn how robust those those characteristics are depends on the type of shock, its duration and severity, and the extent to which it's associated with other stresses. So you know this framework is really useful I think in terms of helping us to zone in on which elements of the system are vulnerable and how we might build resilience through addressing those vulnerabilities, as well as building on the strengths so that's our basic frameworks.

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Key Findings: Impacts

  • 60% impacted by bushfire
  • 84% forced to close at least once due to the pandemic
  • 65% estimated revenue loss of 75-100% of earnings
  • 91% relied on JobKeeper
  • 46% of casual staff permanently laid off/54% furloughed
  • 45% concerned about their mental health; 41% concerned about their staff
  • 42% worried about attracting and retaining staff.

Dr Joanne Pyke

This is a few of our key findings, and none of these you would perhaps be surprised by. But you know the impact of bushfire was really widespread despite the fact only, you know, a relatively small proportion of the state was directly impacted. But you remember all of the smoke, but also the changes in visitor behaviour because the bushfire was so intense people just stopped leaving the city basically.

So most businesses had to close at least once during the pandemic. People lost money for the year but the majority of our survey respondents said they'd lost 75% to 100% of earnings over 2020 and I think Carl Flowers report today might back that up.

JobKeeper was really, really important, but at the same time our industry is really reliant on casual stuff, so almost all casual staff were furloughed or let go, which gave rise to incredible fears about getting those staff back in the in the long term.

And on top of all, you know, not surprisingly, people were really concerned about their their own mental health, as well as concerned about their staff, and certainly one of the issues about conducting the interviews with stakeholders was people were really upset. So it was really hard to talk to people sensitively at the time, because they didn't know how long this was going to last; they didn't know whether they would survive or not; so it was, really, I think it's really important to bear in mind as we go into recovery, because people are, really, they've just been through a lot and it's not over yet.

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 [Infographic showing that these various factors impact mental health]

Same same … but different

A place divided by borders [image of Echuca-Moama] United in spirit

Collaboration, innovation, support

Bright: House $$$$$ Insurance $$$$

Dr Joanne Pyke

So, just in terms of the the case studies, by having the two case studies we could compare what was common and what was different.

What was common across the two destinations was exhaustion. People were really having to hang on. But also the kind of collaboration and innovation and mutual support was going on, you know, was quite remarkable. People really rallied together.

Echuca was really, really interesting because of the cross-border impacts. For those of you know the area Moama has all the experiences and Echuca has all the services. So, and with the border cut off there's no reason to go to Echuca really, but also it was was also interesting in terms of the unintended impacts of regulation. So, for example, uh paddle steamers couldn't operate. Victorian-based paddle steamers couldn't operate because the water belongs to New South Wales, so even if they're not docking in New South Wales they weren't allowed to operate. So a regulation that was meant to be about public health um actually had a detrimental impact and unnecessary impact on the industry, and there was a lot of examples of that.

But in Bright, of course, Bright is a very seasonal destination and so it was a ghost town during the bushfires during the lockdowns. It was really, really quiet and then people rushed out to to get out of town and they can't find staff, so they can't meet the new demand and, I guess, the other really big issue is that they're facing tourism business insurance hikes of 100 to 400 percent, which businesses can't afford, so that's a really big problem that has to be dealt with.

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Key factors correlated with resilience


Quality accreditation

Collaboration and connectedness

Risk management plans

Experience with crises

Smaller the business – likely to recover more quickly


Strong destination planning

Understanding of the value of the visitor economy

Local, regional and governmental leadership

Access to government support

Stakeholder communications

Dr Joanne Pyke

So, the two things we were able to do was to identify some factors that were associated with resilience, and so one of the things that we found was that those businesses, and it might not be surprising, but those businesses had undertaken quality accreditation were more likely to be confident about recovery, have better well-being, more likely to to move it move ahead into the future.

People who were collaborative and connected with community and with industry were also more resilient. Those who had experience with with crisis. So ironically Bright was actually better equipped to cope with um the pandemic, because they're so used to fire and so on. Investment in digital capability is another factor. We also found that leadership strong local, regional and governmental leadership was really strongly associated with resilience and also where communications was strong it was a really important factor. So we were able to kind of use the quantitative data to support some of those associations that we thought were true but we've been able to support that. But also to identify those factors that play out on the ground, so things like local leadership was really, really interesting; remarkable characters who would lead their towns through  this process.

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Victoria significantly more affected by crises than other states

Industry development ‘cracks’ have been revealed and widened

Recovery will be delayed due to depleted financial, social and human capital

  • Recovery requires attention to solving labour and skills shortages
  • Destination planning is key to promote integrated state and cross-border development
  • Not just recovery – but resilience

Dr Joanne Pyke

So just, finally, I think the the implications. I mean there's a lot of implications, but these are some that I think are most important. One, it highlights that how Victoria was significantly more affected by the crisis than other states or territories. We had, we went through, the longest lockdown; it was 111 days. So, you know, we've got a long way to come back.

I think importantly though, and Felicia touched on this, is we've got some real problems at the moment with around insurance and about skills gaps and capability gaps, but we had those problems before in 2019 and we know about them,. But there's no appetite for change when everything's going well, so you know now that we've had these crises those problems are widened, and we really need to address them.

I think we need to be really mindful of the industry depletion of capital and emotional capital, you know, people are tired, and I think that destination planning, you know we really need to up our game in terms of planning, we need to have a statewide plan, we need to have regional specific plans. Because all regions are different, and affected differently, and I know that the recovery plan that was launched recently actually is very much aligned with the kind of recommendations that we're making, so that's really positive, so we're really hoping that the kind of work insights we've got from this research can help inform the implementation of that plan going forward.

So thanks, once again, and I hope you read the research.

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For further information, contact the School for the Visitor Economy

[email protected]

The full report can be found at: