Tourism Won't Save Your Town

Tourism has long been touted as an economic panacea. A sound tourism strategy, in theory, will bring people far and wide to your community to leave you all of their money. When they run out, they will return home to demand schooling and trash pickup, thus thereby burdening their own municipality. Tourism certainly has its benefits and can provide a steady financial boost for communities that are fortunate enough to enjoy it. There are no shortage of statistics highlighting the economic impacts of the industry, and while tourism has an important role to play in growing local economies, tourism bureaus are all too often outdated, ineffective and use up far too much of the scarce community resources, which could be better used for other purposes. Every state, county and city has a tourism organization, nearly ever level of government has found a way to fund their tourism efforts, but somehow they don’t have any money left over for community improvement.  

If your community is funding tourism efforts, but not focusing on improving quality of life issues, you are simply marketing a bad product. It just doesn’t make good financial sense to spend more on marketing than product development. While a community is a lot of things, it is also a product you are trying to sell to people. Seems pretty much everyone is in the sales business. City officials, chambers, tourism bureaus, economic development officials are all trying to sell your city to outsiders. They want to sell the product, which is your community, to visitors, new residents, investors, and so on. So many people are in the business of trying to sell your community, but who is in the business of trying to improve your community?

Some cities see the value in community improvement, but it’s far less than what it should be. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that revitalization organizations are in the business of addressing quality of life issues. These entities do a great deal to improve conditions and go along way to making communities more livable and lovable. While the focus of these organizations is on revitalizing the downtown, they are absolutely improving the local quality of life, and in most cases, they are the only organizations doing this work. 

Years ago, when working with Defiance, Ohio, the head of the local tourism organization, Cindy Mack, began shifting their work from traditional tourism to downtown revitalization. When asked why she was doing this, she replied “we are inviting everyone over to a party, yet we never bothered to clean the house”. I believe this perfectly encapsulates the idea of putting tourism before community improvement. Marketing is without a doubt important, but for some reason, cities are all in the habit of putting marketing before product development. Tourism bureaus are so ingrained in local culture that they don’t even get questioned as to the value or their work. I have had first hand experience with tourism bureaus that barely have an online presence, use social media sparingly, don't respond to emails, keep irregular hours and rely on fliers to market their town. This is a gross misuse of limited community resources, that could have such a greater impact elsewhere. 

Tourism organizations are often well funded through a bed tax, which makes sense. The idea being that if a tourism organization is effective, there will be more heads in beds, and therefore they should get a piece of that money to continue their work. Here is the problem with this system though, only a portion of visitors can be attributed to tourism marketing efforts. Most people visit a community for other reasons that don’t involve marketing. Say I was looking to buy a bike, in ye olde times, marketing efforts might have been the main reason I purchased one bike over another. But today, that decision will be made based on consumer reviews, testimonials by friends, online research, product specifications, as well as a cool ad of someone doing sweet tricks. The bike company will not take 100% of my money and dump it all back into marketing. They will put a portion back into product development and research. They understand that informed consumers require more than marketing, they demand a quality product.

Cities should be funding organizations concerned with improving quality of life conditions, at the very least, to the same degree as tourism organizations. As a city becomes a better place, people are going to be more likely to visit. This is pretty straightforward. Consider a community that invests the revitalization of downtown. Community members are going to be proud of their town and will be much more likely to share their pride in person or over social media. Other people will learn of the improvements and want to experience them first hand. Traditional media will also be more likely to catch wind of the change and want to share their own story. Community improvement is the most effective marketing strategy on its own, and has the added benefit of IMPROVING THE COMMUNITY. 

Tastes have changed and the way to effectively market to people has changed as well. We seek out authentic experiences and would prefer to visit a place that people love to live, over places people only want to visit. Tourist destinations have grown cliche and full of tourists. People want something unique and fortunately every city and small town has just that to offer: unique businesses; unique buildings; unique heritage; unique events; a unique story. 

When we focus on making our cities and towns great places to live, we are simultaneously investing in the most effective marketing strategy. We are also creating the most effective economic development strategy. We are also creating the most effective new resident recruitment strategy. While tourism has its benefits and can add money and jobs to a local economy, it does not make a city a better place to live and in some extreme circumstances in fact, can do just the opposite. 

City leaders should take a look at their funding priorities and consider where they are investing. What efforts are being made to make your community a better place to live? This is not about the delivery of city services, it’s about what initiatives in your community will provide people with a richer, fuller life. Are you working to build bike trails, improve walkability, preserve historic buildings, add local businesses, facilitate a sense of community, improve the parks, make downtown more vibrant? These are the areas city leaders need to invest significantly more time and effort in. When cities improve in these areas, residents grow much more attached and engaged with their community and in turn, become the most effective marketing strategy available. It’s fine to have a party, hell, we all should throw a party, just be sure to clean up before inviting everyone over. 

-Jeff Siegler

Amber Davidson