Friday, May 18, 2012

The Codependent Roots Of Tourism And Billboards

Organizations dedicated to community-destination marketing (DMOs) date their emergence to 1895 during the Progressive Era even though towns and cross roads across New England had more loosely used nostalgia and pastoral views to draw tourists from industrialized cities as early as the 1830s the same period that villages and towns initiated the first urban tree planting and beautification.

So maybe it isn’t so coincidental that destination marketing began to formalize the effort to draw tourists to and between cities at about the same time reformers launched the City Beautiful movement to reform the approach cities took to architecture, parks, urban forest, boulevards etc.

City Beautiful was preceded by the mid-18th century village improvement societies and succeeded by movements such as the National Roadside Councils in the 20th century and they give root today to organizations like Scenic America and affiliates such as Scenic North Carolina.

It is puzzling to me then why so many community-destination marketing execs today seem so detached from their role as guardians and curators of sense of place.  In my now-concluded 40-year career in destination marketing I often used trees and outdoor billboards as a litmus test.

If a colleague defended the blight and destruction created by billboards, it is my opinion they didn’t have a grasp of sense of place and their role in shaping and preserving it.  But there is some history as well behind the ambivalence by some in tourism toward outdoor billboards.

The first DMO in Detroit was followed quickly by the emergence of one in Hawaii in 1902, St. Louis in 1904, Denver in 1909 until there were nearly 30 by 1920 when they met in association. To put that in perspective the number of cars in America grew from 8,000 in 1900 to 200,000 in 1908 and to 8 million in 1920.

But many early DMOs overlooked that new technology and remained fixated only on railroads and even more narrowly on the very small proportion (10%) of tourism which was then, as now, driven by conventions and meetings.

Railroads back then often partnered to create tourism such as when the Northern Pacific opened Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park in 1903 followed by an alternative route to that park by the combined Union Pacific – Oregon Short Line railroads in 1910, which passed four miles east of my great grandfather’s homestead-ranch, the year this very cool “Where Gush The Geysers” brochure was published.

That year the Great Northern Railway developed tourism facilities in the newly opened Glacier National Park.  Attendance to national parks rose from 356,000 in 1916 to 1.5 million in 1925 and 2 million in 1927.

As the population of America grew from 69 million, when the first DMO was created, to 76 million in 1900, to 92 million in 1910, to 106 million in 1920 and 123 million in 1930, the still relatively new technology of automobiles democratized tourism to cities, towns and regions.

As the population and the number of cars grew, the new roadways created for them expanded, outdoor billboard companies turned against the downtowns they had literally wallpapered until then and claimed the mobility of the great outdoors, dismissing technologies such as telephone, radio and magazines as being for “indoor people.”

As detailed in her 2004 book Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles and the American Landscape, Dr. Catherine Gudis documents how the 1920s emerged as the “heyday of civic boosterism.”

During the post-WWI “real-estate speculation boom of the 1920s, enterprising communities,” across the nation, “sought to attract business and tourism dollars or to develop their rural areas by forming groups devoted to publicity” now called community-destination marketing organizations.

Today there are several thousand community-destination marketing organizations worldwide, more than 1100 in North America alone, all pursuing visitor-centric economic and cultural development for the places they represent.

Outdoor billboard companies were quick to publish articles such as one in 1922 entitled “A Few Tips On Selling A City” describing, according to Gudis, how “marketing a place as a commodity entailed selling a packaged identity to potential businesses, visitors and residents including the pleasures of nature, history, commerce and climate.”

As they are often now, DMOs then were easily seduced by seeing the name of their community “up in lights” so to speak and quickly a co-dependency with billboards was formed even as this soon-to-be-obsolete form of advertising was serving to dissolve the distinctiveness of communities, deliberately fueling sprawl and substituting stereotypes for unique sense of place.

Gudis writes, “tourism became a means by which drivers could be made into consumers and the landscape into consumable merchandise.”  She also notes that the dominant themes of auto tourism were always contradictory – embrace of technology [auto and billboards] and a quest for pastoral, non-commercial world of the great outdoors.”

But today community-destination marketers can no longer afford this codependency.  Savvy marketers increasing realized that billboards no longer serve a purpose.

Highway signs, navigation technology (now used by nearly 60% of drivers,) the general decline in the effectiveness of advertising, standardized roadside exit logo advertising and non-destructive and more effective out-of-home advertising alternatives have made huge outdoor billboards redundant.

Community-destination marketing organizations as well as tourism related businesses such as restaurants, retail stores, theaters, sports facilities and lodging businesses can no longer afford or tolerate the blight, tree cutting and view obstruction outdoor billboards create.

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