This is part II of an essay posted yesterday tracing the modern history of tourism along with that sector’s seeming inability to exercise what the late Peter Drucker called “systematic abandonment” as it relates to giving obsolete layers of organizations a proper burial.
I left off yesterday just before WWII created a lull in the widespread embrace of destination marketing organizations. States had begun to advertise in the 1930s (the only element of marketing widely understood at the time.)
But first they had to purge their roadsides of billboard blight. They also discovered another reason that they had the “cart before the horse” when it came to marketing.
States such as North Carolina had very little idea of what they could offer tourists. The federal government came to the rescue again, as it had when it incentivized the building of roads.
A Depression-era program designed to put people to work rallied teams of authors and artists in each state to compile and illustrate comprehensive guide books that were then left to each respective state to publish.
In January 1937, my native Idaho’s was the first of the guides to be printed. The remote mountain state had gone from having 5 of its 2,255 miles of roadway paved in 1922 to having 2,176 miles paved or oiled by 1936.
By the end of 1937, 400 autos a day were using the segment of the North & South Highway between Boise and Coeur d’Alene alone and officials were promoting improvements as a “means of attracting more tourists to Idaho.”
When first completed in 1927, the North & South’s terminus was at Weiser, about 74 miles short of Boise.
That segment had been completed by the time the state’s guide was published, making it possible for travelers to drive to and from Bonner’s Ferry, 30 miles shy of the Canadian border.
Published in 1939, the guide book for North Carolina showed communities what was possible and planted the seeds for the post-World War II emergence of visitor promotion as we know it today.
That first visitors guide took nearly four years to research and produce with writers working out of eight different cities across the state.
But returning GIs across the country after World War II were impatient.
Tourism entrepreneurs, fearful states would not resume tourism marketing, began to instead organize another layer of associations, hoping to apply pressure.
Had they investigated more closely, they may have understood that the paradigm was shifting to community-based destination marketing organizations.
Key to strategic thinking is to look back in order to see forward. A few did and jumped ahead of the shift to community-based tourism promotion.
Within five to ten years, the statewide tourism associations began to struggle for membership, as the idea of community destination marketing organizations rapidly spread and then exploded in the late 1960s and 1970s.
The shift was hastened in North Carolina when one of those returning GIs, an aviator who had survived two plane crashes in the war, pioneered the local option occupancy tax as a means to self-fund community destination marketing.
By the early 1980s, even rural communities and counties were organizing DMOs. The vast majority of travelers by the end of that decade were destined for a specific city, town or county.
That’s when meetings began to be held to determine what do with those middle-ring associations created in that span after the war. People who were unaware of the paradigm shift that made them obsolete only a little more than a decade later were perplexed.
At a meeting in the early 1990s to decide what to do with that layer of associations created in the 1950s, a friend of mine who worked for Biltmore at the time gently explained why that layer should be laid to rest, what Nancy Lublin calls “death by success.”
He explained that tourism organizations were by then far more connected to their respective community destination marketing organization rather than statewide or even national tourism-related associations.
It was one of a half dozen such meetings I was asked to attend over the years. But there were always a few on both sides of the paradigm shift who didn’t accept that “pulling the plug,” could be both celebratory and merciful, preferring life support instead.
It isn’t a phenomenon unique to tourism. There are many such organizations on life support in every community, kept there by a few people who can never seem to say goodbye and forcing many times their number to pay the price of their reticence.
In my experience, those who are reticent to pull the plug are otherwise reasonable people who also often struggle with anything strategic in nature, giving them a general lack of understanding of patterns or distinctions.
I suspect that the productivity of society in general is loaded down much more than it needs to be, merely by the reluctance to shutter the obsolete.
For those who are near-sighted when it comes to recognizing paradigm shifts from either shore, they must seem so gradual as to barely even exist.
But in fact, those who do see patterns and distinctions long before they are apparent know that the tipping point can be blindingly fast when it comes.
It is why those who perpetuate roadside billboards fail to grasp that while that form of media began its march into obsolescence in the 1930s, it recently reached its rapid conclusion over just 48 months.
It explains why progressive tourism leaders pushed for them to be banned 76 years ago, while a handful today can’t bear to see them go.
But just as we kept an old typewriter stashed in the back rooms of offices as well as fax machines more than 20 years after either had been useful, we are forced to keep layers of organizations on life support for the few who can’t bear their demise.
It is the price we pay for those who are not strategic.