Thursday, May 14, 2015

When Organizations Are Not Given A Proper Burial

One of the uniquely American traits observed at the founding of our country was the propensity for creating associations.

We’ve just never been very good at shuttering them.

Instead of celebrating a mission well accomplished and retiring them, we tend to keep them hanging around on life support while desperately scrounging to find another “parade” hoping it can leap in front and lead the band.

But this never works.

Instead, as we foster new, more relevant organizations, we weigh them down with those that have outlived their relevance rather than giving them a proper burial.

I am not referring to a failure to evolve or repurpose.  I’m referring to organizations made obsolete either by the successful completion of their mission or eclipsed by paradigm shifts.

In a twist of irony, the failure to let go of outdated organizations is often due to the fact that those involved with these transitions fail to understand patterns or distinctions.

Take cable television for example.  Now caught on the obsolete side of a paradigm shift, it hastened its demise during the paradigm shift it created decades ago by then dragging along the baggage from outdated broadcast notions of advertising.

I first became aware of this phenomena in the early 1970s as I began what would be a four-decade career in community destination marketing and found a layer of tourism-related organizations across the country back then that seemed superfluous.

They had words such as “association” or “council in the name.  A few had “travel industry” even though it was already clear there is no such thing.

Travel is a sector of at least six distinct industries (plural) that have only one thing in common.  They share the traveling public or visitors as customers.

Some of these organizations were statewide and a handful were regional, as in “Pacific Northwest.”  While nearly all had only formed in the 1950s, they were all struggling for membership.

That meant pleading to community destination marketing organizations to keep them alive.

It caused me to examine and wonder how they all came to be obsolete in less than two decades, meaning they had lost appeal and relevance to their original constituency, a condition I found repeated in each of the three states in which I worked before retiring.

In fact, in retirement I still run across states that are trying to keep these organizations on life support nearly 50 years now after they should have been phased out.

Communities first formed Destination Marketing Organizations way back in 1896 along the routes of various railroads, inspired and adapted, in fact, from the destination marketing railroads had done for National Parks.

It was during the Progressive Era when cities and towns began to realize the importance of being culturally and scenically attractive.  This was also when the notion of leisure became more acceptable.

Yes, it may come as a surprise to many in tourism today but it owes its widespread emergence to liberals (OMG!)

These earliest destination marketing pioneers also understood from observing railroad marketing that the true future of travel was point to point, not serially from one community to the next.

From 1897-1915, most tourism was in the form of attending conventions and expositions, that is until an avid Pierce Arrow enthusiast, President Woodrow Wilson, changed things in 1916 by incentivizing the states to begin building or cobbling together roadways.

That’s when the paradigm shift to community destination marketing organizations took off as automobiles made tourism mainstream in the late 1920s and early 1930s, opening the way for many more towns and cities to benefit.

There was just one problem, though, well actually two.

As public roads were built or cobbled together into highways back then they were immediately blighted by billboards, often with one coming into view every 4 to 5 seconds even at the relatively slow 35-45 mile per hour speed limits back then.

Many governors such as O. Max Gardner in North Carolina commissioned surveys of roadsides, such as the 1930 report for his state at this link.

These scenic, or lack thereof, surveys led to billboard restrictions inspired by those that had been pioneered in Massachusetts under conservative Republican Governor Calvin Coolidge.

Coolidge’s restrictions had withstood numerous challenges in the courts during the 1920s resulting in a declaration that aesthetics alone are in the public interest and prohibiting billboards on highways in “The Bay State” of “unusual scenic beauty.”

All of this concern about scenic preservations along roadways brought tourism front and center because citizens and businesses speaking out against billboards across the country were often led by those owning tourism-related businesses such as in the 1930s editorial at this link.

But communities in North Carolina and many other states still lacked the capacity or interest to form tourism promotion organizations so states began to fill the void.

To provide an umbrella until their respective communities were ready to go after tourism, states such as North Carolina after 1935 added visitor attractions to their highway maps and formed what were called advertising divisions.

These state efforts would serve as a sort of filter until specific areas for visitation were identified.  They still basically serve that function today.

But this early tourism marketing was premature and doomed to backfire, unless states could become visitor-ready by first restoring the scenic character of roadsides and conducting in-depth inventories of things for visitors to see and do.

Fortunately, between 1937 and 1941, the federal government stepped in again, just as as World War II was set to unfold.

To be continued tomorrow.

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