Thanks to my Village Placemaking Team for helping me take the Ouachita Rod and Gun Club project from concept to startup in less than a year. Placemaking is more than just buildings; it is bringing people together to create a sense of belonging.
One of the easiest mistakes that we make in trying to create a destination service system is taking the wrong point of view. It must always focus on conveying the sincere and authentic culture of the region in the point of view of the target market. It is not about us except to the extent that it is our passions that are attractive to this market and we would like to maximize the socio-economic benefits of serving it. This can be very challenging in the rural / small town setting. While it is these traditions and lifestyles that create the potential for handmade tourism. There can also be regional and business practices that hinder destination development.
In the South, many small town businesses and resident based communities close there doors and roll up the streets on late afternoons and evenings. This makes servicing a destination market difficult. To look at building destination/tourism based economic development, we must educate our business environment showing the opportunities to serve this new market. Not only do we have to be open and available for visitors. We have to understand that the sub-cultures and values are the reasons our visitors come. There is a myriad of subculture activities that can be the core draw but in all cases people come to have an enjoyable time. Enjoyment is our deliverable regardless of discipline.
My philosophy for a destination community is that if visiting, living in, and working in the community is not enjoyable; no one will care about the place. We want everyone, visitors, residents and the workforce to enjoy every experience, activity, interaction, conversation, and perception. We want our colleagues, coworkers and ourselves to feel they are doing meaningful work and understand how what we do is important to creating the experience and lifestyle.
To do this we must create a community of belonging for our visitors, residents and coworkers. People want to find their tribe not simply be a tourist. Sure the tourist experience is fun on occasion but to attract quality growth in a region that will value and protect the assets and traditions important to a place, the ultimate visitor experience is a sense of belonging that creates a protective attitude about a place.
We must create an atmosphere of personal growth and a culture of helping others. Hedonism is a nice place to visit but we all know the rest of that phrase. It can be fun for short periods of time but it is not a sustainable or fulfilling lifestyle. More and more research on the hedonic treadmill theory clearly shows that the conspicuous status seeking that many destination communities marketed successfully for many years is breaking down as the prevalent value proposition for in migration decisions. The industry so permeated a calibrated idea of the American dream that the expectation of the masses was that these stereotypes would make them happy. Now isolation is one of the top problems facing communities of all types.
Janis Joplin once said that America should be looking for sincerity and a good time. To me that falls into my philosophy that a community must be focused on being a collection of real relationships rather than simply a defined real estate space. The consumer and hedonistic based stereotypes are breaking down in favor of meaningful involvement and service. That is for all the residents, visitors, and those that work in these communities.
It does not really matter what types of values your particular destination is based on as long as it is sincere to you and your target market. One whose dream destination is the Pennsylvania Amish country probably will not be lured to move to Vegas and vise versa.
Arts, heritage, nature based, sporting, adventure, gaming, and entertainment are just a few of the many types of destinations being created. My point is they are becoming ever more unique and celebrate individualism while promoting a specific culture.
The Town of Saluda, in the Green River region of NC, is a good example. Complementary sub-cultures centering on a natural feature, the gorge and the river in this case, spins off many opportunities. World class whitewater kayaking is a core lifestyle activity focusing on the Narrows for the obsessed, the Upper and Lower sections for the interested and curious. Trout fishing opportunities for all levels are throughout the region. The obsessed set the tone for the region. The interested group supports the local outfitters with instruction on quality whitewater boats, standup paddleboards and rubber kayaks. The curious and casual supply a market on the lower section with thousands of tubers floating the river supporting several tubing outfitters and campgrounds. Visitors here for hiking, biking, zip lines and climbing mix well with those that simply come to enjoy the natural beauty and walk the quaint streets. With this visitor base, the 5.2-acre downtown commercial core of Saluda, population 711, has the opportunity for supplying more diverse activities and support services. General stores, organic markets, and B&B’s are prime features. Several cafes and specialty restaurants are supported. My favorite restaurant is ”The Purple Onion.” Its concept value was creating a sustainable venue for a vibrant live music scene for many local and regional musicians. To do this they created an outstanding eclectic restaurant to support this goal. Art shops, spa services, and ice cream stores round out some of the other services.
