Luring Last Minute Travelers to Rural America

rural tourism travel agritourismIt seems that all of us in rural America are going to have to work a little harder this year to attract tourists and other regional visitors to our businesses.

Apparently, state tourism and commerce agencies are finding it quite a challenge to get travelers to go out for an occasional night on the town, let alone leave their homes to take a vacation. Advance sales of tickets for festivals and concerts are very low, as are long term bookings for accommodations, group tours, airfares and other forms of travel.

Susan Thomas, vice president of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce’s Visitor & Convention Bureau, said bookings are coming more at the last minute during the recession, particularly for leisure travelers but also for groups.

“We know booking windows have continued to shorten,” Thomas said. “We seem to be experiencing people holding off and taking a wait-and-see attitude.”

So travelers are still traveling and spending money, but deciding to do it at the last minute. It doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a season that’s ‘business as usual.’

Let’s take a look at what we’ll call ‘last minute tourism’.

How Travel and Tourism May Be Different This Year

It’s anyone’s guess as to how extensively prospective travelers will still be researching the areas they’d like to visit. Their desire to travel could be strong, and they could be collecting reams of information on their favorite locations – just not making their final decision until close to the vacation time.

Tourists who are very loyal to particular destinations probably won’t choose this year to try other places. Unless of course, the favorite location is always very expensive, and choosing someplace else would save greatly on travel costs.

Sticking with the region they know, and the businesses they’ve been satisfied with in the past, will probably be their best economic bets. Tourists who believe in ‘buying local’ at their hometown often also support small business in tourist towns. If they visit a region frequently or annually, they probably have loyalties to rural businesses and shop owners there, practically feeling like they’re old friends.

Travelers who hesitate to make reservations because of financial concerns may delay too long, and miss out on staying at their favorite places. Sad for them, but potentially good for rural businesses. They might not be able to schedule their usual activities, whether that’s getting a ‘Tee-time’ at the golf course, booking a trail ride at the local horseback riding stable, or a table at their favorite restaurant.

They will be looking for back up plans, and will need to be more open to activities different from what they might have chosen if they followed their ‘usual’ routine.

Waiting later to book vacations can have other consequences for travelers too, like not being able to find childcare or a place to board pets. Odds are they’ll be choosing shorter vacations, and ones closer to home. Family friendly vacations will be more ‘in’ than ever, and free or low-cost attractions will win the day.

This should be a banner year for agritourism and nature attractions, but a challenging one for rural retailers. Shopping as a tourist activity isn’t too popular when they’re trying to avoid spending money!

Marketing To Last Minute Travelers

Most rural businesses that benefit from tourism know they have to market to those travelers who plan ahead AND also market to those who discover opportunities after they’ve arrived in their town.

Over the last ten years, more and more travelers have engaged in planning their trips ahead of time. And rural businesses have adapted by getting their information out to information resources online to reach those eager planners.

But this is probably a year to get back to basics, and focus on your ability to attract visitors who look for things to see and do AFTER they’re already arrived in your area.

How to attract last minute travelers to your rural business

Marketing To Travelers After They Arrive:

• If you don’t already have membership in your local Chamber of Commerce, JOIN. Consider rack card distribution services if you’ve not tried them before. Last minute travelers will have to act more like visitors of long ago and rely more on traditional sources of information about your area, like Visitors’ Centers and brochure racks. You and your business must be visible in those locations if you’re going to compete for tourists’ dollars.

• Collaborative marketing efforts or ‘cluster marketing’ among rural businesses that share a theme will be very helpful.

• Don’t assume that all businesses in your town know who you are, where you’re located, and what you offer. Go around and introduce yourself, bring posters and brochures.

• Your exterior signage always needs to provide more than just directions to your location. But this year, more visitors may learn of your business for the very first time as they see your signage driving by. So it might be more important than ever to post open signs, demonstration times, brand names you carry in your store windows, etc.

• Consider using social media, like Twitter, that tourists might access while traveling.

Marketing to Travelers Before They Begin Their Trip

• Be sure your website is current with special offers and coupons that visitors can print out, and bring with them when they visit you.

