Creating Small Town Tourism Success Part 1, Branding

by Joanne Steele on August 7, 2009

Every year more small rural towns look to tourism as a way to diversify their economies and save their way of life.

I have heard many small town business owners say, “We have so much to offer, people who come love it here. We just need to get the word out about all the things we have to offer.”

A process ensues where townspeople gather to start listing all the town’s assets. The town ends up with a long list of all the wonderful recreation, adventure, cultural, historical, eco-tourism etc. activities they offer.

People come away from these brainstorming sessions shocked that the town isn’t packed with visitors, since they have so much to do and see.

Brochures are created listing all the activities and adventures in and around the town, and still motels are half empty. Townspeople are bewildered.

To know how to be a successful rural tourism destination, these communities need to take a next step and look at what successful towns are doing well.

In this series, we’ll look at successful small town branding, marketing, advertising, and networking. Over the next few months we’ll return to this series, “Creating Small Town Tourism Success” with the result being a blueprint that emerging rural tourism destinations can use to build their success.

It this post, we’ll take a look at what Ashland, Oregon can teach us about branding. Ashland is a town of about 25,000 residents, which sits right on the Oregon/California border. Ashland has built an international reputation for one thing. See if the following images give you a clue what that thing might be:



Ashland downtown

If you guessed theater, and more specifically, Shakespeare you’re right. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival had its beginnings in Ashland in 1935 and has grown to be one of the premiere festivals in the country. It is responsible for over $58,000,000 in direct local impact each year.

So what is the message for your town, whether the population is 250 or 25,000?  Focus on one thing your town does well.

Not everyone who goes to Ashland attends the theater, but a vast majority of visitors do. And while they are there, they shop and dine, and visit museums, and river raft and hike and all the other things that appeared on Ashland’s original list of things that attract visitors to the region.

Some visionaries way back when, realized that what made Ashland unique was their theater. It was really small then, and was no doubt competing for attention with all the great outdoor activities, as the town was trying to define itself.

The point is that those people saw their little theater as unique. They realized the benefit of working with the theater as the defining element for their town. And their marketing from then on reflected that commitment. Ashland became a theater town, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

This is obviously the short version of a long process. But the lesson of this post is that the town is successful now because of their commitment to a primary vision – being the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

So the question is, what is your town’s primary vision?

  • Do you have world-class fishing nearby?
  • Do you have uncrowded country roads that are great for cyclists?
  • Do you have an architecturally interesting and important church, or downtown area?
  • Do you have an interesting museum, or the birthplace or home of a famous person?
  • Does your town have an unusual name?
  • Do you have an unusual annual event or festival?

Your town’s assets list is valuable, because it will help you RETAIN visitors once you’ve attracted them. Your Primary Vision is the thing you want to be known for, the thing that makes your town stand out from all the other small towns in your region.

Where I live, the towns are working hard to discover their Primary Visions. And guess what, the town that is clearest about its Primary Vision, Mt. Shasta, is also the most successful. Mt. Shasta, because of its position at the base of Mount Shasta, draws thousands of spiritual travelers every year. And thousands more say they come for rest and revitalization.

They also do all those additional activities we listed for Ashland, OR, helping dozens of adventure and outdoor recreation companies make a successful living along side the spiritual healers, bookstores and teachers.

On the other hand Dunsmuir, 9 miles south, sits on the banks of a world-class fishing destination, the Upper Sacramento River. They also have a railroad and Amtrak running through town, a growing arts community, a charming historic district and 3 of the best restaurants between Sacramento, CA and Portland OR. But the town is rarely bustling with visitors.

For the last year, this has been my town, by the way, and I love just about everything about it. The visitor issue is not about the town itself, just as it’s not about your town, if you are frustrated about the fact that visitors haven’t discovered you. It’s about the fact that you probably can’t tell someone in 10 words or less what your town IS and why they need to visit.

“My town is a spiritual center.”” My town has the tallest steeple in the west!” “My town has the biggest outhouse race in America.” “My town is an arts town.” “My town is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.” “My town is named Weed.” “My town is in the center of Washington wine country.” “My town is the home of the American Hop Museum.”

We’ll talk more in the future about how to arrive at a primary vision for your town. For some, it is a simple process of townspeople agreeing on the obvious. For others like Leavenworth, WA or Branson, MO it’s a demanding, expensive act of creation. For most it is the challenging process of building consensus behind a single idea.

So, does your town have a Primary Vision?

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