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.

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