Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Cultural Landscape at Risk

Durham’s cultural landscape is at risk, which reminds me about what an arts consultant said to me once after examining the communities in what we locally call the Triangle. She warned me that Durham should never take its indigenous cultural personality for granted and that it contrasts greatly with other cities that look more like they went shopping for culture one day and brought back one of everything.

Five years of meetings with cultural groups in the mid to late 1990s revealed to DCVB why Durham’s culture is at risk and led to advocacy for a Cultural Plan, which was funded by a tax on visitors. The meetings revealed that:
  • Community-committed corporate leaders, able to focus on Durham as a place, such as the likes of George Watts Hill or Bob Ingram, are more and more rare and not being replaced.
  • Many corporations based in Durham have moved to distribution of philanthropy based on where employees live, and since half of the people working in Durham live elsewhere, half of what would ordinarily fund cultural groups is flowing elsewhere. With isolated exceptions, corporations based in other communities are not following suit.
  • Because of the change in corporate philanthropy practices, more and more groups are turning to local government. Funds that are available in other communities are used for other things here, e.g., DCVB would ordinarily receive 70-100% of the occupancy tax with up to 1/3rd available for matching grants, but in Durham, DCVB receives only 1/2 the amount the state recommends be made available for marketing alone and none of the portion useable for matching grants to festivals, etc.
  • Cultural groups in many cases lack capacity (awareness, background, interest, resources) to fully leverage the marketing that an organization like DCVB does to drive cultural consumers to Durham.
  • The media market in the Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville DMA is both extremely expensive and inefficient. The TV viewing area alone may be one of the largest in the country, covering 23 counties and parts of two states. This is good for broadcast companies but costly and inefficient for groups targeting audiences.
  • There is no coherent process by which the community makes decisions or prioritizes cultural facility development. Facilities are often championed by enthusiasts or developers, and decisions are made at the political level. Needs and feasibility assessments are often done to justify a project rather than to determine impacts and what is needed. Energy goes into "offense" and "defense" way too early in the process. The result is that some very needed projects are leapfrogged and existing facilities left unsustainable. Decisions must be as much demand-side economics and supply-side.
  • Too often cultural groups are pitted against groups drawing audiences for the facilities and events. "Build it and they will come" is at worst a myth and at best "not for long." There is far too much competition for leisure time, and the role of marketing cannot be overestimated. Marketing to drive demand and audience is the lynchpin.

Not all is doom. There are many strengths to the Durham cultural landscape, e.g., nationally recognized but genuine, authentic and indigenous, well developed and consistent with Durham’s personality as a place to live and visit. More on solutions later.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

What is a Destination Anyway?

I remember when the term "visitor" was added to the name of convention and visitor bureau as an official umbrella organization to draw visitors to a community. Now thank goodness, the movement is away from that name altogether to the generic term, destination marketing or management organization. That’s another topic.

But what is a "destination" anyway? For a resident, it may be a workplace, shopping mall or ballpark.

For a visitor or traveler, though, a destination at its most basic and genuine is an interconnected, complementary set of attractions, events, services and products, all in very close proximity, which together create a total experience.

Typically this is a city, town or county as defined by residents. This all dates back to the idea of an oasis, only now the oasis is the destination vs. just a stop. It doesn’t have anything to do with municipal boundaries.

Cities, towns and counties work as destinations because 1) they are relatively small and manageable by a traveler in terms of density and land area, 2) they have a common tax base and business climate and 3) inherent travel demand generators, e.g., universities, convention centers, business parks, etc., are local.

Marketing to draw visitors is often done around nations and states, but they are only momentarily destinations. Nations and state are clusters of destinations with something in common and a way for travelers to narrow down the list of destinations. If France is a destination, it’s only as a means to narrow down an initial decision, because a traveler must settle on one or more local destinations.

Regions which are also clusters of cities, towns and counties, can work like one destination only where they are "centric" by nature or in other words, centered around one dominant city or place, say like Charlotte.

However, polycentric regions, like what we term the Research Triangle, while intriguing to visitors, are not destinations by nature of their very physical layout. In fact, presenting them as destinations can greatly inconvenience a traveler. Unlike nations and states, regions by nature are amorphous with no specific boundaries.

Imagine traveling to what you are told or think is Raleigh-Durham. You rapidly discover it’s an airport, located amongst many different places, and as you exit the airport, arrows to Raleigh and Durham point in completely opposite directions. If arrangements were made thinking it was one big place, e.g., lodging, places to eat and things to do or even a convention, the reality can be horribly brutal, resulting in commutes of at least an hour roundtrip to and from your actual destination.

To make things even more complex, if a region like what we call the Research Triangle has lots of hills and dales, irregular road patterns, no distinguishing physical markers like a mountain or river then a consumer behavior called "distance or cognitive friction" comes into play. Research on this behavior reveals that a mile when you are away from home, actually feels like 20 when you were back home.

Polycentric regions can benefit even more, though, from visitors because, with several distinct destinations and destination marketing efforts, they get many more bites of the "tourism apple" if, like the region including Durham, they involve many different communities with different personalities and features appealing to very different segments of travelers.

Why is all of this important? It's because the decision about "where to go," the destination, is the first decision a traveler makes. In the end it's about the people as much as buildings and events. People who live in destinations own the destination. When polled, nearly 80% of people characterize where they live by specific cities, towns and counties, and in places like Durham, nearly 7 out of 10 residents want Durham marketed separately.