• Email or send e-newsletters to customers who’ve visited you in recent years. Send them coupons, make offers, extend special invitations. Let them know you appreciate their continued support of your business, and you hope they’ll visit this year too. If you don’t have email addresses, snail mail them. You do keep a Visitor’s Book, don’t you?

• Don’t forget those previous customers who might need to forego their trip to your area this year because of finances. If you don’t have products or services that you currently sell on your website, give some thought to creating products customers could purchase from you without traveling to see you.

The Bottom Line on Last Minute Tourism?

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics professor at Duke University, says there is still hope despite this ‘Psychology crisis’ of consumer behavior.

“People are still interested in living,” he says.

And if that’s the case, they’ll still be interested in vacations too. Generally, vacations in rural locations are less expensive than other geographic areas. Rural America could have a very good year!

What else can you do to lure last minute travelers to your rural business?

Is Self Employment Changing in Rural America?

self employment rural AmericaAn estimated 25 million people in the United States call themselves ‘self employed.’

They might hold multiple jobs, run online businesses or other small shops, or function as independent contractors or ‘freelancers.’

The Promise and Peril of the Freelance Economy provides a comprehensive overview of how self-employment has changed in America, and reflects changes in our economy and society.

“Traditionally, self-employment has been countercyclical,” points out Frank Braconi, the chief economist in the New York City comptroller’s office. “When the economy went down—when wages and salaries went down—self-employment went up.” That was evidence that “people were being forced into self-employment as a response to losing their paid, salaried jobs.” But in New York City, at least, that has changed. “The increases in self-employment are not so countercyclical any more,” he says. They’re neutral—“which is indirect evidence that more of the self-employed today are self-employed through choice than was once the case.”

The article focuses mainly on three categories of self-employed:

Soloists – Not just creative arts professionals, but plumbers, electricians and physicians in solo practice
Microbusiness Owners: Traditional entrepreneurs who sell goods rather than their services
Permalancers: Independent Contractors who have loyal clients and long term contracts

A description of how entrepreneurs are coping with the high costs and difficulties in obtaining health insurance is especially interesting, especially the discussion of the increased interest in Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to reduce their premiums. HSA’s are tax-free savings accounts that are tied to high-deductible insurance plans that Congress and President Bush created in 2003.

What’s the mix of Soloists, Microbusiness Owners and Permalancers in your community?

When East Meets West – A New Chicken and Egg for Rural America

rural america millennialsMy husband Tim and I had a brief discussion today with a local government employee, whose son will graduate from college next month.

We inquired about what his son had majored in, where he wanted to live, what kind of job he hoped to go after.

Of course that led us to share some thoughts about ‘the work ethic’ and how employees in different age groups seem to value different things.

Which led me to share something I’d read recently on some great community development and rural development blogs, like ReimagineRural.com

Specifically, I mentioned that people in their mid-20s to mid-30s (often referred to as ‘Millennials’) seem to choose where they want to live first and THEN look for a job in that location.

And that trend has consequences for rural communities, because they need to viewed as attractive and desirable places for 25-35 year olds to live and work BEFORE they choose to move there.

And our local government employee had an interesting response.

He said, “Well, that’s West Coast job hunting. You decide where you want to live first, then find a job.

East Coast job hunting is when you send out hundreds of resumes and go where the job is rather than where you really may want to be.”

Since I was raised in Connecticut and chose to live in Appalachia, I realize I’m not the best one to ask.

What do you think?

What comes first? The Chicken or the Egg?

How do people decide a rural community is best for them?

What are the differences when ‘East’ meets ‘West’ and can rural America rise to the challenge?

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“You Can’t Miss It”- Giving Rural Tourists Better Directions

rural road signWe’ve all heard it, and probably all said it to others too.

Your own town can seem so easy to get around, when it’s what you are accustomed to.

When I moved to the mountains of rural western North Carolina 20 years ago and asked for directions practically every day, the phrase I learned to cringe upon hearing was, “You can’t miss it.”

As soon as they said it, I knew I would. I was doomed.

If something was “a little bit down the road,” that meant it could be 1-5 miles. And a ‘fur piece’ (which means a far piece to those of you non-mountaineers) might even be 5-8 miles.