All this is in a tight sustainable setting that seeks to protect the nature of the community and the natural resources that draw the visitors. They put controls in place to control growth. It was economic development but not at any cost. So far they seem to know when enough is enough and have protected the very things that make them attractive. This makes Saluda a prime example of good planning so the area reaps the benefits of a tourism / destination community economy while remaining sustainable, livable and protective of there traditions and culture.
Regardless of the original motivation of your destination, you now must base it on a set of values and specific culture. Staying authentic and sincere to those values is vital. At a meeting a couple years ago and I was fortunate to listen to Bert Jacobs, founder of “Life is Good,” tell the story of he and his brother living out their van on the road while starting up their tee shirts business. Their R&D was drawing pictures on the wall of their apartment and having friends pick a favorite at a party to be the next design.
When the brand became so popular they were looking to get financing for expansion. The bankers said they had to bring in management consultants in order to get the loan. The consultants laid out a tried and typical marketing plan to expand the brand but it did not fit the core values or culture. As part of the finance structure, there was 100K to advertise the consultants plan. Jacobs got the loan, fired the consultants and rather than follow the canned business plan; threw the largest outdoor party ever held in Boston. Now that strategy drew national attention and has morphed into huge annual fundraisers giving away millions to their community.
I tell this story because by sticking to core values, Jacobs catapulted the brand into international attention building a company that was remarkable and unique. Could he have followed the Madison Ave marketing strategy and grew the company? Probably, but it would not likely have become the unique worldwide brand it is now.
What is exciting about the post-recession destination community industry is that there is no longer a tried and true formula for creating these destinations. You cannot succeed being generic or average anymore. Even if a destination community could, I would not want to waste my energy to simply churn out another cookie cutter destination. That eventually dilutes the livability and core culture of the region. I want to build value-based destinations that are fanatical about their unique values, passions and culture. That’s where the fun is.
Fun yes, but also serious business. In a destination system, there are many types of businesses required and supported by the destination economy. I break these into 4 key areas:
There is also the normal support business: hardware, building, trades, insurance, accounting, and cleaners etc. Sounds much like the list required to support any type of economic development.
Creating a Team
The markets visiting these destinations are doing so because of an interest in the passions of the sub-cultures. While learning our core passion activities may have taken us years of painstaking practice, study or research; the market is simply coming for an opportunity to belong and learn. To create the conditions for belonging, one simply has to put our passions authentically out there. There needs be no college degree, no special certification course or credentialing to be passionate about the cultures within your area. There is no experience level required, just passion. These are basic human interactions done well.
If you have an area with true quality of place that has real potential to be an authentic destination community, how do you start to realize the economic development? You must put together a team. No one is going to be passionate about creating an economic system for a destination community unless they love the area, feel the need for economic growth, and they have direct benefit from the results of the process. There will be many others along the process that will be lukewarm. They may be pro or con. They may or may not understand the potential benefits or detriments. They may only see the negatives or not see the potential negatives of uncontrolled unplanned growth. A good core team is required to overcome and these impediments.
In building your team:
- Go through the cataloging process to find the private entities that will most directly benefit from the area becoming more attractive to in migration. Community associations are often major drivers that already have marketing budgets that are often being spent on much less attractive or effective ad campaigns.
- Build out the Core Activity, Lodging, Entertainment and Provision matrix to identify smaller partners.
- The private professional community often can easily donate in-kind work that is vital to the start up if they are aware of the need. Be strategic.
- Look at necessary governmental partnerships. You may simply be putting feathers in their cap rather than receiving any tangible support at first. These are your partners and can be great in expediting the project but raise your initial funding privately if possible.
- Find resources for land planning and development policy creation early in the process.
