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Time for a New Tourism Direction?
August 25, 2011 - Ernest Hohmeyer
Franklin County is currently advertising for a new executive director of tourism. Before hiring a new director, should the county strategically assess the future of the office?
In the 30 years that Neil Seymour has piloted the county’s tourism effort, has our tourism environment changed? Going forward with tax caps and budget cuts on the horizon, a bed tax effort suggested by the chambers, a whole new world of social media branding and new marketing that has shook the foundation of every business, should we first reassess what this office should be?
I would like to first say that in the 25 years I have been involved in North Country sustainable development issues; it has been a pleasure to work with Mr. Seymour. No matter what economic or tourism development issue I was involved with, he was always accessible and knowledgeable. I would like to publicly thank Mr. Seymour for his efforts.
It’s Hard to Change
When leadership changes whether it is business, government or nonprofit organizations, it is a wonderful time to reassess the role of the organization. We should not be afraid to ask the question: should the Franklin County tourism office exist at all and if so what role should it play?
Sometimes, this can be a difficult thing to do for two reasons. First, you need to continue your current obligations.
Second, for succeeding generations of a family business or one that is taking over an organization that has operated for a long period of time in the same manner, it may be difficult to advocate a complete change.
The economic development organization I had led for over 22 had the same challenges and issues. They also had wonderful new opportunities.
When my father passed away, we had the same discussions in our own family business and it was very difficult at times to change our own mentality because “that's the way it was always done.”
But the tourism world has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. My father never had a brochure. The same people would come back every summer for the same two weeks.
When we took over the business 25 years later he could not understand why suddenly we needed marketing material and were tearing our hair out understanding “target markets.” I often felt we had failed in a way as we had to quadruple our marketing effort just to try to maintain the same amount of customers that he had done so effortlessly.
The Historical Divide
Franklin County has historically suffered from un-easiness between the northern and southern portions. Being literally split in half by the Adirondack Park boundaries has often been cited as a major reason for this thinking. However, it may be more of the reality of its geography and relationship to the St. Lawrence River Valley with its agrarian and industrial opportunities in the north and more mountainous and tourism reality in the south.
Is this also an opportunity for the county’s tourism office to meet with members of the chambers to discuss how we might create one effort to promote and fund the county’s tourism effort?
With tax caps and budget cuts on the horizon, will there even be a commitment by the county to continue to fund the office? Do we need to investigate potentially other revenue sources such as corporate sponsorships or providing fees for business marketing services?
Perhaps even these questions are too small in thinking.
Ask the Big Questions?
Should we consider privatization of the effort? Should the county entertain a proposal by Essex County to operate the tourism effort? Should the county tourism promotional effort be split? Should there be a partnership with Clinton and St. Lawrence County in the north for more of a St. Lawrence River Valley approach? In the southern end, should there be a separate contract with the chambers or Essex County as part of a mountain-lake approach?
But are these only structural and format questions?
What should the substance of the effort be going forward?
Perhaps this question needs to be answered first before we talk about how it will operate or who the county should hire.
Could the county consider a 4-pronged approach?
1. Contract whether it is an individual or a neighboring tourism organization, to operate the day-to-day operation.
2. Meet in a series of roundtables with other North Country and Adirondack Park tourism organizations that would include the state's I love New York program, other county tourism promotion agencies (TPA’s), the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council, ANCA and the chambers of commerce within the county.
3. Brainstorm with possible new partners. Would it be worthwhile to meet with other organizations interested in promoting the region such as the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Northern Forest Canoe group, the 1,000 Island region as well as our neighbors across the border among others?
4. Hold a series of community meetings throughout the county. Invite businesses, organizations, local government officials and interested residents and gather their ideas.
From an effort such as this, real substance may emerge that may reaffirm the county’s historical direction and give it bona fide legitimacy when it comes to asking the county for financial support. Or, it may develop a new direction that has the interest of new stakeholders.
It is a new era.
The economy continues to be fickle and as such consumers and tourists will also be wary. We will need to have a focused brand to compete for tourism dollars. Unlike my father's day, there seems to be less and less allegiance to the Adirondacks. You can give the tourist a five-star experience but the new consumers are much too mobile. Today, the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and snowmobiling in Canada are just as accessible to our rubber tire economy as the Adirondacks.
New Marketing Priorities?
Our tourism plan going forward needs to be careful not to do what the Harvard Business Review calls “Branding in the Digital Age: You're Spending Your Money in all the Wrong Places.” Here, they talk about the “consumer decision journey” and how “consumers today connect with brands in fundamentally new ways.” They go on to suggest “up to 90% of spend goes to advertising and retail promotions. Yet the single most powerful impetus to buy is often someone else's advocacy.”
If funding becomes an issue, should we continue spending money on brochures or Facebook “friends”?
David Meerman Scott in his book “The New Rules of Marketing & PR” talks about how marketers need to tell a good story and to “shift their thinking from mainstream marketing to the masses” and develop a targeted approach through “micro-sites.”
Macrowikonomics: Rebooting Business and the World talks about “citizen journalists.” It created the thought for a possible opportunity for the county to gather a stable of marketing resources right from our own citizens and businesses that they may not have to pay for.
Today, what would our definition of success be for the office?
One way or another there are new opportunities and challenges ahead. If nothing else, when it comes to budget time, it may be good to reaffirm the historical role of the office or to have consensus for a new direction.
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