Friday, October 04, 2013

A Puzzling Resistance To Change

Dating to the late 1800s, communities began to use so-called non-traditional school years which varied from a tradition established to serve the lifestyles and seasons of the 43% Americans still involved back then in agriculture.

The so-called traditional school calendar is predominantly still in use today even though now only 2% of Americans live on the nation’s 2.2 million farms or ranches with 1% claiming it as an occupation.

Most are still family operations including 96% of crop farms, 700,000 cattle growers like as my parents were during my early years, and more than 80% of poultry growers.  Many of these operations are now part-time occupations and nearly all are much less reliant on the labor of children during summer.

Today, when polls show that the majority of Americans and businesses favor year-round schools, a tiny but extremely vocal minority in tourism stand out as the most outspoken in defense of the traditional school calendar.

This, even though the volume of domestic person-trips taken during June, July and August has fallen to only 17% of overall tourism and 22% of leisure tourism. It’s lower than the monthly average in the dominant spring and fall months.

I could never really understand why so many in tourism began to get so worked up about the length of the school year during the last decade of my career in community marketing. I’ve studied the realities involved more than most, including reading studies commissioned in support.

The arguments are clear enough.  But the downside risks to tourism in terms of lost political and social capital seem to far outweigh any benefits.  I lost that argument here in North Carolina where changes to the school year have been restricted by lawmakers.

Of far greater risk to tourism are threats to sense-of-place such as roadside billboard blight which some defend with similar rabidity even though few tourism businesses and and even fewer destinations still use them in what is now called “desecration marketing.” 

Of greater danger to tourism are small cabals that seem to exist in every community, usually limited to three or fewer individuals.  They typically seek to hijack funds meant for overall promotion to instead offset their own facility or event expenses even though these represent a tiny sliver of why people travel or what they do on trips.

Other than the tiny fraction of tourism businesses involved in purely seasonal tourism, most businesses now support longer and/or non-traditional school calendars because they make employing youth more practical.

Businesses also find longer school calendars are more convenient for the 40.4% households with school age children where women are the primary providers, including 63% headed by single moms for whom juggling day-care and camps during the long summer break a logistical challenge.

Many in tourism seem aloof to these issues or maybe are unaware that even year-round schools are not really year-around.  Families with student-age children still get 40% of the traditional summer free for vacations and travel.

While only 10% of students are in year-round schools, the number of these schools ranges from five in Durham, where I live all way up to 50 in Wake County, North Carolina’s largest system and the 16th largest in the U.S.  In Wake and other places, they have been used to relieve overcrowding.

Nearly 3,200 schools across America are now year-round. This is an increase of 544% since 1987 when measurement first began, following increased adoption by many cities 1970s.  They are typically in session the same number of days with shorter, more frequent breaks than just summer and usually the same number of holidays.

Overall though, according to the National Center on Time & Learning, there are another 1,000 districts in 36 states experimenting with expanding the traditional school day and year as a means of improving outcomes.

Nationwide, polls show that 3-in-4 Americans believe more learning time will better prepare students.  By nearly 3-to-1, Americans “strongly agree” this would be a benefit particularly in high-poverty schools.   The case for expanding the school year is pretty compelling.

There are good points on all sides but is this really where tourism wants to make a stand, rather than make adjustments?  To me, tourism has always been better off adjusting to societal norms rather than trying to obstruct them.

In my experience, far too many in tourism are predisposed to defensively “circle the wagons” over external issues anyway, when the far greater threats lie inside under its own tent or at least closer to home.

Take for example the summer staple of “going to the beach.”  While 39% of the U.S. population lives along coastal shorelines, only 26% of Americans visit a beach in a given year with only 2.4% doing so once a month.  This means they aren’t even drawing from close in.

The length of the school year is certainly not to blame for this under-tapped potential for beach excursions.  But the answer can be found in the fact that a similar percentage of Americans bake food in a given year or frequent a theater to see a concert as go to the beach.

For some time now leisure pursuits, with no thought to over-supply, have been cannibalizing one another, which is a far greater threat than school start dates.

The obstacle that restricts leisure activity participation either at home or on holiday is not some public policy or a failure to make converts but simply competition for time from other leisure activities.  Participation also declines in proportion to what behavioral researchers and economists call increased “access to opportunity.”

This is all to say that the more access people have to an activity, the less urgency they feel to partake.  Beaches and theaters face competition not just from other beaches and theaters but from activities like baking and reading a book.

The time and effort that some in tourism place on telling school districts what they can and cannot do, would in my opinion, be far better spent on innovation, more research and better customer service.

The time would also be better spent on ferreting out those “wolves” within who seek to cannibalize promotional resources and sense-of-place to merely benefit their own narrow interests.


Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blog.

I noticed you refer to billboards now being called "desecration marketing," yet I can't find any other reference to that term other than your blog. Did you coin it? If not, could you share another reference?Thanks.

Reyn said...

Yes but the observation occurred to me late in my four decade marketing career.