- Keep the team as small as possible and prioritize.
- To avoid political stagnation, it may be preferable to legalize the team as an independent non-profit or L.L.C.
- Only bring on passionate believers in the project willing to put in the time in the short run.
Pick your point of view: that will determine your team.
As I have the opportunity to speak to many groups, I find there is often a misunderstanding of the types tourism systems and the degrees to which tourism should play a role in the economic development on a community. To build the economic development benefits of tourism while retaining the livability and character of a region, I am constantly promoting the development of tourism systems using the authentic natural assets and vernacular of the region. There is often a general low-grade fear of how tourism will impact a community. To understand the difference between types of tourism systems, it is important to look at the basics of how they develop. While there are always exceptions in tourism systems, I have found the majority use one of two models, the large–scale monoculture or the complementary subcultures.
In a corporate monoculture, we typically are setting a formulized stage for entertainment. It may be participatory entertainment but it is corporately structured. Monoculture developers usually want to find a blank slate to build the vision upon. In the worst cases, the monoculture may overwhelm and obliterate the authentic subcultures that preexisted the development. These corporate monocultures typically impose their model upon an area rather than enhance the pre-existing culture. Examples of these are the development surrounding monoculture attractions such as Vegas or the Disney properties.
In a monoculture, there is a single clear narrative to give the user an understanding of how they will structure their visit due to the narrow brand control. Very narrow but clear expectations are set. There will be peripheral service business development such as hotels, restaurants, and side activities but they still support the single narrative.
In complimentary subcultures, we typically focus on creating a system for belonging rather than entertainment. With community based tourism, we wish to enhance the organically occurring subcultures. In other words, be more of what we already want to be. We must remember, we are not trying to attract everyone in the world. Just those that are interested in our specific subcultures. This is much easier to do with the internet leveling the marketing playing field. These systems, draw on location based recreation sub-cultures. Take the North Carolina High Country as an much simplified example, the fly-fishing, golf, mountain biking, climbing, folk arts, and skiing subcultures all coexist to support and be supported by a vibrant culinary, music, and retail economy that ads to the livability of the region.
As with any economic driver, there will be impact on the community. Tourism development through complimentary sub-cultures creates opportunities for passion based entrepreneurs and small businesses that can have a relatively low barrier for entry. That said, if you are going to create the conditions to draw other peoples money; you must deal with other people. Proper planning and growth control are vital to retain the true flavor and livability of the region. You must know what level of growth is enough and build in the controls, lest you kill the goose.
There is nothing wrong with single attraction tourism in the correct setting. It is the big fish that many tourism developers seek as it falls into the corporate realm. This can be very beneficial creating opportunities for support business development; chain hotels, retail, and restaurants. It can also have the effect of concentrating tourism dollars creating many lower paying corporate jobs while the profits leave the community. It can force out the original population by destroying the historic economies and lifestyles. For the vast majority of small towns and rural areas, fostering a tourism economy based of complimentary sub-cultures if far mare preferable and controllable than the monoculture option.
A destination community is defined as a place that uses its quality of place to motivate economic growth, in-migration, tourism with the assurance of access to recreation, entertainment, and leisure opportunities that fall within their interests and values. There are as many definitions of theses needs as there are potential visitors.
This is not striving to become a pure destination. A destination can be a corporately manufactured monoculture such as a Disney or Vegas. These can be highly orchestrated and controlled artificial environments. These are not always the most livable of locations but are typically dominated by large corporations with the financial resources to control and draw a local or recruited workforce. Who would want to live in a monoculture? Being a destination community is far more desirable from the residents and returning visitor point of view.
The question is what kind of destination community can you authentically be. What will protect values of the area and bring economic vibrancy. Systems must remain authentic to the nature of the area while also keeping relevant with their chosen recreation subculture trends. This allows systems to develop that are unique to the municipality or region the system is being designed for. The resulting destination must strive to deliver a triple bottom line: Economics – Conservation –Quality of Life.