So when someone would put these phrases together and tell me, “It’s a big red barn a fur piece down the road and you can’t miss it,” well, then -

I knew I was really in trouble!

Seeing your community the way a first time visitor sees it is the key to providing clear directions to tourists. If they feel comfortable and safe, they stay around and invest in your community by purchasing meals, attending events, visiting stores and attractions, and staying a night or two in local hotels. Take a minute and invest in THEM by reading some great suggestions on “Writing Better Directions for Tourists.”

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Rural Change at the Speed of White Lightning

rural change white lightningA few weeks ago I mentioned that a vote was taking place in my area as to whether ‘liquor by the drink’ would be allowed and become legal in the ‘downtown’ of my county. Here’s what I said earlier this month:

“The choice to sell alcoholic beverages or not is still a controversial one in many rural communities, including my own. Despite loss of almost all manufacturing industries and struggling with a high school dropout rate of more than 40%, some people in Mitchell County, North Carolina like things just the way they are. They’re worried that the tourists who might enjoy a glass of wine – at the hotels and restaurants that might be built if alcohol was legal – might ruin everything for us.

Ninety-eight of North Carolina’s 100 counties allow alcohol, including those that surround Mitchell County, meaning that residents who want to purchase alcohol can literally drive 100 feet into the next county, buy it, and then drive back home. Mitchell County is one of just two dry counties still holding the brown bag.

The issue comes up every year or two, and from the full page ad sponsored by just about every church in town that appeared in this week’s newspaper, it’s going to be another tough vote. The battle between those who vote ‘yes’ and those who vote ‘no,’ is as much about trying to keep tourists away as it is about alcoholism, domestic abuse, and the Bible.”

Well – guess what? After a total of 824 votes were cast, all four choices for alcohol passed by 55% to 45% proportion – malt beverage, unfortified wine, mixed beverage and creation of an ABC Store. After living here twenty years, I have to say I was shocked that it was approved. (Because I live out in the county and not within the city limits, I was not able to vote.)

And just like that, change has come to Spruce Pine, North Carolina.

So now, the town will need to appoint an ABC Board that will oversee how monies from alcohol sales will be distributed in the county. And of course, decide where the ABC store will be located.

It’s amazing how the changes begin so quickly.

Within days of the vote, the local Chamber established a blog and started tweeting on Twitter about tourism. Six days later, the County Commissioners announced the hiring of a new Economic Development Director for the County. Land parcels where the ABC store could be located are being bought and sold as people place their bets, and restaurant owners are applying for permits to serve alcohol.

Shocked by the vote results, an adjacent county is apparently terrified by an expected loss of sales tax and county monies. Longtime, long distance customers will probably change their buying habits, and stay in their own home county to buy liquor, instead of traveling across the county border. The adjacent county newspaper described last week how their ABC Board is suddenly planning a second ABC store location close to the highway turnoff to our county, in an effort to siphon off tourist sales that might be made at a yet-to-be-built ABC Store.

“Federal Revenuers” may not be around in great number anymore, but moonshiners with their back roads stills will likely still make white lightning, although odds are, they aren’t all that happy about the vote. With legalization of liquor, there’s less opportunity for underground sales of white lightning – which has a 100 year tradition here in the mountains of western NC and eastern TN (the Southern Appalachians).

‘White Lightning’ is probably the only aspect of heritage and cultural tourism that we won’t be suddenly writing grants for this year, although perhaps DIY kits might find a market in our local craft venues, and moonshine memorabilia might be enshrined in a new museum.

It’s certainly amazing how quickly things can change, just in a couple weeks.

Same old, same old. I think NOT!

To be continued as we progress….

Musical Chairs on Main Street

rural small town retailRetail shops on Main Streets all across rural America are playing musical chairs, with some shops closing due to tough times while others see opportunities to start their own businesses. In ‘Small Shops Slump, Soar in Region’s Downtowns’ you can read about the trials and tribulations of shopkeepers in small town Delaware, Ohio:

“Although at odds on the surface, those developments could well be a sign of the tough times.

Turnover, not uncommon on small-town Main Streets across Ohio, always increases when the economy slows, said Jeff Siegler, director of revitalization for Heritage Ohio, a preservation group.

