Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Fallacy of Trading Sense of Place for Density

In May of 1989 I accepted an offer to relocate to Durham, North Carolina and jumpstart the community’s destination marketing organization.

It was clear during my interview visit that Durham had good bones as well as deeply held traits and values that would be appealing visitors.

By good bones, I mean that many of its indigenous, core commercial districts retained the smaller, people scale, historical blocks of buildings that a majority of travelers are drawn to because they reflect a distinctive sense of place.

This is the “there” there of a particular place that so very many places long ago surrendered. 

It is a term that was coined in the 1930s by Gertrude Stein that over time has come to describe anywhere that “sense of character or coherence has eroded,” as so eloquently noted by Scott Russell Sanders in his essay The Geography of Somewhere.

Of course there is a lot more to having a “there” there than just architectural setting.

It was also clear back then that Durham had given in every now and then to the temptation during the 80s to throw up a skyscraper or two, as it is currently doing.

But different than those prior to WWII, apparently both developers and local officials (as illustrated by their own buildings) have forgotten a crucial tenet noted by Witold Rybczyski in How Architecture Works.

New buildings, according to Rybcyski (Rib-chin-ski,) a noted architect, professor, critic and author, should foremost seek coherence with place and setting.TrustBuilding_pcard

When I mentioned a need for “coherence” to an official during deliberations for this newest and tallest building underway in Durham, I received only a look of bewilderment and something mumbled about the need for density.

More on density that later but studies show that, too, is a fallacy when used as a justification for towering structures that violate sense of place.

At year-end I will be seven years retired from that career, but last week the staff there invited me a personal tour of the new headquarters for the organization I led for 21 years in Durham.

Including the ground floor Durham Visitor Info Center, it occupies the first two floors of the six story 1905 Trust Building, Durham’s first skyscraper and one perfectly coherent with place.

It was the tallest building in the state when it was erected.  It also had the first elevator in Durham and was a little more than twice the height of surrounding buildings.

There is no record of controversy at the time but there is evidence three years later when the 47-story Singer Building opened in New York as the tallest building in the world that these structures were taking a toll on sense of place.

For several decades people had complained of the canyons these buildings created, along with the wind tunnel effect and the deep shadows they cast shortening the amount of daylight for blocks in at a time.

Now, 100 years after Jane Jacobs published launched a conversation in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a new study across a wide range of metrics finds that blocks of older, smaller builders perform better than districts with larger, newer structures.

By comparison, these blocks generate more jobs per square foot, a greater diversity of businesses, more non-chain local businesses, more small business vitality and greater density, more character, walkability and a broader socio-economic residential mix.

The answer isn’t either/or.  It is about mix, fit and especially coherence.

Communities that have surrendered to forces who told them they had to sell out their sense of place in order to be major league still have pockets or fragments they can salvage.

Communities such as Durham that turned the corner with sense of place in tact but may be unprepared for how quickly out of town “buyer/flippers” as well as franchise architecture developer/lenders can hollow out sense of place.

They may need to shift gears even more quickly.

Reading this study is a good start.   Begin by dissuading planners and officials of any notion that coherence of place must be sacrificed for density.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Lessons From An Era’s Promise Unfulfilled

The rumble of our more than thirty year old inboard when it fires to life in our runabout most weekends is a reminder of my own passing into “vintage” years.

Not only because starting up at all, regardless of how well maintained, should never be taken for granted after all these years, but because the powerful 4-cylinder's technology actually dates to the early 1970s.

Coincidentally, that was when I was first cutting my teeth on what became a lifelong career in community destination marketing.

The early 1970s was an era, such as now, filled with transformational promise in that field.

So during frequent guest lectures for today’s college students in destination marketing I encourage them to look back at what they can learn.

In fact, the lessons I hope they will glean might help them understand why so many destination marketing organizations (DMOs) today still function much as they did in the late 1960s/early 1970s albeit under a thin veneer of “digital window dressing.”

Let me touch very briefly on two huge paradigm shifts that gave so much promise and opportunity to DMO execs as the 1970s opened up.

One involved the emergence of a new technology for marketing intelligence and the other dealt with the near simultaneous rise of a range of nationwide sense of place policies.

In the late 1960s while unwrapping for airlines why some people were resistant to flying, Dr. Stanley Plog developed a data model for understanding, segmenting and then appealing to travelers based on the type of leisure destinations that fit their travel interests.1985-century-boats-mustang-jjxxlx

This had the effect of making accessible the vastly greater tourism potential beyond the 10% or so related to conventions and meetings that had been the limited focus of nearly every destination for the previous seven decades.

At virtually the same time, a range of national sense-of-place policies were rapidly beginning to transform communities.

In the wake of 1960s battles that brought disrepute to urban renewal/destruction to make way for mega-facilities such as convention centers, a slate of new policies greeted the 1970s.

Instead, they were intended to make communities more appealing by fostering historic preservation, waterway restoration, natural area protection, cultural endowment and highway beautification by eliminating sign and billboard blight.

