Tourism Talent Development for a Better Future

Talent Development Key to Innovation and Sustaionable Growth of the Tourism Industry

Talent development in tourism is not just about jobs; it’s also key to the growth of the industry as a whole, because a strong workforce is a necessary ingredient for innovation in tourism.

Expert Team at TrainingAid

Talent Development in Tourism for Tourism Innovation

On the theme of talent development and education in tourism, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) held a conference in Bilbao, Spain (December 1-2, 2015), highlighting the current challenges facing education in tourism, the tourism labour market and talent development.

As recognized by national and international bodies on numerous occasions, the travel and tourism industry plays a critical role in impacting and enabling development, as well as generating important opportunities for communities around the world.

"Travel & Tourism contributes nearly 10% of the world’s GDP and supports one in eleven of all jobs on the planet… [The] growth in Travel & Tourism will bring about enormous social and economic development across the world.” - David Scowsill, President & CEO, World Travel & Tourism Council (27 Nov 2015)


"Tourism can be an engine of innovation for sustainable consumption and production. No other industry has the same potential for job creation, to provide opportunities for women, to conserve land and marine resources” - Dr. Louise Twining-Ward, CEO, Sustainable Travel International (9 Sep 2015)

Talent Development and Education in Tourism

Taking stock of how the tourism industry faces challenges in securing talent and supporting professional development, therefore, is both a complex and necessary matter, with significant implications for the future of the sector.

With these key considerations on the backdrop, here are some insights, lessons and thoughts from the UNWTO conference, particularly through the presentation by Professor David Airey of University of Surrey “Talent Development and Education in Tourism” (delivered on December 2, 2015 and broadcast via live streaming)

Professor Airey at the UNWTO Forum on Talent Development in Tourism
Presentation by Professor Airey (screen grab from live streaming by UNWTO)

Strengthening Innovation in Tourism: Why Knowledge Matters

The issue of talent development in tourism is not just about employment opportunities for those working in and seeking to work in travel and tourism; it’s also a critical component of the growth of the industry as a whole, because the workforce supporting the industry is a necessary ingredient enabling and accelerating innovation in tourism.

"The sector that doesn't innovate doesn't survive", emphasized Professor Airey.

Innovation, for example, is how a destination transforms itself to overcome threats, and how a business creates a new way of adding value to existing products in order to stay competitive. And innovation, which involves the process of applying new knowledge and creating new solutions, comes from and must be supported by knowledge.

The individuals who work in tourism - and the skills and talent they bring to the industry - are a key source of knowledge, and thus, a critical force for strengthening innovation in tourism.

Gaps in Tourism Knowledge and Innovation Potential

Innovation is key to the competitiveness of tourism businesses and destinations, and it’s the things like skilled workforce and the quality of talent that, in large parts, determine the industry’s success in staying competitive through innovation.

The travel and tourism industry, as a massive employer and job-creator, have many characteristics that are unique to the nature of the sector. Some of these - such as its large entry-level work force, seasonal employment and high labor turnover - tend to work against retaining knowledge and harnessing the potential for innovation.

On the other hand, some of the key factors that make the tourism industry unique - such as its multi-disciplinary nature and diverse products and work force - offer an exciting potential for more innovation across the industry.

The potential innovation "hubs" include destination networks, sector-specific associations and professional organizations, and communities and societies supporting specific areas of tourism knowledge and skills development. In addition to networks within the industry, innovation in tourism can also come from external connections, such as engaging tourists as part of knowledge sharing and generating new ideas through collaboration with other sectors.

Tourism Education: The Role of Learning

The roles and contributions of universities and academic institutions cannot be ignored when discussing building knowledge and harnessing talent for the tourism industry, as colleges and universities play a central role in preparing students for future careers in tourism.

Academic institutions today, as mentioned by Professor Airey, often face financial pressure that negatively impact programs in tourism-related disciplines. On the other hand, some of the most important strengths of tourism as a field of study are those same factors that give tourism potential for innovation: creative and multi-disciplinary nature of tourism, and diverse opportunities for knowledge transfer.

In this sense, tourism education can become an even stronger force for talent development and innovation by diversifying learning and knowledge building options in addition to university and vocational programs - including life-long learning, distance education, and different forms of professional skills development training.

Within the tourism industry, a question that’s often discussed is how relevant academic research and learning is for the "real world" experiences of tourism businesses and destinations. While this is no doubt an important consideration, another dimension of the role of learning in tourism talent development today is that innovation in the learning fields, in particular e-learning technologies, has made it easier to connect the two in a way that was until just a few years ago unthinkable.

Programs such as this MOOC (massive open online course) on eTourism may, in the near future, become a common part of talent and professional skills development opportunities in the travel and tourism field. 

eTourism Communication Perspectives MOOC
MOOCs and other forms of online learning will be a key part of the future of tourism talent development and education.

Tourism Talent Development Ideas and Inspirations

As highlighted through the UNWTO conference, how tourism employers invest in knowledge and talent development influences the future of innovation in tourism. Based on some of the key takeaways from the conference, here are some ideas and inspirations for tourism businesses and destinations to strengthen skills building and professional development in order to stay competitive through continued innovation.

  • Recognize the Need for "Un-learning": In order for individuals and organizations to effectively absorb new knowledge, it’s often important to "un-learn", so that innovation is not hindered by such attitude as "it's always been done this way so there's no need for change".
  • Proactively Invest in Internal Knowledge Generation: While investing in knowledge generation (such as research projects) may be beyond the scope of many tourism businesses and destinations, find creative ways to build new knowledge and to utilize existing knowledge in new ways through partnerships and industry networks.
  • Support External Knowledge Sharing Opportunities: Tourism industry stakeholders face exciting opportunities to strengthen talent development and innovation across the industry, which in the long term benefits the sector as a whole. A critical step in enhancing such opportunities is knowledge sharing.
How does your organization approach talent development and knowledge sharing? What are some examples of tourism businesses and destinations supporting innovation through knowledge and skills?

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