Place-based cultural tourism: A new planning paradigm
Steven Thorne / October 23, 2012
For the past decade, my work has focused on destination planning for cultural tourism. Using principles and practices of cultural planning pioneered by my friend and colleague Greg Baeker of Millier Dickinson Blais, combined with an inclusive, holistic framework for identifying a community’s cultural tourism assets, I’ve attempted to move communities beyond inserting their cultural icons – their flagship museums and galleries, arts events and festivals, historic sites and heritage attractions – into their leisure travel campaigns and calling the result, “cultural tourism”.
We know the market for cultural tourism is enormous. It’s documented in the new Canadian publication, Cultural & Heritage Tourism: A Handbook for Community Champions, to which I was pleased to contribute and serve as an editorial advisor. Elsewhere, the 2009 Cultural & Heritage Traveler Study, documents that 14 percent of all U.S. domestic leisure travelers are “Passionate Cultural Travelers” who actively seek out cultural tourism experiences. Total trip spending by these “Passionates” is estimated at $43 billion per year. Small wonder that, a decade ago, the Travel Industry Association of America’s Bill Norman observed, “The sheer volume of travelers interested in arts and heritage as well as their spending habits, their travel patterns and demographics leaves no doubt that history and culture are now a significant part of the U.S. travel experience.”
The challenge for communities wanting to capitalize on cultural tourism is simple: the current planning paradigm is obsolete. Effective tourism marketing is marketing by segment. To this end, destination marketing organizations cannot rely on generic leisure travel campaigns to reach cultural travelers. Cultural travelers must be targeted using purpose-built marketing platforms and targeted cultural campaigns.
But before we take a cultural tourism product to market, we first need to engage in a much more sophisticated process of identifying a community’s cultural tourism asset base, uncovering its cultural identity, and crafting a visitor experience that will capitalize on any community’s most strategic asset: its sense of place.
Whistler, BC, recognizes this fact. In the wake of the 2010 Winter Olympics, North America’s pre-eminent ski destination realized it could not build the future of its tourism industry around skiing and snowboarding alone. Seeing the potential of cultural tourism to diversify its tourism offering, yet understanding it could not compete culturally with Vancouver on Vancouver’s terms, Whistler contracted my firm to develop Canada’s first place-based cultural tourism strategy, entitled A Tapestry of Place.
I call my approach, “place-based cultural tourism”, because it eschews the notion that cultural attractions are the heart of the visitor experience. Research tells us otherwise: Cultural travelers want to explore what makes a destination distinctive, authentic, and memorable. They want to experience the essence of the destination – its “cultural terroir”. They want to experience “place”. Through experiencing “place”, they are enriched – intellectually and emotionally. Of course, attractions are more than essential; they are critical. That said, attractions are expressions of a destination’s culture; they are not its embodiment.
It’s ironic. Richard Florida has opined that, “Place is becoming the central organizing unit of our economy and society”. And yet, while we see Florida’s understanding reflected in the emerging fields of place-based agriculture, place-based urban planning, place-based economic development and a host of others fields, tourism is oddly “behind the curve” on the application of place-based thinking to destination planning. It’s a head-scratcher – more so given that tourism’s product is place, or that, at the very least, tourism experiences are located in a particular place.
In North America, perhaps the best example of a place-based approach to cultural tourism is found in Stratford, Ontario – home to the internationally renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Under the inspired leadership of Eugene Zakreski, the Executive Director of the Stratford Tourism Alliance, Stratford’s marketing campaign – along with its many initiatives in product development – is anchored in place-based thinking. Rather than focusing on the Shakespeare Festival as Stratford’s primary draw, Zakreski has positioned the Festival as the “jewel in the crown” of a destination brimming with other human heritage, arts, culinary, agritourism, and natural history experiences. At the same time, Zakreski uses Stratford’s history and heritage, its narratives and stories, its landscape, its townscape and people to “frame” the cultural experiences that are encountered on the ground. Where yesteryear’s Stratford was the Festival – full stop – the allure of today’s Stratford is all about, “what makes Stratford Stratford”.
The result? Because Stratford’s sense of place is front-and-centre, business has never been better. To quote Zakreski, “The results of our efforts have been significant, with triple-digit growth in visitors to our various websites over the past few years, double-digit growth to Stratford in the fall, winter and spring seasons, and noticeably younger adult couples enjoying the Stratford Experience.”