At the same time, loyalty to local retailers increases. That might, in turn, boost the confidence of new business owners and lead to growth of the sort Marysville is experiencing.

“In times of crisis, people really rally around their communities,” Siegler said.”

The article also discusses a recent study that concluded that locally owned retailers in more rural areas, where there is less competition and often more loyalty to existing shops, might be better-positioned to survive these tough times than metropolitan areas.

Downtown Delaware is also seeing a change in ‘who’ is leasing downtown space. Retailers and niche businesses are replacing service and professional businesses like law or medical offices that are moving, or closing.

The Experience Seekers

rural-business-tourism-fishingThe Great Lakes Cruising Coalition is working to get more cruise lines enjoying the Great Lakes, to pull into port and visit their small towns. One of their members posted estimates on the economic impact for each day a cruise ship visits.

With just two tourist vessels scheduling 12 stops in one city for 2009, the direct and indirect economic impact is estimated to be more than $523,000. That’s right – a half million dollars with one vessel in port for each of just twelve days:

“Working to bring the vessels here and keeping the operators satisfied takes a lot of effort and over 40 local businesses, many small operations, benefit economically. In fact, despite the vessels only being in port a total of 12 days, the financial impact spread across the tour operators, visitor attractions and vessel support services will create almost 2 full year equivilants of employment. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, every job counts.”

As owner of a rural business that values the tourists who visit us, I am always interested to see how tourism is promoted in other areas of the country. For me, this article also highlighted several other important factors that any tourism-oriented business can keep in mind:

(1) Create Partnerships

Working to create partnerships with tourism organizations and group tour operations makes good sense, because they can bring hundreds of people into an area at a time.

Focusing on your individual customer is always important. Events and ‘consumer shows’ where many chambers of commerce and regional tourism groups promote their geographical area usually focus on attracting two or three visitors at a time. But creating partnerships with tour groups that control where hundreds of people go, and the things they see when they visit, should be an important goal for tourism businesses.

Most large multi-million dollar regional attractions employ full time staff that specialize in the group tour market to promote their attraction. It’s not surprising that they receive the bulk of group tours. But large regional attractions aren’t the only places tourists get to see when they visit an area. And if the large attractions are always the centerpiece of tours, they can actually become a disencentive for visitors to return, simply because visitors aren’t excited about seeing again what they’ve already seen, not to mention they don’t want to pay the expensive admission tickets again!

Most new visitors to an area certainly want to see the large regional attractions on their first trip, but once they’re seen them, it’s the ‘secondary’ attractions – like rural areas and the agritourism and artisans they often showcase – that bring tourists back to visit a second time and more.

(2) Analyze Access Networks

Analyzing how tour groups can most easily reach you is important to you as an individual business owner, even if only to provide directions and maps! But understanding the ‘network’ of other tourism oriented businesses and groups in your region will help you identify those to align with, so you can target communication with those travelers most effectively and inexpensively. Easy access to regional attractions and the support activities around it, as well as a region’s access to ports, airports and major highways can be leveraged to develop new opportunities for a region and its rural communities.

(3) Market The Rural Experience

More than ever, tourists are choosing where to visit based on the experiences they believe they will have, and NOT the destination itself. In fact, the number of travelers who value ‘experience seeking’ in their vacations is estimated to be seventy-five percent (75%).

As we all know, what rural America certainly can offer travelers are memorable experiences, so it seems we have what the majority of tourists want! We need to help our visitors better understand the experiences available to them, so they can select the experiences they would enjoy most. And if we understand better what they’re looking for, we can create rural experiences that better provide what our visitors need and want.

Helping tourists find their way around the back roads of a rural community is one strategy. Helping rural business owners figure out what to do once the tourists visit them is another.

Learning how to describe and market the experiences that visitors can enjoy when they visit rural America is our ultimate challenge.

It’s easy for any of us to take for granted what we have to offer to those who visit our rural communities on vacation. Each Summer I am reminded just how jaded I’ve become, and how I underestimate the power of each and every mile of a trip.

But then every time a child excitedly tells me about seeing their first cow, or when another child won’t get out of the car for fear of the golden retriever with the wagging tail on our front porch, I am reminded of how important the most simple rural experiences can be.

