Two weeks ago while I was relaxing lakeside in the Northern Rockies, a message from a friend popped up making sure I had seen a post earlier entitled “Is authenticity authentic?”
Perhaps he wanted to be sure I read it because he noticed that I tried in an essay a month earlier about authenticity as a continuum, to briefly touch on some recent research revealing where along that continuum public opinion places various tourist activities.
The data showed that “attraction” visitors overwhelmingly prefer authenticity in the communities they visit, including those who participate in activities visitors rate as least authentic, e.g. sports, musical theater, concerts, theme parks, casinos, etc.
The research drew my attention because it was conducted by PGAV Destinations, a company that since 1971 has helped tourist attractions that fall along the least authentic part of the continuum be more appealing including, well, embracing authenticity.
Another way to look at the data is that more than 86% of attraction visitors view natural attractions like Grand Canyon as authentic compared to the beach at 49.9%.
More than 29% of attraction visitors viewed Biltmore Estate here in North Carolina as authentic (the parts that are still historical such as the house itself rate higher,) shows on Broadway at 18.4% and Six Flags theme parks at 8%.
The message was clear. Regardless of what may prompt a visit, visitors find authenticity the most compelling attribute.
Coincidentally, as that message popped up, I was finishing an incredible book entitled Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity in preparation for a stop I planned on my way home from a cross country trip in Nashville, home of the still vibrant 1892 Ryman Auditorium.
The author, a Vanderbilt sociologist who recently passed on, reminds us that “authenticity is not inherent” in something deemed authentic. It is “designated authentic” by a “socially-agreed upon construct,” another reason PGAV’s research is so insightful.
He continues by noting that this agreed upon construct is “continuously negotiated in an ongoing interplay” between various interests and perception.
One of the pleasures of retirement is reflection, something researchers call “metacognition,” a higher level cognition that developmental psychologists labeled as such in 1976, just after I took the helm of my first community destination marketing organization in Spokane.
It is essentially the ability or process of evaluating our own thinking, a form of self-appraisal. When faulty, it results in the overrating of the influence “our wonderful selves” have on outcomes.
When carefully calibrated researchers have pinpointed reflection as key to learning, innovation, achievement and success.
But I find it interesting in retirement (and on long cross country ventures) as a means to sift through the archeology of my influences.
Never, I have found, is any success with which I was credited ever due to prescience or “thunderbolt” insights, at least not on my part. Nearly always it is the result of the good fortune to stumble upon connections and then make use of the patterns.
For instance, what made me connect the strategy of authenticity four decades before it reached buzz word status, as a means to differentiate the three communities I represented and leapfrog competitors?
Conventional wisdom, until recently, was to focus instead on building mega-facilities such as stadiums, civic/convention centers and theaters in a way that we know now tragically makes communities less and less differentiated and appealing.
I was certainly involved in my share of mega-facilities during my career in visitor centered economic and cultural development including three convention centers, three performing arts centers, two stadium/arenas, three museums and numerous other historic and natural interpretive sites.
But what was it that gave me an awareness of the importance of trying to gingerly and coherently feather them into each community’s cultural ecology striving with various levels of success to nestle them into indigenous sense of place while doing everything possible to safeguard authenticity?
Was it growing up on an ancestral cattle ranch and exploring forests, an old family cemetery, and discarded artifacts? Or the presence of the Tetons looming across the Henry’s Fork?
That may have fostered a proclivity but my first formal brush with the concept of authenticity came in my second semester of college, years before I would back into a lifelong career in community branding and marketing.
An ACT score had pushed me ahead a year in history and one of the readings in a 1967 class syllabus was a book penned earlier that decade by Dr. Daniel Boorstin entitled The Image – A Guide To Pseudo-Events In America.
Authenticity has always been important in historical analysis where its relativity first came to light. More than fifty years ago, Boorstin was already lamenting the threat of mainstream commercialism to what we known now as sense of place.
Dr. Boorstin researched and wrote this book, his first of more than twenty, after watching the famous television debate between Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy.
His summary of “the dark arts” of advertising and public relations fostered a skepticism that may have been why in my eventual career in marketing, I was one of the first in my field to embrace data-driven marketing decisions and recognize the inherent lack of credibility in advertising.
The third chapter of his book, “From Traveler to Tourist: The Lost Art of Travel,” is still one of the best overviews of the historical foundations of visitor-centered economic and cultural development.
He reminds us all that the inherent value of tourism goes much, much deeper than superficial commercial outcomes such as “heads in beds,” or “butts in seats,” or “feet on the street” or even community revitalization.
At its essence, tourism foremost should be a means preserve and leverage what is truly unique, distinct and authentic to destinations. And in the words of Dr. Scott Russell Sanders, it should be an educational tool to “preserve and celebrate the commonwealth of the place visited as well as the place to which each visitor returns.”
