Congratulations Kansas Sampler Foundation on the launch of GetRuralKansas.org! This website is a collaboration of 40 (and growing) small Kansas towns who together have a lot to offer visitors.
I can’t think of anywhere else in the world that has successfully linked that many rural communities around a single brand.
How has Kansas Sampler Foundation done this?
This is the work and the brainchild of Foundation Executive Director, Marci Penner, a small town Kansan with big ideas.
In the mid 1990’s Marci returned to her Kansas roots, traveling with her father, a Kansas farmer, to learn more about her state. She discovered delights in every rural community, but also learned how little Kansans really knew about their own towns.
She and her dad started the Kansas Sampler Foundation. Their mission was to preserve, sustain, and grow rural culture by educating Kansans about Kansas and by networking and supporting rural communities. A daunting task.
Here’s how Marci and the Kansas Sampler Foundation has achieved their success:
1. They approached the issue with a rural lens.
They were rural residents themselves, living in Inman, Kansas, population 1100, so they understood rural culture from the inside.
2. They looked at ways to help rural residents do it better themselves.
Without an easy, effective system for seeking out and cataloging one’s culture and history, the task is nearly impossible.
So the Kansas Sampler Foundation created that system. They identified 8 Rural Culture Elements, categories that everything about a rural community will fit into.
Last year, Kansas Tourism lent a hand, giving the Kansas Sampler Foundation a grant to help train rural volunteers to assess their town’s Rural Culture Elements, to use digital cameras to record what they discovered and to use the Internet to market themselves.
Eighty communities participated in the project, and to date, 40 of those communities have uploaded their finds onto GetRuralKansas.org. Taking the training is a prerequisite for inclusion on the website. The remaining 40 towns are working hard to put the finishing touches on their own offerings. It’s all done by volunteers.
More rural communities have lined up to be trained so they can become involved in this statewide marketing effort.
3. Provide these small towns with a market.
It’s not enough to help a community prepare themselves for visitors. It’s vital and necessary to help them reach their market. Marci and the Kansas Sampler Foundation identified a ready market for rural communities they call Explorers. National Geographic has since gotten into the act, calling Marci’s Explorers, Geotourists. Yes, it’s the same group!
- Non-demanding visitors who are prepared to be delighted by what they find.
- People who are looking for an authentic experience of local life.
- People who want to give back to the destinations they love and visit rather than depleting them.
Charging ahead of National Geographic, Marci created an organization called Kansas Explorers that has had thousands of registered members over the years of its existence- current goal, 5000 all at one time. Most of these members are Kansans who love to travel locally.
They use the information on the Kansas Sampler Foundation website to create quests – things like visiting all the vintage soda fountains in Kansas, or sampling every chicken fried steak restaurant, or getting their pictures taken with every Statue of Liberty replica in the state. They travel. They spend money in local communities. They are committed to preserving rural Kansas culture.
And they’re not only Kansans. Several years ago when the call went out among the Explorers (they have their own web pages), to go spend $5 at the Lizard Lips Convenience Store in Toronto, KS to help them meet payroll, money poured in from as far away as Japan, and the project made the front page of the LA Times!
Marci and the Kansas Sampler Foundation also sponsor an annual festival, where rural communities can showcase who they are and what they offer. This year over 250 communities gathered for the Kansas Sampler Festival, to share their stories with over 8000 visitors.
And now, the website, GetRuralKansas.org. What will Marci think of next???
Hang onto your hats! She’s taking on the rural brain drain with a project to bring young families back to small town Kansas.