Strategic thinkers christened the 1970s as an era when destination marketing, too, would broaden its approach.  Across the land many DMOs even added “and visitor” to their organizational names in anticipation, as did the professional association in 1974.

So what happened?  Why did most stop with just a change in nomenclature?

Why did so few 1970s era DMO execs grasp or embrace these lucrative shifts even as strategic foresights came to fruition?

Or for that matter, why did so few of those who they mentored in subsequent decades ever seem to move beyond the same 1960s style destination marketing?

Don’t get me wrong. There have been some significant strides in destination marketing since that time and there have always been best practitioners and strategic thought leaders.

Even the vast majority who have remained 1960s retro at their core typically try some new elements when they come along.

What is noteworthy, however, is that many often mistake a strategic change as something tactical, e.g. the Internet, and a tactical change as a strategy, e.g. social media and these elements always remain peripheral to a 1960s era core. 

We know now that as strategists projected in the early 1970s, by the early 1990s leisure travel overall eclipsed business travel (including conventions,) which both tipped into gradual, though turbulent, decline in the late 1980s.

Last month it was announced that even among the 9 or 10% of person-trips taken by Americans via commercial airlines, leisure trips have now eclipsed business/convention trips as the pre-eminent reason for US air travel.

And still, generation after generation among DMO execs remain stuck in the late 1960s throwing up look alike mega-facilities, then paying subsidies to get enough groups to fill them.

All of this while then proclaiming, seeming without any sense of irony as one did recently, that this dwindling segment is somehow “the heart of any major city.”

This sense of denial, too, dates to the 1960s.  When the first feasibility studies were conducted as prerequisites for public mega-facilities in the latter 1950s, they came back negative.

Proponents (not all of whom were DMOs) quickly learned the tactic of shopping for studies until they got what they wanted and then stoked hyperbole as justification.

Thus one I suspect was born the “the heart of any major city.”

But this introspection is not about shaming my generation of DMO execs or as you will read sparing myself.

There are several lessons for today’s DMO aspirants to take away from an examination of the failed hopes of the early 1970s if they are to ever hope to help destinations emerge from this quicksand in the future and go on to fulfill the promises of their own era:

First, it may be helpful to understand that in the field of destination marketing, we’re all shaped to a some extent, by the destinations we each have the honor to serve.

This includes the time period when we serve them and especially the foresight of each boards that governs the DMO during those particular spans.

A few people are quick to credit me with fulfilling the promise of that 1970s era but as I will explain, it is far more complicated than that.

Much of any credit goes not only to the nature of the three destinations I led but the unique time frames and especially the unusually farsighted and fearless boards who governed those DMOs during those spans.

I led the first during the 1970s.  I was a voracious reader and had the benefit of some strategic mentors, but it was all just starting to sink in when I moved on.  Within a few years that DMO was and remains, in essence, a 1960s model.

Together with the board, I definitely took the second destination to a fulfillment of the 1970s era promise over stiff opposition from 1960s stalwarts.  Once I moved on though, and the board rotated, it all but reverted to a 1960s model.

It is probably from my third and final destination that any reputation for fulfilling that 1970s era promise is more deserved, but there were always a handful trying to pull us back to the 1960s.

Long after I’ve retired, the destination perseveres but regression is always a threat I’m sure.

So as far as my own record goes, batting .300 is pretty good if I were hitting fastballs or 3-pointers, I guess, but just so so measured against the promise of we felt inspired to accomplish when I started my DMO career in the 1970s. 

Frankly, had I not been the beneficiary of being in these three places when I was, given my nature, it is doubtful I would have been drawn to make destination marketing a career.

Another take-away from examining why more DMO execs didn’t rise to the promise of that 1970s era is that there is an incredible inertia that traps tourism in general in its 1960s past.

In part, this inertia is fostered by at least four conditions:

  1. A “circle the wagons” mentality when it comes to change, reflection on the past or even introspection such as this.
  2. A powerful industrial complex of entrenched interest groups, feasibility consultants, developers and old-school elected officials.
  3. An impatience with discussing concepts, ideas and anything controversial which stymies strategic thinking.
  4. A stubbornness or failure to grasp the importance of improvements to nomenclature, e.g. referring to tourism as an industry instead of a sector (which is a combination of many industries such as lodging, transportation, foodservice, entertainment etc.)

There are many other strategic lessons to be learned by looking back at that earlier 1970s era not the least of which is the importance of seeking out those DMO execs today whose DNA traces back to 1970s era execs that somehow, someway, were able to realize some of its promise.

Destination marketing, at its very essence, is about differentiation and that includes, among others, strategic differentiation, marketing differentiation and destination differentiation.

But it all begins with a broader understanding of the arc of where destination marketing has been, where it could have and should have been as well as where it should go in the future to remain relevant.

Few of us in that 1970s era could piece together a picture of the sweeping changes that were underway like we can by looking back in hindsight.

Even strategic thinkers at the time were not connecting the dots for us and maybe that is one of the lessons for students to take away that will help them pull so many DMOs out of the 1960s quicksand and leapfrog to this era’s transformational promise.