Marketing alone is not the solution to the sustainable tourism problem.
In a recent post by NCPR’s Brian Mann, he revisits the idea that there is a lack of a coordinated tourism marketing effort for the Adirondacks. He cites the “balkanization” of the region, “with no central governing organization to shape how and where dollars are spent”.
As I’ve written before, the Adirondack region as a whole is only treated as one entity from a regulatory standpoint; by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). Otherwise it is certainly fragmented into separate delineations for towns, counties, and state organizations with various overlapping, yet inconsistent geographic jurisdictions.
And remember, there IS one entity charged with promoting the region as a whole; the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council (ARTC) is a consortium of the County Tourism Promotion Agencies in the State-designated Adirondack Region – which is not Blue Line-specific as several of the County lines cross that boundary. The ARTC’s partners pool funding to promote the Adirondack Region as a whole. They do not, however, have control over any private entities, municipalities or state organizations with the financial power to dilute that Adirondack message.
It would be ideal if someone waved a magic wand to allow for the implementation of one collective, undiluted, Blue Line-specific marketing effort for the Adirondacks. That would certainly give us an edge as we continue to compete with other New York and New England destinations for potential travelers in our feeder markets.
However, Mann also writes that “the Adirondacks lags well behind the terms of creating a recognizable brand in the minds of potential visitors,” and suggests that “If we marketed the region as a whole, in a coherent, deliberate and persistent way, we would almost certainly see a net increase in visitors that would give everyone more opportunities to build their local tourism economies.”
On these points, I respectfully disagree.
One cannot “create” a brand, and marketing alone will not build tourism economies.
I tackle the brand topic in a previous article, “Understanding the Adirondack Brand,” so I won’t replay that record here. In short, a destination’s brand is the visitors’ experience and perception of that experience – not something created by tourism promotion.
That said, again, we can aggressively market a town like Childwold, NY, but most visitors will still stay overnight in a town that has current visitor amenities, such as Lake Placid. Why? Because without appropriately-scaled resort-style facilities, Adirondack communities are not positioned to experience any increased positive economic impact from tourism.
We know that the greatest economic impact from tourism is derived from overnight visitation. Essex County lodging properties collect a three percent occupancy tax from overnight visitors, and collection totals serve as an indicator of overall tourism activity. Lodging typically represents about a third of overall tourism spending (the other two-thirds represent retail, dining, and attractions). There are 18 Towns in Essex County. In 2011, of a total $1.7 million collected County-wide, $1.5 million or 89 percent of the occupancy tax was collected in just one of them: the Town of North Elba (which includes Lake Placid).
The reason that, say, Newcomb only collected $591 in that same time period is the number of lodging rooms as compared to North Elba. Due largely to aging infrastructure and an inappropriate product mix, many of the small communities in the region are struggling to attract their share of potential visitors in a very competitive destination marketplace.
So what activities attract overnight visitation to our destinations? Following are the top three, according to the 2011 Leisure Travel Information Study* 5-year average:
- Outdoor activity: 73%
- Relax/dine/shop: 67%
- Sightseeing: 57%
A look at our destination website analytics provides another indicator. In August, 2012, the “Outdoors” pages on lakeplacid.com received over 50,000 page views, and the hiking-specific pages received over 12,500 views. But the breakdown is interesting: the website offers categories of hikes as follows: 1-2 hour, 2-4 hour, 4-8 hour, over 8 hour hikes and the 46 high peaks. Which of those categories is most popular? The most page views, at about 4,800, were on the 1-2 hour hikes pages. The least, at just under 400, were those over 8 hours. The longer the hike, the fewer the page views.
And so, according to our statistics, most visitors plan to hike up a short trail such as Mount Jo or Baxter Mountain, and then return to the closest resort setting for a beer (and the other activities that fit within the leisure travel study categories relax/dine/shop and sightseeing). And that resort is likely Lake Placid.
What does this tell us?
- The outdoor recreational opportunities available here are what draw visitors – and every single one of our communities can offer that.
- Although visitors cite outdoor activities as the primary draw to the area, they also demand resort-style amenities.
At the destination marketing organization I work for, we DO market all of the region’s communities in our purview, and tie them consistently to the name “Adirondacks”. I continue to host travel media in order to gain editorial exposure. We have implemented a sophisticated, targeted online marketing strategy. And we track everything we do, so that we can adjust that strategy as needed.
The fact remains, though, that by simply increasing the marketing side of the equation, we just drive more people to the places that they already visit. The challenge is to find ways to grow tourism in the greater region, while managing growth in the more established resort areas like Lake Placid and Lake George.
Although not every town wants to become a tourism hub, achieving a sustainable tourism economy for the Adirondack communities who do requires the addition of appropriately-scaled facilities, through planning and investment – and it’s that last item for which we still don’t have a solution.
If we solve this equation, though, we can effectively “spread the wealth”, so that all of the region’s communities can take advantage of tourism demand that marketing inspires, and their residents can enjoy the enhanced quality of life that facilities and increased economic activity provide.
*2011 Leisure Travel Information Study (PDF)