Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Trait Shared By “Big Game Hunters”

Community destination marketing organizations that fall into the trap of “big game hunting” share a cultural trait dating back to before the 1920s when leisure travel emerged as mainstream.

They are generally marketing organizations in name only, having untethered sales from its constraints as an element of marketing along with any focus on distinctiveness, differentiation, sense of place or fit.

“Big game hunters” are individuals or groups of enablers who, lacking awareness or patience with fostering the sense of particular place, seek instead to import it by going shopping for culture and bringing back one of everything.

They also have in common a sales focus in the traditional sense (e.g., I have produced something to sell and need to convince you to buy it even if it requires subsidies) as it was when community destination marketing organizations first evolved in the 1890s and was being taught in colleges by 1904.

Marketing thought and practice (e.g.,what do you need and maybe I have something that will fit that need) including a customer-focused integration of sales was already rapidly evolving.

Some community marketing organizations began to adopt marketing including a different focus to sales in the 1920s and especially during the 1930s, while many never made the shift.

Many still remained glued to old fashioned sales by the time marketing theory and practice really took immediately after WWII.

This is also when marketing became scientific as documented by authors such as Wroe Alderson in his co-authored 1948 book Towards a Theory of Marketing, the year I was born.

It was followed by his 1957 book, Marketing Behavior and Executive Action, still in use as a textbook when I entered college a decade laterBut many community marketing organizations as they are today remained stuck in the 1890s.

Nor did they budge when in 1960, Harvard professor Theodore Levitt published a paper, later expanded into a book by the same name entitled Marketing Myopia, describing the difference between untethered sales and integrated marketing.

My four decade career leading community destination marketing organizations didn’t consciously begin until 1973, the year after I graduated, but reading that paper as a class assignment while helping to jumpstart an office to market the BYU campus for youth conferences, as a part-time job, had made me aware of what marketing meant.

Even as I began my career in earnest helping to create a community marketing organization for Spokane, peer organizations still stuck in the 1890s sales mindset mounted furious opposition to even changing the name of these organizations to add the word visitor after conventions, my first exposure to “big game hunters.”

Though mine had allowed me to escape being trapped, I can easily trace the DNA of the organizations today that remain stuck in the 1890s by tracing those influential in their background.

It is hard to say if I just happened to choose communities eager to avoid that trap or they found me, but I was dogged throughout my career by “big game hunters” in each of the three communities I served, all of whom were eager to pull us back into the past, several coming close to having me fired.

Communities that forgo sense of place and authenticity to “big game hunt” instead for mega-facilities or events that make them the same as other communities and then resort to subsidies to underwrite their appeal appeal, are still practicing sales as it was well more than a hundred years ago.

Marketing a community requires finesse by appealing to visitors who will find a particular place a good fit in return for their time and treasure while pursuing groups and events only when they meet these criteria:

  • Occur during time periods where they won’t distract from homegrown events
  • Won’t displace existing visitors
  • Won’t siphon away underwriting, audience and volunteers from homegrown events
  • Are complimentary with a community’s unique stature

Untethered from marketing, a sales-dominant focus superimposes these criteria with quotas and winning new accounts against a far too narrow metric such as just filling hotel rooms.

Surveys across all kinds of organizations show that only 18% of sales teams are held accountable for minimizing churn and only 30% are accountable for maintaining margins and avoiding discounts and subsidies, the hallmarks of “big game hunters.”

By using myopic metrics, they also fail to be accountable for a return that even replenishes the dollars used as subsidy.  Had they not untethered from marketing they would be seeing returns closer to 6-to-1 in tax revenues to the community overall.

The battle to protect sense of place from the forces of mainstream entertainment and fantasy dates at least to April 7. 1858 when two Democrats (the conservatives of that day) appointed to the Central Park Board tried to pollute, a week after it had been approved, the plan by Fredrick Law Omsted and his partner.

“Big game hunting” by communities hoping to import sense of place rather than foster it indigenously by intensified in the 1940s in the immediate aftermath of WWII.

Most communities in the 1920s and 1930s had broadened to a marketing focus when leisure travel achieved mass appeal but this was coopted when after WWII, developers inured to destruction of historic buildings during that conflict and settling for churn began to gain influence over public expenditures.

Beginning in the mid to late 1940s, many cities stopped viewing facilities such as convention centers, stadiums and performance halls for their inherent potential.

Instead, pushed by “big game hunters,” elected officials began to build them instead, with tax dollars, as a way to shore up private property values, something still very common today.

It should be no surprise that this is also when the owners of sports teams, emerging as a form of mainstream entertainment, began to shop for cities under the spell of “big game hunters.” 

While the owners of the NFL’s Boston Braves may have been the first to do so, changing to Redskins and relocating to Washington D.C. in 1937, they were quickly followed after WWII by the Buffalo Bisons of the NBA, moving first to Moline as the Blackhawks then in 1951 to Saint Louis as the Hawks, then to Atlanta in 1968 for a new arena.

In Major League Baseball, it began in 1953 when the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee before relocating again in 1966 to Atlanta, lured by a community built on “big game hunting.”

When in 1955 the owner of the Dodgers moved to LA, persuading the owner of the cross-town Giants to move to San Francisco, he was lured by LA’s “big game hunters.”

Both marketing and the element of sales have continued to evolve but many community marketing organizations, even if they wanted to move away from sales as it was practiced more than a hundred years ago are trapped by the undue influence of “big game hunters” in their communities.

Those that long ago shifted are never entirely safe when local officials fall under the spell of “big game hunters” who see marketing as a threat to their main stream fixations and relentlessly push behind the scenes to gain control of the community marketing organizations in their communities.

Communities that value the higher performance gained by fostering and preserving the things that make them distinct vs. “big game hunting” must not only make sure their community marketing organization isn’t trapped in the past but relentlessly protect local officials from undue influence by “big game hunters.”

All of this is not to suggest that sales isn’t an important element of marketing for community marketing organizations.  Those that have made the shift as revealed in this study illustrate the difference between high performing sales teams and others, in part, because they practice a much higher level of accountability.

These high performers are also much more focused on the quality of sales, such as avoiding discounts and especially subsidies.

“Big game hunters” hate these constraints, preferring myopic metrics rather than information driven decision-making and the “who’s asking” approach to decision-making.

Some communities still have a choice about whether to cave in to these powerful interests or instead foster an indigenous sense of place ecosystem protected by a community marketing organization with that as its focus.

For far too many, it no longer matters what century their community marketing is in.

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