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Multiple Streams of Income in Small Towns

rural business small townThis past weekend, my husband and I were out for a drive on our local country back roads and passed through several nearby small towns. We were struck by the signage on many stores, where we saw not one business, but listings of multiple services and businesses within the same four walls. Our feeling was that we were seeing more of them than ever.

Some clusters of signs ‘made sense’ in that that you could immediately understand the logic of the businesses or services grouped together, likely being managed by the same person or family.

Like towing services and auto repair at a gas station. Or a restaurant that also offers catering services and great salsa in four flavors ready to go in canning jars. You could easily figure out the proprietor’s expertise and their interests.

Multiple streams of water feeding into a river usually make for a strong, steady flow of water. The analogy of multiple streams of income all contributing to a stronger, steadier flow of income makes sense, especially these days. Combining products and services that complement each other under one strong roof is usually considered good business advice, and a sound strategy that strengthens one’s ‘personal brand.’

But the branding logic in rural America starts to fall apart when you see business marriages being made among more diverse products and services:

• a land surveyor who also sells photocopying and print services

• a Bed & Breakfast that offers art classes and sells clothing from their retail shop

• a photography studio, art and framing gallery, tea room, and UPS/FedEx shipping center

• a JC Penney Catalog distributor, selling real estate, pottery gallery, watch repair, address and custom street signs

• a screenprinter, uniform supplier, coffee bar, plastic outdoor furniture, shipping supplies, dry cleaner drop-off, and UPS/FedEx shipping center.

What is the logic in a rural small town that seems to hold these constellations of businesses together? A perceived gap in the community where a produce or service doesn’t exist? A willingness by the small business owner to respond to that need? A need to pay the rent? A need to supplement what ‘retirement’ income there is, or is left?

In some cases, a gap may truly exist, and the product or service not be offered within a community. But perhaps the reason the product or service is not offered is that there is little or no market for them. Just because a particular product or service doesn’t exist in a town, doesn’t necessarily mean no one has thought of it before, or already tried it. Perhaps someone else has already tried and failed, or everybody else who considered the idea rejected it as not practical or profitable.

So – how do rural small town business owners make their decisions to cluster unrelated products and services? How do they market them, when the very idea seems to break so many of the rules of good business planning? How do customers view them, support them, or even remember who’s offering what?

It’s all in the context. In rural America, the ‘logic’ that holds these multiple streams of income together is that they are offered by the same individual. The products and services don’t have to fit together, they just have to fit the individual.

Because in a rural town where most everybody knows each other, or is just two degrees of separation away instead of six, what makes sense is just different.

The news that “Annie” is going to start offering tea and locally made pastries from her photography studio on Thursdays and Fridays (and most Saturdays if she doesn’t have a wedding to shoot), is good news in a small town that doesn’t currently have someplace unique to take their visiting relatives from out-of-town.

And it’s understandable that Thursday and Friday were the days selected for the tea room to be open, because those are days when more tourists are in town. Annie still has that extra space from when the artist that used to rent it had to leave, her mother loves baking and can even cover the tea room and sell her muffins and pastries. A lot of people agree the tea room might be a good source of additional income for Annie, and plan to check it out if her hours are right.

Multiple sources of income, multiple businesses and revenue, are commonplace in rural America because they make sense in many ways. These multiple sources of income come in handy during times of economic uncertainty, when one stream of income might be more vulnerable to fluctuation than others. Remember the old adage ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ came from rural America. If you drop the one basket or your wagon goes over a bump, there go the eggs. If they’re in separate baskets, you might salvage some and have something to sell at market – or something to eat yourself.

In Annie’s case, potential customers will still be getting married, but may ask a cousin to take wedding photos instead of hiring a photographer. Or if they do hire Annie as a photographer, perhaps the wedding photo package they buy won’t be as large. Since it’s usually a little harder to sell artwork and framed photography in an economic downturn, enticing customers inside with a hot cup of tea on a cold winter day might work. Especially if she’s printed some of her best photos as note cards and priced them reasonably as souvenirs.