Boorstin who also forsook a career in the law to instead find history useful for varied career paths may have planted the seed that led me within a decade of reading his book to realize that I was more suited and could make a bigger difference in the field of visitor-centered economic and cultural development.
But Boorstin’s influence on me was not in a vacuum. I literally came of age during the sixteen years of “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” “Smokey the Bear” and Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had by then each made patriotic pleas for Americans to travel.
Remember, barely half of Americans had cars when I was born in 1948, less than two decades after mass leisure travel had moved into the mainstream. By the time I was attending that 1967 history class at Brigham Young University, nearly three-fourths of Americans had cars.
Another reading required in that history course was written by Dr. Earl S. Pomeroy a professor who coincidentally had taught for several years prior to the publication of In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill near where I now live.
Dr. Pomeroy delved into the complex process by which authenticity is negotiated when the “toured upon” assume roles that reflect the perceptions of the West held by visitors from the East.
In the words of Dr. Jerry Frank in a recent doctoral paper entitled, Marketing the Mountains: An Environmental History of Tourism, these perceptions were based on the “testimony of television.”
I may have been hell-bent while taking those history classes in college on being a lawyer but I can see in reflection now how much tourism and the importance of authenticity has seeped into my consciousness.
By 1973, a job in community marketing was my means of working my way through law school at Gonzaga, when I came across a paper by a newly-minted Ph.D. with expertise in anthropology, sociology, geography and landscape architecture entitled, “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings.”
Within two years, I had exchanged careers and was head of that DMO. Dr. Dean MacCannell had evolved that paper into a book entitled Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, and I found myself standing on a floating dock one night (shown in image above) with Mike Kobluk watching the sun set over a historic clock tower.
Mike is my one degree of separation from both the singer-songwriter John Denver who was at the peak of his popularity back then and Roger McGuinn, founder of The Byrds, popular for a decade by then (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn, Turn, Turn.)
Kobluk was co-founder of the popular 1960’s Chad Mitchell Trio (that’s Mike on the Four Winds solo part.) McGuinn played backup to the trio and Denver performed as a singer for three years, crediting his social and political awareness to that time as well as ideas in songwriting until his tragic death in 1997.
But that night, I was the newly minted exec of Spokane’s community destination marketing organization and after serving as director of performing arts for the Expo ‘74 World’s Fair, Mike was beginning a nearly three decade career as manager for the 2,700 performing arts center and adjoining convention center looming behind us.
The $12 million facilities were a gift from the state after the six month exposition, but stretching before us that dusk was the true legacy of the event, a $117 million restoration of Spokane’s downtown riverfront including two islands splitting its remarkable falls.
I had cut my community marketing teeth with a front row seat to the benefits and drawbacks of mega-events, such as that but we were awestruck by the fabulous park left when all of the exposition facilities were clear away.
As Mike and I looked out over the 100-acre city-center park, he quietly nodded and in that melodic voice uttered something like, “Spokane may have just been the center of the entertainment world for six months, but this park is now the centerpiece of its true visitor appeal.”
Within three years, I had moved on to head my second of three DMOs in Anchorage where his observation that night was still fresh in my mind as I read Dr. Wallace Stegner’s essay on “sense of place,” the first time the term was used.
Mike’s background may have been on the least authentic end of the continuum but he connected the dots again for me that night about the primacy of things authentic. He definitely had influence on me.
Nearly forty years after his comment, a few years after I retired from that lifelong career in Durham, NC and a decade after Mike had retired from cultural facilities management, two friends of mine in North Carolina happened to conduct research for that DMO I had helped jumpstart in Spokane.
Mike was right. Visitors not only cited scenic beauty as the destination’s top attribute but overwhelmingly credited the Riverfront Park as the number one attraction not just there but throughout the region.
The Riverfront Park was perceived seven times more powerful than elements found less authentic.
This dovetails with PGAV’s research nationwide.
That research also documents that destinations considered real or authentic tend to enjoy better brand perception, higher satisfaction and greater intent-to-return, but even among attraction/event visitors, fewer than 4-in-10 describe their last trip as authentic (real, natural, original or historic.)
It may be a buzz word now, and my ongoing study and connection more serendipity than destiny, but I still come across a book a year that deepens my understanding including one entitled Authenticity in Culture, Self, and Society that came to my attention as I retired and refreshed my memory to some of my earliest influences.
But it is clear that authenticity is still the most powerful strategy for both appeal and differentiations and history is the leading indicator.
Instead, far too many destinations have destroyed their authenticity, irretrievably cannibalizing it in the words of Dr. MacCannell for the undifferentiating “historylessness” and far less appealing commercial and fantastical tourism features scrambling to monopolize attention.
Authenticity and inauthenticity may be relative but the evidence shows that the fewer than four-in-ten communities with any “real” remaining that are also willing to make its preservation and promotion a priority will be the only ones with appeal to visitors, even those seeking fantasy.
This in a future where all others will have reached equilibrium of “sameness” and settled for simulation.
If not already too late, which will your community be?