I have had the recent opportunity to be involved in several discussions relating to economic development and tourism. The focus of these conversations usually revolves around attracting new businesses and/or visitors or tourists. I would like to reframe these topics a bit by starting with a quote that goes as follows: "A city built for locals will always attract new visitors, but a city built for visitors may never attract new locals."
Oftentimes, we fail to see the forest through the trees on issues so obvious they are overlooked throughout our planning and execution.
When community leaders make plans to implement long-term strategies, they must focus their attention on those calling their community home. Your residents, more often than not, will always be your harshest critics. As a city leader, learn to harness the power of your constructive critics. Listen to those who aren't always your favorite allies. While it may not always guide your direction, your local residents are the ultimate target to win over. When you can take steps to win them over, your tourism efforts will be well on their way.
Looking to grow local tourism before pleasing your own community has always been a lost cause akin to placing the cart before the horse. When you can create an environment that excites your local community and brings vibrancy to the core of your community, a chain reaction of success will then be well on its way.
Unfortunately, communities far too often do place the cart before the horse in their tourism efforts. Communities spend massive amounts of tax dollars on their tourism efforts while their downtown shuts down at 5 or 6 p.m. They put great effort into tourism boards and committees, while the heart, soul and vibrancy of the communities are in hospice care. They market promoting their communities to outsiders, while locals leave town on the weekend seeking quality restaurants, entertainment and unique experiences not available locally. They brand their communities as something they really are not yet prepared to be.
Except in rare cases, tourism is a result of being unique. The often used and famous quote, "If you build it, they will come," from the classic movie "Field of Dreams," is an accurate description of what must happen in a community. Tourism is a byproduct that comes when a community creates a vibrant heart and soul. Tourism is a byproduct of a community that takes pride in its appearance. Tourism is a byproduct of a community that has confidence and believes in itself. After all, if you can't believe in your own community, how can you expect outsiders to believe? For most communities, tourism is a byproduct of success in other critical efforts that make up a vibrant and unique community. Build the core, create the heart and soul, create vibrancy, and the tourists will come!
Don't misunderstand, finding ways to target future or potential tourists is a noble, critical, and essential task for local communities. As I have often said, creating a balanced strategy is the key. When tourism follows the right path and is created strategically, it funnels massive amounts of new dollars into your community, stimulating new jobs, new business opportunities, and enhanced community spirit. When you concentrate on building your core, creating that uniqueness that sets you apart, along with exhibiting a renewed heart and soul, residents will begin spending more of their dollars locally, which creates further growth. More importantly, however, locals will market for you, and your community marketing and branding efforts are more effective, bearing the fruits your taxpayer dollars demand.
Spending large sums of dollars on tourism before you are ready is a trap into which many ill-prepared communities fall. Outside of building new events, which should be ongoing regardless of where you are on the path of transformation, don't fall into this trap in which many communities find themselves. As we have stressed previously, don't put the cart before the horse, concentrate on your core and tourism will not only follow but will grow beyond your wildest dreams.
Editor's note: John Newby, of Pineville, Mo., is a nationally recognized publisher, community, business and media consultant, and speaker. He authors "Building Main Street, not Wall Street," a column appearing in 50-plus communities. He is the founder of Truly-Local, dedicated to assisting communities create excitement, energy, and combining synergies with local media to become more vibrant and competitive. His email is [email protected] Opinions expressed are those of the author.