Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Ironic Resistance When Communities Reclaim Assets

You’ll never believe where I first encountered the most grief and resistance when starting Durham, North Carolina’s community destination marketing agency 25 years ago next month.

I shouldn’t have been surprised because I had encountered it in Alaska while polishing off a DMO start up there in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The State Division of Tourism, a statewide counterpart, fought me there when I explained to them that they were listing several cross roads/neighborhoods in Anchorage as though they were separate communities and it was not only inaccurate but it was confusing visitors.

A deputy director blew up at me and insisted I prove they were in the Municipality of Anchorage.  This was pre-Internet but this distinction was easily viewable on maps and of course the state’s own records showing the area covered by municipalities.

They eventually corrected their listings but it taught me a lesson.  Often many in destination marketing just don’t grasp what it entails.  And when confronted, no matter how gently, their first reaction is to try and defend their mistakes.

When I arrived in Durham, the problem of misidentification was even worse thanks to a bewildering policy adopted in the 1980s by the United States Postal Service no less, and one of the reasons this institution has become less relevant.

To the consternation of the National League of Cities, the USPS had begun assigning street delivery addresses based not on physical location but based on wherever the mail carrier was based.  So you could live in one city but have as your mailing address another city because the person who delivered your mail was based there.  Yes, go figure.

This was and still is incredibly confusing to visitors but thankfully, GPS only recognizes true locations, not mistaken identities.  But back then GPS, which was fostered by the U.S. military in the 1950s and 1960s, was just that year being made available to private enterprises such as Magellan for commercial use.

So when I arrived in Durham, I found its assets scattered in state publications under two different “R’s”, the “M’s”, two different “B’s”, and the “C’s.  Only a fraction could be found under the “D’s” where they all belonged.

So I dialed up an old friend who was running the Division of Tourism and he had the person over listings call me back.  But again, instead of addressing the situation and immediately consolidating all of Durham under Durham, I was, again, met with incredible resistance.

To be fair, no one back then could understand why the USPS had begun playing fast and loose with physical locations.  Because Durham had an incredibly proactive planning director back then, Paul Norby, together we got the addresses for 5,000 businesses corrected but many remain mis-assigned today.Unfair Datestamp

This is also why a friend and former mayor of Durham was forced to have a Chapel Hill address, meaning his mail came from a post office there.

Snail mail is increasingly irrelevant now.  But back when it was, Durham initiated a collaboration with DMO execs and chamber execs in this region to persuade the regional mail processing center not to stamp “Raleigh” on letters regardless of the origin.

It was not only offensive to other communities but misleading not to mention undermining back when competitive bids for various types of visitor business were submitted by snail mail.

Instead, based on our collective request, the facility agreed to substitute ”Research Triangle Region” as the postmark instead.  But someone new must have come along and added “Raleigh” back in above it.

Even though some of the faces have changed, the agreement was on behalf of organizations not individuals, and I assume someone will soon dust off that agreement and re-connect the dots.

Eventually I was able to get all of Durham’s assets listed under Durham in state publications.  Then came several years of chasing down and correcting hundreds of national directories that had been similarly contaminated.

This also involved explaining that the mail designation Research Triangle Park based here was a Durham postal substation and vanity designation, not a city.

Diligence in this regard is an important part of protecting and shaping community identity, but not one that many DMO counterparts face because they are the beneficiaries of the confusion, having assets in other communities misattributed to theirs.

In my first DMO startup for Spokane, I had benefited from misattribution and quickly gained empathy for other communities whose identities were compromised and for the confusion it caused travelers.

Unfortunately, playing the “ethics” card is often the only way to get communities that benefit from misinformation and misattribution to embrace “truth in addressing.”  In Durham, we even put it in writing in an agreement with surrounding communities but whenever someone comes along who is clueless, it has to be dusted off again.

I also ran into the problem with associations holding state, regional and national conventions in Durham.  One such association represented by someone who was director of the state division of tourism in the decade before I arrived, did everything it could to not reveal that the location of its meeting was in Durham.

I thought, because of his former position, it would be easy to resolve but instead, I had to endure a lot of verbal and email abuse before finally getting the correct location noted.  And this was 16 years after we started Durham’s community marketing agency!

Not a fun part of DMO work but one you can’t walk away from.  No amount of promotion alone can overcome this type of misinformation.  It’s why 2/3rds of community marketing is actually about “lowering barriers.”

A lesson I learned during my career is that just because someone has DMO experience doesn’t mean they don’t harbor resentment, jealousy or even bigotry toward other communities.  It is also why it is more important than ever that DMO execs signs codes of ethics.

Durham is considered “cool” now thanks in large part to the work its DMO did dating back to 1989.  But as illustrated by quotes from more than a few state elected officials in recent years, the job isn’t finished.

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