Today’s post is by guest blogger Natalie Warren, with Wild River Academy and St. Croix River Association. Earlier this week she led the April Blue Trails Guide Webinar on Marketing Your River Community. This is the second part of a two part series on marketing your local river.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to lead the April Blue Trails Guide Webinar (watch it here). The goal of this presentation was to help better describe how you can improve eco-tourism in your community. Most of us already know that rivers and river based tourism can help to revitalize and diversify local economies. However, we all don’t know how to get there. Here are a few things I have observed to be effective when marketing recreation in trail towns:
What is your story? If your city or town is near a body of water chances are that lake or river played a pivotal role in your community’s history. What about your story is unique from other places? From my experience, cities and towns that effectively milk their story and identity have a lot of character and tourism appeal. For example, when I paddled the Mississippi River our group stopped in Montrose, Iowa: a small, unsuspecting river town. Although they hadn’t yet developed a booming recreation economy they had the basics in place to do so, starting with their story. Montrose used to be the button making mecca along the Mississippi River when buttons were made from cutting holes into mussels (before they were overharvested). Everyone in Montrose had immense pride in their river history and they were very excited to show us their Button Factory museum. That part of their history could have been ignored when the button industry left their town but the community held on to it as something that sets them apart from every other small town along the river. When digging through your community’s story, try to find the small things to brag about. Heck, I once stopped in a town just to visit the largest ball of twine.
Tell your story! Marketing your community these days means online content, social media, and interactive media. That doesn’t mean you should throw away all of your brochures because some people still prefer tangible information. But if you are playing the paper game you need to hop on the web to experience the art and social science behind online media. The most basic way to reach people is through a thoughtful, well-laid out website that is easy to access and find information. This can get tricky with multiple players involved. Which website hosts what information? Ultimately, you want someone who does not live in your community to be able to discover recreation opportunities and amenities without having to visit three or four different websites. Are you sending people to the outfitter website for paddling? Is there information there that links to the tourism website for activities? It is important to learn about lodging and dining in the same place you find paddling opportunities. These are things that need to be worked out through collaborative efforts between stakeholders: the city, lodging, dining, outfitters, parks, government agencies, etc. Without collaborative marketing efforts you may be losing tourists who aren’t going to visit your town if it isn’t easy for them to plan their itinerary. The Huron River Trail website does a great job incorporating paddling opportunities and general tourism information.
Social media is a crucial tool to increase paddlesports tourism in your community. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, hashtag this, hashtag that, Pinterest, etc. Really, go crazy. However, social media is not a simple check list item in marketing. Just because you have a Facebook does not mean that you are utilizing it to its full potential. Make sure to ‘like’ similar groups and share your information through creative avenues: the paddling club can post about their favorite spot to stop in for a beer and the Bed and Breakfast can feature their favorite paddling route. It is all about cross-pollination, with your water trail at the core.
Incorporate businesses in the trail: I have come across several hard working non-profits, government agencies, and outfitters desperately trying to marketing their water trail without the full force of their community. Without involving others in the trail it is harder to convince local businesses and residents to truly invest in the trail. Shared ownership can make all the difference when it comes to community pride, funding, and stewardship. The statistics are out for the economic value of water trails. As advocates for the river and your community, use existing research to involve businesses that might not yet see how their livelihood has any connection to the water trail. Show the gas station owner how much money on average people visiting a comparable water trail spend on gas when they come to town to recreate and invite them to join a focus group to discuss the future of the water trail. Maybe they will want to provide life jackets, water jugs, and paddling brochures at the gas station once they see the connection between the water trail, flow of people through town, and money spent at the gas station. Use the information out there to get people involved and then keep them involved in community decision making about your trail economy. Marketing for each other and providing shared resources can foster community pride around the water trail and increase tourism for every stakeholder.
Collaborate with nearby towns: Historically, cities and towns have been competitive with each other to bring more tourists in and have bragging rights over who is cooler. Small town High School sports really don’t help with comradery either. But it is time to move beyond that competitive spirit. It is helpful to take a step back and see the big picture: when people are visiting your town or city, they are likely visiting places around there, too. Think county-wide, state-wide, or even region-wide. What does your community have to offer someone who is visiting the state of Pennsylvania? When communities start to see the bigger picture of their water trail to increase paddlesports tourism the legal boundaries disappear. Tourism groups in neighboring areas should work together to outline shared amenities and tourism opportunities in that region as a whole. Concerning the water trail, if one community has a brewery then maybe the other community should prioritize a Bed and Breakfast or an independent coffee shop. As a paddler visiting the area I want to paddle from one town to the next and experience different amenities, not the same checklist items at every stop.
Build itineraries: Once you’ve outlined amenities and activities in collaboration with local businesses and neighboring towns it is time to compile your institutional knowledge and package it for an outsider. If someone is spending an afternoon in town where should they paddle, eat, and play? If someone is spending three days in the area where should they paddle, eat, sleep, play, explore, learn, etc? Don’t just package an experience once someone gets to the water but think like a travel agent when packaging paddling opportunities — include what happens before and after the on-water experiences.
Share your story! Don’t wait around for some magazine or blog to discover your community and be inspired to write an article about how awesome the recreation opportunities are in your town. Find someone in your community who can write well and have them go to town! Several magazines and blogs struggle to find content to meet their deadlines. If you send them a well-written and edited piece within their scope with great pictures it will be hard to turn down. Instead of spending money on ads in magazines, find an angle that works to share your story and meet the needs of the editor. That way you will get more time in the advertisement sun! It helps to think out of the box, too. Write for a Bed & Breakfast magazine and spam them with information about how amazing the water trail is. Foodie magazine? Mention how paddler friendly the establishment is and how delicious the food tastes especially after a day of paddling. Research existing media about the top river towns, best paddling towns, and next best paddling towns to get your community on the map. Sometimes the places on those lists are no better than your river town. They just have better marketing!
It is important to remember that every trail town is different and something that works well for a river town in the Midwest is not going to work as well for a river town in the Northwest. Water trails vary based on location and there is no cookie cutter way to become a successful river town. However, community collaboration, shared resources and marketing, and online, interactive media can be applied to any trail to effectively increase paddlesports tourism. Together, collaborative stakeholders can bring light to a growing economic resource — our nation’s water trails.
Did you miss the April webinar? Watch it here today!
Photo Credit: Natalie Warren, Wild River Academy