Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why Greater Is Always Ultimately Lesser

Lumping several communities together in pursuit of visitor-centric or demand-driven economic development never works in regions that are polycentric with no dominant center.  Marketing individual destinations will always give the region more “bites” of the tourism apple.

What isn’t widely known is that lumping doesn’t work even when towns and cities are arranged concentrically around a dominant city.  The idea of surrendering identity to a “greater” somewhere is based on the “table crumbs” approach; e.g., surrendering identity to the center in hopes that a few crumbs of tourism will fall your way.

I was approached more than a decade ago by an organization using a “greater” approach that dated to the pre-1970s when it was assumed community marketing was generic from place to place so the objective became to maximize revenue, especially where it relied on memberships.

A survey there had shown that even with 57% of the sample coming from within the dominant city in that county, only 1-in-5 liked the “greater” reference and only 7% liked a metro reference. 

Outside of the dominant city forming the “greater” jurisdiction, only 1-in-10 were okay with that moniker.

Why does it matter what residents think of the “greater” idea?

It is pivotal to community destination marketing, because ultimately, residents have to deliver on their community’s brand to visitors.

Any discord between the way an area is marketed and resident perceptions will create a drag on visitation and related spending.

Having started community destination marketing agencies in three different communities by that time, each of which quickly leapfrogged more established destinations, especially those using the “greater” approach, I was asked for advice.

As I would today, I suggested dropping the “greater” moniker, which is very hard to do once entrenched.

After 1970, it became well proven that leveraging a community’s distinct story was the secret to rapid visitor growth.  Lumping them together made this almost impossible to do, diluting the brand of the beneficiary of the “greater,” while diminishing the stories of communities that were subsumed.

Part of the reason “greater” doesn’t work is that visitors rarely travel more than seven miles from the core purpose of their trip and then only with resident escorts, due to a consumer behavior called cognitive distance friction.

It is much more productive, even where there are several cities and towns in the same county, to find a way to celebrate and showcase their individual stories and identities.  That could be done in any number of ways, including distinct website home pages or guides, while showing proximity to nearby places for return visits.

Even when a community is located in a simplified geographic area, it will payoff during start up to begin as quickly as feasible to give neighborhoods, crossroads and small commercial districts their own distinct identity and story.

Visitor-centric economic and cultural development is optimized by going smaller and smaller, not “greater.”

My first two destinations were places where nearby destination asked us to take a “greater” approach, but I quickly learned that the outcomes were far greater by helping these other places develop and showcase their own individual identities.

There are many reasons the term “greater” is still superimposed.  It doesn’t take as much work.  Often the community at the center is uncomfortable in its own skin and prone to overreaching to appear bigger than it is.

Sometimes hegemony is at play and of course a few old schoolers still live in those pre-1970 days when optimizing your organization’s budget was more important than optimizing results.

But my advice to any community, large or small, polycentric or centric, is to build community marketing around genuine identities and stories.  Those begin with towns not because they are jurisdictions but because jurisdictions followed development of a “there-there,” a distinct cultural identity.

At essence, leveraging visitor-centric economic development must be predicated on that genuine core.

Don’t settle for “greater.”  It will be better for the communities involved, more in synch with internal stakeholders and I guarantee you, far more productive in outcomes.

1 comment:

Tom Magnuson said...

Reyn, I once failed to get buy-in from National Park Service for a linear national park along the route of the Race to the Dan and again along the Great Wagon Road. The idea was to marked the route and engage with counties along the route to cross market their attractions. It was to be countys' task to draw travelers delivered to their area by the linear feature.

Did this concept fail to engage the grownups from DC because of the tourism doctrines you cited, or was failure rooted in my failure to convey or otherwise market my idea?