Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Team Adirondacks: Local and Regional Tourism

Despite the fact that it’s been more than twenty years since I walked the halls of my Adirondack K-12 school, I still consider myself a Westport Eagle.

I’m actually somewhat of a traitor, living in neighboring Moriah. But since our two schools were in different sports leagues (based on enrollment), the people of Westport do continue to welcome me for reunions and the like. (Now, if I lived in Elizabethtown, we’d be having a whole different conversation.)

It occurred to me long ago that our Adirondack community rivalries embed themselves early via friendly competition on soccer, baseball and football fields. As we grow older, those loyalties remain.

The competitive rivalries continue today for those who grew up in these communities, and are contagious for those who relocate to them from afar, but the stakes have changed. Instead of a league title, there is a competition between municipalities for County, Region and State attention and funding, and for most, competition for a share of tourism; the greatest economic driver for the region.

It is encouraging and inspiring to see those municipal boundaries disappear, however, courtesy of a threat from a common rival. A crisis such as Tropical Storm Irene, for example, showcased both the communities rivalries AND teamwork. The Town of Jay perceives that it didn’t initially receive the heightened attention from Albany and the media that the town of Keene and the repair to Route 73 received. On the other hand, the ongoing outpouring of hands-on cleanup and monetary support for relief efforts in all of the affected communities from the Adirondack neighborhood was overwhelming and inspiring.

This takes us to the reason I brought this up; a recent instance in which those community boundaries disappeared in front of my very eyes.

New York State’s tourism promotion program, I Love New York, is run by the the state’s Empire State Development wing. In 2012, they hired a new public relations agency to promote the State’s regions to the traveling public via traditional public relations efforts. The agency, M.Silver Associates, were ushered around the state to meet with tourism promotion agents from each county in meetings set up by region. This was an exercise set up so that the agency could learn as much about the regions as possible in order to develop their strategy for acquiring editorial coverage.

For tourism promotion, the state has been cut into 11 geographic regions, including the Catskills, Finger Lakes, New York City, Thousand Islands-Seaway and Greater Niagara, and the Adirondacks. As communications director for Essex County, I attended the meeting in which they solicited information about the Adirondacks from representatives from the Counties that comprise our region; the Tourism Promotion Agents that make up the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council.

We went around the room, describing the events, attractions, activities and experiences that differentiated our respective Counties as the PR agency staff furiously took notes. As the conversation drew on, however, the comments from the individual counties took on a more collective, regional context. Oddly enough, that change happened right after M. Silver mentioned what they had learned while talking to the “Catskills people”, and that they were headed next to talk to the “Finger Lakes” representatives.

New York State is big, and some of our competition lies within. Suddenly, we were not St. Lawrence, Essex, Warren and Hamilton Counties; we were Team Adirondacks. And when we had finished explaining all the reasons that the Adirondacks should represent most of M. Silver’s promotional efforts versus the other regions of New York State, we then turned our attention to the adjacent states.

As an unintentional catalyst for mayhem, the M.Silver rep asked innocently, “Isn’t Lake Champlain in Vermont?”

An uproar quickly ensued. We replied defensively that the “Adirondack Coast” is collectively promoted from Plattsburgh south to Ticonderoga, despite the vast promotion of “Vermont’s Lake Champlain”. 

The evidence was stacked up with comments from every side of the table. “Vermont doesn’t own Lake Champlain, and WE produce maple syrup, too,” “Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point are on OUR side,” and the most convincing: “Everyone knows that Champ, the Lake Champlain monster, lives on the New York side of the lake.”

The conflict over our common asset, Lake Champlain, seems strangely appropriate as one of the most historically significant waterways in America, home to discoveries and events that shaped the Country. And fittingly, the conversation culminated in the proposed creation of a new event in which the Adirondacks wage a battle against Vermont to gain control of Lake Champlain – in tandem with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

The mission of the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council is to promote the region collectively on behalf of the Counties, and our organization has long subscribed to a regional approach with respect to destination marketing. But this conversation banded us together in a different context, and there is a greater understanding that not just for Essex County’s Lake Placid, or Warren County’s Lake George, but for all of our region’s communities, our competitive advantage is to tie our destinations to the Adirondacks. After all, visitors don’t know when they’ve crossed a county line.

The meeting for me was enlightening and encouraging. In those moments when we were able to shout out our individual differentiators, I learned even more about the visitor experiences that the rest of the region offers.

And now I look forward to seeing what our Team Adirondack uniforms look like. We’ll need them for our war with Vermont.

Illustration: Lake Champlain-River Richelieu watershed. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Kimberly Rielly is the director of communications for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism based in Lake Placid.

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Kim Rielly is the director of communications for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism.

2 Responses

  1. Mick says:

    I have mixed feelings about tourism: We like to have tourists’ dollars spent in our community, but the tourists bring their burdens to bear upon us. They strain our infrastructures, and their presence is temporary. They encumber and crowd our own recreational resources.

    We know that most of the tourism is highly concentrated to Lake George and Lake Placid. We’d like to think we could successfully promote our region, but the fact of the matter is that tourists prefer comfort, entertainment, and readily available amenities. The Forest Preserve does not generate tourism revenue. We’ve see studies that prove that. Locals use the remote trails; not tourists.

    In my opinion, a tourism-dependent economy is fragile and vulnerable; if there’s an economic downturn, a rise is gas prices, bad weather, or a ridiculous DEC policy (think no garbage collection at Lake George campsites last year, or closed trails and sites), then the tourist dollar flow stops.

    I don’t think we should want to be so dependent upon high density tourism. We should continue promoting tourist opportunities, but we should not form our economic polices and budgets around “best case” tourism scenarios. If we know that tourism has steadily provided a certain percentage of revenues to a given locale, we should work to protect that revenue stream. But to try to increase that revenue stream is a dangerous game.

    There is another type of tourist though; people travel from all over the country to visit their second homes or recreational clubs, like the Adirondack League Club, or the Northwoods Club. These folks bring millions of dollars to our communities, and they have a vested interest to do so. They don’t cause crowds or traffic jams, and they just “disappear” quietly into the woods to enjoy their clubs, the solitude, and their version of nature. These are the folks whose resource needs to be protected, like to 200 clubs on the Champion land and the 30 clubs on the Finch land, and the dozen clubs on the Follensby land. These are the folks who bring the big money to the small towns. This is the revenue stream that needs to be protected.

  2. Ann Melious says:

    A tourism economy is fragile? As an economic developer who worked in Adirondack tourism for 20 years, I’d have to disagree. You can’t out-source our mountains and lakes to India. Corporate jobs are fickle. When incentives fade away, so do they. And small businesses, the backbone of the Adirondack economy, need the margin provided by tourists. Local buying power alone could not sustain most small businesses.

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