Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I’ve Always Been A Lake Person

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a “lake” person.  My favorite destinations have always been water-side.  Rivers and coastal beaches are fine as were the much smaller cruise ships of the early 1980s, but for me there has always been nothing better than going to a lake.

There are about 1477 vacation lakes and reservoirs in the United States.  Extrapolating from data collected on the 422 that are operated by the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers, there are about 1.3 billion visits to these lakes each year involving more than 3 in every 10 Americans.

It is possible that lake visitation rivals the 120 million Americans who visit coastal beaches and lake visitors stay slightly longer.  This is why the State of Michigan is so alarmed that Lake Michigan is two feet lower than normal, due to climate and geologic change, which could be disastrous for its tourism economy.

Curiosity about my lifelong preference for lake weekends and vacations may have been responsible for my early 1970s embrace of then-ground-breaking demographic-psychographic research by Dr. Stanley Plog, a social psychologist at UCLA, who passed away a year after I retired.

Plog was already famous by that time, as you will learn in a new book that will be released in a few weeks entitled The Making of the Great Communicator by Dr. Kenneth Holden.

Together, he and Plog rescued the the political career of Ronald Reagan, after it began to tank only a week after his announcement in early 1966 to run for the office of Governor of California.  The book will also explain how they turned a Governor into President of the United States.

Many in the 1970s at the dawn of my career in community-destination marketing (DMO) as well as today grossly generalize Plog’s psycho-centric/allocentric classification of visitors and destination appeal.  They make the mistake for focusing only on the extremes which account for only 3% to 4% of travelers.

There are actually six visitor classifications along Plog’s bell curve.  I suspect that lake visitors are near the center but on the psycho-centric side.  They seek authenticity, serenity and time for reflection when they travel.

Destination communities have a life cycle.  As Plog recounted for Cornell Quarterly at the turn-of-the-century, the objectives for a destination is to aim for the center of the curve but slightly to the venturer or allocentric side.

This is when they are genuine and authentic and distinct.  The challenge is to stay focused on place-based assets rather than too-slick facilities that make look and feel more like other communities and consequently, less distinctive and appealing.

The danger is either becoming mundane and generic or too slick and generic.

Unfortunately, as a destination reaches popularity, some developers are often already pushing it too far in one direction or the other.  This is where it is so critical for a DMO to defend a community’s inherent brand and unique-sense-of-place.

Fortunately, Durham, NC where I live and formerly practiced community marketing has been hitting the sweet spot in Plog’s curve for some time now.  But forces that threaten to erode its authenticity, however well-meaning have been evident since the mid-1990s.

Famed for its distinctiveness, there are equally powerful influences and interests pushing this community it to be more mundane or to be the Energizer bunny but either way more generic and less distinctive.

I cringed recently when I read the following in the mission statement of the DMO for a major sunbelt city: “Conventions are the lifeblood of any major city.”  Really?

If a community thinks that overly obsessing over just the 1 in 10 visitors who might travel to their community just to attend a meeting that rotates each and every year to a different community is their “lifeblood” then they are probably already in decline as a destination and destined soon to be mundane.

Visitors in general can certainly be the lifeblood of a community.  It is good to seek a full share of each travel segment - including conventions - but to over-rely on just one type is a formula for a decline into generica as a destination.

Of course, today, data is providing much better tools than Plog’s classifications.  Soon DMOs will be able to rely on predictive analytics to far more effectively identify and draw visitors for which their community is best suited, visitors who will sustain their community’s distinctiveness, visitors who will incentivize their communities from becoming mundane or too slick.

The best explanations of what predictive analytics is can be found in the writings of Dr. Tom Davenport, currently a visiting professor at Harvard Business School and in a newly published book by Dr. Eric Siegel entitled Predictive AnalyticsSiegel is a former Columbia professor and executive editor of The Predictive Analytics Guide.

More on this later but DMOs such as the highly-acclaimed one where I live will be light years ahead of others as this new tool becomes more practical because they have been practicing data-based decision-making for decades.

Maybe predictive analytics will also serve as an aid in the future so that communities make only those development decisions that foster their sense-of-place and distinctiveness.

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