Monday, August 29, 2005

What’s Fair is Fair

The attitude of some businesses, interest groups and even local officials toward the special lodging or occupancy tax is perplexing. It seems like such a win/win formula all around that it seems like they would want to emulate or replicate it elsewhere.

Lodging is one of a handful of businesses that have shouldered special taxes to self fund special uses. You know the old adage, special tax, special use; general tax, general use. Others include development impact fees and the fee on the telephone bill to fund 911.

Occupancy tax is what the special tax on hotels is called. It was pioneered in early 1980s in North Carolina to fund visitor promotion and marketing and relieve local governments of that responsibility. The formula is simple. The occupancy tax promotion is the pump to draw visitors, and local governments benefit from the far greater state and county sales taxes paid by visitors on not only lodging but also foodservice, shopping etc.

Over my 30 years, though, and not just in Durham, the attitude is rarely about emulating the occupancy tax formula to self-fund visitor promotion but instead how to divert it to other uses.

The easiest to understand is the dislike of earmarking by some elected officials. Some see it as tying their hands. I guess it's even understandable, though clearly hypocritical, that some businesses, while strongly objecting to a special tax on their businesses, are very eager to propose projects and uses that cannibalize the occupancy tax from its intended use.

While I empathize with local groups in search of sustainable funding sources, I have no patience with the rolled eyeballs and insinuations of envy that visitor promotion has a funding stream. Each could instead put those energies into emulating the occupancy tax model. They could identify groups of businesses and advocates that are related or complementary and jointly propose a special tax to self-fund these organizations.

In Durham, let's begin a dialogue on how to replicate the genius and self-reliance that underlies the occupancy tax to fund visitor promotion.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


When Princeton Review did its recent ranking and Duke and Durham ranked 5th-worst in the area of town-gown relations, I immediately wondered about the methodology. Sure enough Princeton was up front that it is a self-selected survey and anecdotal only to those who responded. This means it just represents the opinion of those who responded.

The media picking up on the release, however, presented it in headlines as equal with the more scientific surveys that are based on mathematical probability and much more difficult to field.

Naturally, a community like Durham and a university like Duke will be misunderstood. People go at each other in search of solutions and excellence. Another community may seem tranquil, at peace, unified and just be oblivious and uncaring.

Maybe the news media is tripped up by the distinctions, maybe reporters and editors actually believe readers, listeners and viewers can make the distinction.

Either way, a community like Durham will get misinterpreted. I can’t count the number of times I’ve witnessed the Associated Press or even Google News get tripped up that twice the coverage is twice the news. Durham, by the way, is the only major community in North Carolina still covered by two major dailies, separately owned and competing for news.

Given a choice, though, I prefer a community that is alive and vibrant, if not always in synch and at peace, to one where everyone appears "out to lunch."

Friday, August 19, 2005

Cheap shot

It took a while for a July 24th Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News column disparaging Durham’s ranking as a top place to live to make it to my desk. The writer claimed not to disparage Durham, but both her column and the headline did just that.

The column was disturbing and probably intended to be, not because of what appears to be the condescending tone of the writing or the disappointment that Wilmington wasn’t on the list. It was disturbing because unlike other segments of the column, no apparent rationale for the condescension was provided, just insinuation and stereotype.

Durham residents appear quite pleased with Wilmington as a place to visit, and Wilmington residents come here in droves: if not for festivals and entertainment, then for conventions or to marvel at Research Triangle Park; if not for sports events, then for healthcare and shopping.

If informed, the writer shouldn’t have been surprised by Durham’s accolade. It’s one of many received in the past decade, both as an individual community and as a key component of the Triangle as a "Family of Communities."

Durham residents by a ratio of 8 to 1 are fiercely and justifiably proud of this community, possibly more than any community in the state. Durham is also a bit populist; never focused much on emulating other communities, but instead proud of its diversity and determined to stand on its own merits rather than pushing itself up by putting other places down.

Maybe all communities will be better places to live with more intolerance for condescension, stereotyping, stigmatizing and discrimination.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Sense of Place

I’ve always felt lucky that I fell into a career in visitor destination marketing as a perfect match for my degree in history. I believe that to truly market a community as a “place” to draw visitors requires understanding that community’s historical personality.

This isn’t just facts and dates or buildings and people but a feeling for what I’ve always called a community’s “unique sense of place.” This and similar descriptions come up more and more frequently in discussions about destination branding, in Joe Cortright’s theory of the “economic importance of being different and in books like Philip Kotler’s Marketing Places.

Barbara Lau at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies recently put me on to a book called The Power of Place by Delores Haden, a professor of architecture, urbanism, urban history and American Studies at Yale. She puts it all together along with well taken cautions to avoid clichés in tourism marketing.

Ms. Haden frames one area for discussion about buildings and cities as theatres of memory vs. futuristic theaters of prophecy’. Discussion also centers around cultural landscapes and urban buildings for social and political meaning as much as physical. This is timely grist if not overdue for community-wide discussion and debate in Durham.

Durham’s unique sense of place is at risk:

1) because people new to the community often perceive themselves as the Cavalry, here to save Durham and make it like other places,

2) because while major developments like The Streets At Southpoint emulate Durham’s unique sense of place and Federal Historic Tax credits incent the adaptive reuse of historically unique structures, architects for public facilities like the Detention Center or the new Multi Modal Transportation Center seem totally unaware of the community’s formal “Design Guidelines.

It isn’t a question of offense and defense or who’s right and who’s wrong…the issue needs broad discussion and debate because once lost, a community rarely if ever can recover its unique sense of place.