Friday, June 06, 2014

The True Meaning of Place Authenticity

A friend of mine who is an executive at Americans for the Arts warned me years ago during a now-concluded four decade career in destination marketing to beware of mainstream attractions, especially those that specialize in things you can see anywhere.

He noted, “Their success goes to their head and before you know it, they seek to cannibalize the very features that truly make a destination authentic and appealing.”

New research shown below continues to zero in on what authentic means when it comes to destination communities.  It offers a clue as to why mainstream facilities so often seem threatened by it.

I saw this mysterious reaction often repeat itself over my four decades of community destination marketing for three different communities, but could never fathom why they were so threatened.

Sometimes hotels, other times sports or convention facilities, even tour companies and theaters common to many places often inscrutably attacked or sought to undermine the very characteristics that made those communities distinct and therefore appealing.

I had a front row seat to these behaviors because the jugular these mainstream entities go for is the community marketing organizations serving as guardians for unique sense of place.

Even research conducted for amusements such as theme parks and gaming casinos that simulate other places clearly shows that overall, by more than 3-to-1, visitors prefer real or authentic experiences to those that are simulated or fantasy.

By nearly 5-to-1 visitors feel that real or authentic characteristics caused them to view the last destination they visited more favorably, and for nearly 6-in-10, much more favorably.

I was reviewing the attributes that visitors mean by authenticity when a recent report in the Wall Street Journal popped up on my screen headlined “A Dozen Stadiums, a Million Problems.”

It is an old story regarding mega-events, which are by definition, mainstream.  These events have never lived up to hype and in their wake usually leave unsustainable facilities that retain the uber-narcissistic hangover left by the corporate leaders and government officials who spawned them.

Brazil, which is the latest to fall victim, will soon host both the World Cup and the Olympics falling for the old mythical saw—long disproven—that mega-events translate into awareness and favorability or for that matter, any sustainable awareness at all.

My first experience with a mega-event was the World’s Fair in Spokane but there, the primary objective was to clean up the industrial toxins across its riverfront, converting two islands that split a huge waterfall and the river banks into a central park.

Different than other mega-events, its legacy was not unsustainable facilities but rather a spectacular waterway reclaimed from blight, an iconic and historic clock tower and a rare restored carousel, all authentic to Spokane and sense of place tourism.

But that’s where I first learned that the 5.2 million people visiting during the six month event, as with all mega-events, actually displaced or scared away many times that number who would have come anyway.

This paradox was reinforced a decade later when, with a few others from Anchorage, as we were evaluating an Olympic bid I made an unexpected scouting visit to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Without reservations, we were able to easily find discounted rooms in the finest hotels and walk right into famed restaurants.  This repeated itself at the Atlanta Olympics when I was in Durham.

Experts from McKinsey who have been studying Brazil are far more convinced that the billions redirected to mega-events would have far greater impact if directed back to spending on R&D muscle in Brazil’s growth sectors or a more strategic improvement of transportation infrastructure, an already proven engine of economic resurgence.

Even the promise of transportation infrastructure as a byproduct to these events is already being cannibalized by overruns on sports facilities. Hence, public support has plummeted by nearly half.

Only 14% of Brazil’s road system is paved, something that will not be improved by repaving entrances to stadiums.  But public support may rebound once the TV cameras roll.  Everyone likes to see themselves in the news.

In the aftermath, the usual cover stories for hosting the event will emerge.  These elaborations are catching up with proponents though, as evidenced by withdrawals to host the Winter Olympics, a trend sure to eventually spread.

Organizers are taking heed and hopefully with their enablers soon downsize these events back to their smaller, more manageable, less costly and far more authentic roots.

It is money that corrupts mega-events and forces them to try to become ever larger.  It is also at the source of why mainstream events and facilities turn again the authenticity of communities that spawn them.

Government officials in Brazil are taking the heat as they always do but their own narcissistic tendencies were fueled by those in the business community (a condition found far greater among these groups than in the general population.)

So what do visitors find to be authentic in a visitor destination?  What are those attributes so seemingly threatening to and held in such disdain by mainstream facilities as well as those obsessed with seeming “major league” by seeking to be one of many vs. distinct?

There is room for a few mainstream facilities even in communities with sense of place remaining.  They appeal to the small segment of travelers who are often called “shoppers” because they seek on a trip to do the things they do at home, the things they can do anywhere, anytime.authenticity

For them, unique sense of place is unimportant or easily substituted by a fantasized place or a theme park or a fantasy event in a mainstream facility that could be really be anywhere.          

But this group is tiny compared to the vast proportion of travelers seeking something unique and genuine, e.g. local artists, galleries and culture, indigenous festivals and events, historic sites, local museums, flora, fauna, waterways, gardens and countryside unique to place, local architecture, local restaurants, local foods, independent and locally-owned stores, local stories and plays etc.

Even the most venturesome among these visitors are also looking for somewhere more quiet and relaxing, without lines, away from crowds, a place where unique memories can be stitched.

Destinations must keep mainstream facilities and events in perspective and in check or risk losing overall appeal.  They have a niche but hegemony must not be tolerated.

No matter how tiny or unassuming or unpretentious or un-programed the ingredients are that make a place truly a place, they are the most important characteristics of a destination and deserve unfailing attention and nurturing and the utmost respect from mainstream entities.

Hopefully, mainstreamers will figure that out before they ruin too many more destinations still clinging to sense of place.  Because once that is gone so are the reasons the majority of people travel.

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