BTN talks to… Dr. Robert Billington

Dr. Robert Billington is the President of Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and was recently voted North American Travel Personality of the Year at the prestigious World Travel Awards. Dr. Billington is a pioneer of sustainable tourism and shares his views and insights into regeneration with BTN.BTN: Congratulations on the winning WTA North American Travel Personality of the Year. What does it mean to you to pick up the award?

RB: It means a great deal to me and the staff and Board of Directors of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and the people of the Blackstone Valley. We are a very transparent organization that has a large base of community supporters that follow what we do closely. They take great personal pride in our accomplishments.

BTN: How do you think winning will help you and Blackstone?

RB: The WTA Award will certainly help us going forward in many ways but the primary way that the recognition will help us is with our Civic Tourism Conference that we are hosting here in Blackstone Valley next month. We are hoping that additional publicity for our Conference will be received internationally. The Conference will bring people together to discuss tourism in a way that is vastly different than most tourism conferences held around the world.

Winning this recognition provides the platform to share our team’s knowledge and expertise around the world through our Sustainable Tourism Planning and Development Laboratory. We hope to bring the planning principles that we have used through the years in the Blackstone Valley to other communities that seek to develop “whole places” through sustainable tourism.  The Laboratory staff takes pride in being practitioners who bring theory to practice.

(Pictured above: Robert Billington with Manon Han, Executive Vice President, World Travel Awards

BTN: What did you enjoy most about the event?

RB: My wife and I very much enjoyed the way the event was staged.  Television stars presenting the awards, a 10-piece band, a wonderful setting at Walt Disney World, black-tie attire, video-taped presentation and wonderful travel and tourism professionals made the event extremely exciting.  The WTA really knows how to create great excitement for their programs.


BTN: What are your ambitions for Blackstone Valley?

RB: Well, the Blackstone Valley is the Birthplace of the industrialization in America. The American Industrial Revolution in 1790 followed the English Industrial Revolution.  While the Industrial Revolution brought with it much success and development and brought America to Superpower status it eventually (after 150 years) brought with it pollution and economic degradation.
We have been working since the 1970’s to clean up the first polluted river in this hemisphere. The Blackstone River is the essence of our tourism programs. It is coming back to health but ever so slowly. Our hope is to use the Blackstone Valley as a laboratory of tourism learning for tourism professional and academics.
The Blackstone is a place where tourism learning can take place. We have worked very hard as a community to make the Blackstone Valley become a great place to live, work and visit. We are not there yet. We have much to do still, but our Sustainable Tourism Planning and Development Laboratory project is beginning to be a place of tourism learning for New England. We are excited about this because we have never been considered a center for tourism but our work in sustainable tourism is helping make our reputation better known. 

BTN: How do you see the global downturn impacting your business? And how do you propose to meet the challenges?

RB: We are concerned about the economic picture and are bracing ourselves but we are developing new programs all the time to attempt to blunt any downtown to the tourism development in the Blackstone Valley.

BTN: What do you see as your biggest areas of growth? And what and where are the new markets for your business?

RB: We are essentially a valley that is a cultural and historical destination. Authenticity prevails here in the Blackstone Valley. Visitors seek out authentic places. This is the market we seek.  We hope to attract visitors from around the world that seek authenticity and seek to learn how industrialization was born, grown and now presented in a manner that is interesting and intriguing.

BTN: What type of experience can visitors to Blackstone Valley expect?

RB: We have several museums, activities, historic sites and cultural sites that explain how America industrialized and deindustrialzed. We have several fairs and festivals unique in this part of New England that draw people from a wide area.  Since the Blackstone River is now becoming cleaner thousands tour the river on the riverboat Blackstone Valley Explorer or overnight on the British-built Canal Boat the Samual Slater.

BTN: Blackstone Valley is one of the pioneers of responsible and sustainable tourism. What type of strategies do you deploy? And what your advice on growing a travel business without impacting the environment?

RB: It is difficult to promote these concepts but it is vital that those of us who steward places think about the place first and business second.  Without a place that is respected, environmentally clean, interesting, and culturally and historically aware visitors will not come. Often times those of us in the travel and tourism business forget that we are working for people….the people of the place that we are working to make a destination for visitors. 

BTN: What further provisions and improvements would you like to deploy to improve sustainability at Blackstone Valley?

We would like to develop sustainability committees in each of the nine communities we represent. Urging sustainable principles to become imbedded in each community will make not only the community more sustainable and resilient, but it will assist us in our efforts to make tourism sustainable in Blackstone Valley. 

This past spring we launched one of the first Green Visitor Guides in the United States.  It asks visitors to join us in our quest to become more sustainable. Visitors are pleased to help a destination but they have to be asked. Our Green Visitor Guide not only focuses on low impact ways to enjoy Blackstone Valley but provides tips on how to travel with a lighter foot print.

(Pictured above - 1970, before the big clean-up)

BTN: BVTC became the first US agency to be Certified in Tourism Governance by the UN World Travel Organization to adopt their international procedures. Can you explain more about this?

RB: I have always been interested in professionalizing tourism professionals. Tourism professionals should actually be accredited the same way that attorneys are. While discussing this option it became clear that our agency needed to professionalize itself as a unit. The UN had the program that was most rigorous and we wanted to rise to a new level of work on behalf of our community.

It was a significant achievement for our small agency but we wanted this level of critique of our 20 years of work. Tourism agencies world wide work under varying levels of professionalism. We felt that our agency being the first in the US and the World would encourage tourism agencies that represent states, provinces, cities and countries to do the same. We have to professionalize tourism agencies. We have so much power financially to move people around the world. It is important to me to know that my work is credited by an agency of the prominence of the United Nations World Tourism Organization. 

BTN: What can the travel and tourism industry collectively do to improve its green credentials?

RB: The industry has to stop following and begin leading.  If we do not lead in community sustainability we will be following and our industry will suffer because of this. World-wide we have to show travellers that we are leading the way. We have to begin to give back to the community by using the principles of sustainability. The planet is ours to use.

To contact Dr. Robert Billington email: [email protected]