Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Twin Threats of Commodification and Blandification

After hearing one of my lectures a week ago at Appalachian State University, a bright, young, upper level hospitality student stopped to ask me a question.

She wondered if now that many cities, including some nearby, have developed local restaurant scenes if the one in Durham where I still live after concluding a career in community marketing would experience leakage.

Durham’s foodie reputation first evolved with a colony of chef-owned restaurants in the early 1980s and has regularly been nationally-acclaimed since the 1990s, most recently garnering the community “Tastiest Town In The South.

Normally, leakage refers to import leakage, what occurs when, for example, visitors to a community are somehow misdirected to another community for something available locally or when businesses hire non-residents and those wages are not spent work-side.

This is called leakage because it reduces the value added to the local economy.

Due to a consumer behavior known as cognitive distance friction, visitors rarely range further than seven miles even within a destination let alone venture a 20-60 mile round trip to do something in another city they could do where they are.

That is, unless they are misdirected by someone which is why DMOs must constantly train and retrain front line workers who are commuters from another city.

Otherwise, they recommend what they know, even if it means sending an unsuspecting visitor on a 30 mile jaunt to eat.

In this instance, I took it that the student wondered if Durham’s ability to reap dividends from its vaunted food scene would be reduced when day-trip visitors stayed home to dine instead, creating the impact of “retained tourism” in those places.

The short answer to the question is there will be little if any leakage at least in the manner I suspect she was using the term.

However, there are other threats that may undermine the ability of communities everywhere to leverage a local food scene as a point of differentiation and appeal.

Local food scenes involve more than acclaimed chefs, culinary artisans and restaurants.  These aspects thrive when integrated into the destination overall in a way that seems organic and natural.

Foodies travel as much for the sense of the place surrounding restaurants as they do for the food itself.  Durham’s food scene will continue to thrive if community policy makers, advocates and developers focus on preserving community character.

By community character, I mean those place-based assets including cultural, environmental and built, that when woven together make a community distinctive, not because they are unique in and of themselves but because they are distinct in the way they are manifest.

Loss of sense of place also occurs by becoming too “resort-ish” or cute, or when organic districts are overrun by chains and other mainstream elements.

This is a far greater threat than competition from other communities, especially when these more generic elements try to cannibalize or dominate a community’s overall story which they often try to do.

Both a unique sense of place and community destination marketing that seeks to foster and protect it are about “differentiation,” the antithesis of communities that seek instead to be mainstream, a sure path to blandification.

Being mainstream refers not only to chains but to sports and cultural facilities, including events that can be found in scores of other communities, if not hundreds and thousands.

In business, there is an outcome called commoditization.  It is the opposite of differentiation.

This is when goods or services become so mainstream or ubiquitous that they are no longer distinguishable in the eyes of the marketplace or consumers.  For example, experts now believe smartphones have become commoditized.

Essentially, commoditization is about distinctive things becoming generic.  They are easy to spot when they plateau and then decline.  Examples are professional sports, conventions, shopping malls, touring Broadway and now NASCAR.

Unfortunately, none were willing to learn from the others.

This can even happen to local, chef-driven food cultures if and when visitors begin to find them anywhere.  It doesn’t mean that they won’t continue to be “satisfiers,” they just won’t be “motivators” for travel to a particular location.

The anecdote to commoditization, also referred to as commodification when it comes to destinations sustaining their appeal, is not to be preoccupied with going shopping for culture one day and bringing back one of everything that many other communities have.

The anecdote is to focus instead on nurturing and gardening the blend of indigenous attributes and facilities that make a community distinct.

Douglas Rushkoff, the author of such books as Present Shock, defines commoditization as more of a market problem for manufacturers of branded goods and commodification as more of a crime of the market against humanity.

Communities concerned about retaining sense of place must fear commodification and the “big game hunter” mentality that, claiming some special knowledge, relentlessly fosters it.

Consultants and studies are not the answer.

The reason communities continued to build more and more convention centers, stadiums and performing arts theaters even when it was clear that they would ultimately be doomed by over building is that they failed to factor in the simple law of supply and demand.

For example, in 2003 there were fewer than 200 communities across the country with theaters hosting touring Broadway shows.  While it is rarely, if ever, shown in feasibility studies, based on the last number I saw reported, there are now far than 600.

This is true, even though the percentage of Americans attending musical theater today is 20% lower than it was in 1982 and  even though attendance at touring Broadway shows has fallen lower than it was 20 years ago,

Even the total weeks the shows run each year is similar today to what it was in the 1980s.

This is disguised in feasibility reports by only showing ticket revenues or charts that show only a few years of historical perspective and never is it indexed to supply.

Nearly a decade ago, experts were quoted saying that touring Broadway was “intrinsically broken,” yet more and more communities continue to build more and more theaters, ignorant of the devastation suffered in the past when communities failed to respect supply and demand.

Many of my peers, expected to be experts in “demand-based’ economic development as economists define tourism, as well as guardians of sense of place are instead often enablers of facilities that don’t make sense.

Instead many lead the charge for “big game hunters” in their communities or become one themselves, merely firing any consultant who wouldn’t tell them what they wanted to hear until they found one that would.

I watched as this happened in many communities over my career and was steamrolled myself more than once for standing up to “big game hunters.”

A corollary to commodification is that once it passes over into generica, a community can never cross back in hopes of somehow restoring its sense of place.

Many communities are fighting back against powerful lobbies for commodification and blandification.

San Francisco struggles to cap the number of mainstream outlets, and others are considering capping the rates charged for commercial spaces to protect locally owned stores.

Voters in Malibu, California approved a measure limiting chain stores.  New Yorkers are banding together to save the city’s remaining 200,000 locally owned stores.

Communities could learn a lesson about commodification by studying the lodging industry which after spending billions making hotels indescript is now spending billions trying to make new properties seem “boutique-ish” and as though they belong in the communities responsible for drawing their guests.

Others, such as 21C which will soon open its third art museum/hotel in Durham by adaptively reusing old historic buildings, in this case the historic home of the former Central Carolina Bank.  The equally distinct Durham Hotel will soon open across the street.

Hotels such as these and the Aloft, soon to open in Durham’s American Tobacco District, are sure to open chef-driven restaurants, often tapping into Durham’s local colony of chefs.

But even here, policy makers fail to question developers or learn the lesson that “commodification is a crime of the market against humanity.”

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