If we run into the multiple sources of income phenomenon online, we find it confusing. We probably have no idea who the owner of the website or blog is, and form our opinions about their expertise and yes, their character, based on what we see and what we read. Do they know what they’re doing? Can’t they make up their mind what they want to do? Why are they diluting their brand? And are they really making money from all those ads they have running down the side of the page?

On the web we don’t have the same context in which to interpret the multiple directions these diverse services could take us in. But in a small rural town, multiple sources of income are usually person-centered or based on perceived town needs. Only time will tell whether those needs are really real, or just perceived. We all know appearances can be deceiving. But social networks are also strong. A loyal customer base will work hard to make sure you stay in business, if only so you’ll be there when they need you.

In the meantime, the current ‘owner’ of the UPS/FedEx shipping center in our town wants to give it up. It’s made the rounds of at least five businesses in the last few years, because it’s not very profitable and requires all day staffing Monday through Friday. But our small town needs somebody, somewhere to continue to offer this important service.

I wonder who’s going to take it on next?

On The Road Again: Business Meetings in Rural Locations

rural business meetingsFor those of us who live in rural locations, meeting up ‘half way’ with friends, customers, clients and suppliers between our various small towns is commonplace.

But figuring out where that half way point might be, and what places there are to easily meet up or have a lunch meeting, is usually a challenge unless you frequent particular roads and visit the same ole places often.

If this sounds like a challenge you face, take a look at a website called MeetWays. Meetways will not only calculate your halfway point, but will suggest any type of meeting place you might have in mind, whether it’s a coffee shop or a pizza place.

Similar in style to MapQuest, you must know both addresses or their zip codes and enter them into the site. But after that, the MeetWays site will map it for you. The whole process will take you a couple minutes.

And if you need to make arrangements while you’re on the road – there is a iPhone app available for the site.

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Is Your Website Mobile-Friendly for Tourists?

icy-snowy-tunnelFor me, Winter is ‘down time’ for our business in the Blue Ridge mountains. Although our webstore is open year round, our brick-and-mortar retail shop is closed until May.

Winter is a time to get caught up on reading, and to work on websites, catalogs and new projects. And I’ve already found one that needs my attention. It’s a new idea that deserves your consideration too.

A new challenge for rural small businesses in 2010, and tourist businesses in particular, is to make their websites and blogs more readable online, or ‘mobile friendly’.

New services like Yelp and Twitter geolocation have come on the scene, joining iPhone and Blackberry, and making mobile search more popular than ever.

In Make Your Site Mobile-Friendly For The New Year, Lisa Barone tells us that the number of people accessing the Web through mobile phones is up 34% from last year alone (56.9 million people), and they aren’t very happy when they have difficulty reading the sites they try to visit, or slow speed as a site loads. Apparently they expect our sites to load as quickly (or more quickly) on their mobile devices.

What should a mobile site contain?

“It should contain only the information that would be most vital to someone looking up your site on the go.

Mobile searchers are typically people on a mission. They’re looking for an address or a phone number because they’re lost. They want a menu. They want hours or need a map to see which points of interest you’re near. Your mobile site should be set up to immediately address these questions so that you can take advantage of these targeted searchers.”

Do you know how your site looks to tourists traveling your area, actively looking for places to visit?

You can get direct links to both paid and free services that will give you a glimpse of how your business is seen by the traveling public using mobile devices by visiting this website.

And lest we think that this is just another passing fad, you might want to take a quick look at some startling statistics in Top 10 Reasons Your Website Should Go Mobile. Apparently 20% of Americans access the mobile web every day, and the mobile web is expected to be more popular than the desktop web within five years.

Google even has a separate index for mobile search content.

As more of our customers engage in ROBO behavior – Research Online and Buying Offline – even our local customers may be using mobile search to double-check our hours before driving our way. Certainly we know the traveling public will be.

I just set up a mobile-friendly site for this Backroads Business blog at mofuse, and installed via the admin dashboard a free Word Press plugin that detects when a visitor is using a mobile device, and redirects them to the mobile version of the blog.

It took me all of five minutes. Creating a mobile version of my website will take a little longer, and apparently a little money ($7.95 a month).

If we want tourists to find us and visit us easily, becoming more ‘mobile friendly’ is obviously a road we must travel down ourselves.

What steps can you take to explore this idea for your own business?

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