Changing Destination Values

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Who wants to be treated like a tourist?  We are now faced with creating and recreating destination communities to meet a new set of values that have rapidly shifted from the prerecession model.  Perhaps it was the financial reality check that accelerated the already growing shift in values into the mainstream.  Many have shifted from seeking a tourist experience to wanting to feel belonging and experience self-discovery when we travel, invest in a second home or look for a quality place for retirement.

In 2009, Kurt Anderson began the conversation about a great reset in American values.  He and others speak of a “new frugality” that has resulted from values being shifted away from a consumption-based mentality. Conspicuous consumption has lost favor as a value proposition and is being replaced with a value for simpler honest and authentic experience.  This includes a shift away from credit-based lifestyle, which will slow our traditional metrics for economic growth.  Those metrics do not clearly recognize the vitality that can come from formally marginalized places being rediscovered and appreciated.  It doesn’t directly show the benefit of the local shops, restaurants, cafes and services being supported by a shift from corporate destination tourism to destination community based tourism patterns.

When we speak of a value shift, it begs the question “from what.” Dr. Brene Brown (brenebrown.com,) speaks of moving away from a culture where being preoccupied, over scheduled and over connected has become a status symbol and into living wholeheartedly. Technology, industrialization and automation of tasks that formally were part of basic home economics has both created a lifestyle free of what many consider preindustrial “drudgery” but it has also a disconnected us from the basic human processes of thousands of years.

In the past many experiences were designed to allow us escape into artificial environments. Now destinations should seek to bring us into a different rhythm, show us another lifestyle point of view or seek to connect us to nature and the basic systems of being human. The common denominator in this value shift to more authentic experiences is a desire for greater understanding, physical and spiritual growth and renewal. Traditional destination activities such as golf will still be an important element but we must also create spaces for adventure, meditation, and learning.  In looking at how to grow tourism or relocation in your community, don’t worry about trying to satisfy this vast array of potential interests, remember you are not trying to attract everyone, you want those visitors and new residents that appreciate the authentic culture of your community.  Be who you are.

The 1950’s began major mind shifts for the boomer generation. It could first be seen in basic home economics.  This time period held the rapid expansion of processed industrial food distribution.  Prior to this virtually all food was whole food and slow food.  While not necessarily organic, it had simpler inputs and no genetic modification.  Most meals required cooking which meant planning and most homes had at least a kitchen garden in the backyard.  Until  recently the majority of the United States population lived in a rural setting.  That is no longer the case.  The 1950’s marked a clear turning point from the valuing of the agrarian home economics and self-reliant thinking into a consumer based lifestyle ideal. A new ideal was being set for the American Dream.  Gardening and putting food by was now considered only for the poor.  The prosperous Americans bought the wonderful new prepackaged foods in the new supermarkets.

Traditional urban evolution gave way to an auto centric planning mentality. The growth of air conditioning allowed America to move inside and the personal connections made on the front porch diminished, as it was no longer the most comfortable place to be during the heat of the day.  From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, the mainstream American dream became substantially based on an auto centric, industrial food, air conditioned consumerism. Within a single generation we went from totally analog to a  digital culture, from segregated to diversity, from the local paper to the Internet, and from agrarianism to urbanism.

All these “conveniences” created a great insulator. As a nation, we were rapidly losing knowledge of the fundamentals that were basic to the generations before us.  It insulated us from the rhythms of nature. We had not the need to neither produce nor prepare our food.  It insulated us from a requirement to live a life of face-to-face connectivity. As described by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, we are losing the “craft of being a creature.”

It wasn’t simply that modern conveniences made America feel that traditional knowledge and skills we irrelevant.  Popular culture created an urban and suburban contempt for the agrarian lifestyle.  Proliferation of television created new images of the ideal lifestyle as one of ease, convenience and sophistication. The popular media portrayed the hayseed farmer, the bumpkin and other stereotypes showing ignorance of the rural class even though most Americans had much of their immediate family remaining in rural or semi-agrarian lifestyles. This was reinforced with a viewpoint of the good life consisting of Ward Cleaver and June heading off to the Country Club, Tony Nelson taking Jeannie to the Officers Club, or Thurston Howell the III getting Gilligan to help build the island golf club.  While these were designed for comic relief, they all permeated the illusion of the Norman Rockwell perfect traditional family setting down for Thanksgiving dinner or the Madison Avenue sophistication as the norm.  These juxtaposed stereotypes created both an inferiority complex and dissatisfaction with the agrarian lifestyle and a false sense of what would be a satisfying lifestyle.

Developers used this model to create early generation lifestyle destinations and rightly so.  They we simply responding to the general desires of the market as it had been conditioned.  Many of these destination developers actually did good forward thinking community planning considering general lack of sophistication in the planning worlds at the time.   These early destination communities were completely new creatures and that made them unique and attractive in themselves.  The same basic model proliferated throughout the US because the capital market and bankers understood the model.  During the last housing boom, the model accelerated with even less creativity, imagination, and quality of place.

After forty plus years of destination development: generic is no longer unique.  Status quo is unacceptable.  With the current value evolution or reset, a large segment of the baby boomer and following generations are changing their value judgment to balance modern techno bombardment with an organic connection to the natural world.  The value of access is surpassing the need for ownership.  Commonality and diversity are overtaking insular isolationism.  Paths are replacing fences. Gates are welcoming concierge stations rather than roadblocks to check you papers.  Gardens are valued as much as golf courses. The local has become the exotic.  The attraction for commoditized monoculture is being rapidly lost to the value of the unique, the individual, the handmade and extraordinary.

I personally feel the most encouraging changes come shift from consumerism to stewardship as a key personal value. “Stewardship is simply the caretaking of gifts” said Wendell Berry.  We must build our destination models on the stewardship of unique resources in order to build extraordinary places.  The loss of perceived value in the consumption of consumer products or the depletion of natural resources for our convenience has not changed universally.  It has changed dramatically for the markets we are attracting and our development practices will have to be adjusted accordingly.

Changes in Values

  • Cultural evolution from the 1950’s created a false sense of what builds a fulfilling lifestyle.
  • Destination models based on inauthentic lifestyle expectations are now experiencing a loss of relevance in the face of changing values.
  • Recent shifts in cultural values are moving away from conspicuous consumerism, hedonic and luxury based value perceptions.
  • Modern destinations must create opportunities for real connection and belonging with others,  with nature, and with the authentic quality of place to be successful.
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