By Steve Woodhouse
Roger Brooks has made a name for himself across the country, and the globe, for being able to provide solutions and suggestions to towns interested in improving themselves. He came to Marion County last week and was left with the impression that the county's current tourism revenue of approximately $50 million could be tripled to $150 million.
Brooks believes this can be accomplished through a series of changes to each community's approach to marketing. They include creating more of a “plaza” atmosphere in each downtown to encourage more openness and opportunities for pedestrian traffic and outdoor meeting. Making the outdoor areas of each downtown more visibly appealing, through plants, outdoor restaurant seating, etc., will encourage more people to come in. Drawing them downtown with entertainment – even if you pay an amateur street performer a fee to be coupled by tips – will also raise revenues, according to Brooks.
Achieving this, or making people aware of what Marion County has to offer begins with marketing. Brooks suggested a number of overused slogans and words be discontinued. Many of them are in use in Marion County area promotions.
“You're not doing anything wrong, you're just saying the same things,” Brooks said.
While Brooks was impressed with Pella, a community among 30 he will feature in an upcoming book about the best small towns in America, he felt that the town understated its Dutch heritage with the slogan “A Touch of Holland.”
He and his staff, before arriving in Pella, pictured a little bit of the town's heritage that could be seen. When he got to town, he was “blown away” at the amount of heritage the town showcases.
The Chambers of Commerce for Pella, Knoxville and Pleasantville each sponsored Brooks' visit. He saw potential in the other two communities, but the positives he pointed out indicated that Pella should be the leader for the rest of the county to follow.
“You need to ride Pella's coat tails,” Brooks said.
The example he provided is Orlando, Fla. Walt Disney World is a primary attraction that brings millions of visitors to the area each year. Meanwhile, dozens of other tourist opportunities exist and thrive because people already plan to visit the area.
Brooks believes that the county should ignore the “group hug” mentality, that all promotion and marketing should be all inclusive of everything in the county. Instead, marketing should be focused on the most significant attractions, with others being secondary.
Building a successful brand for the county should have a focus on something unique to the area. Slogans such as “something for everyone” do not work, according to Brooks. This is because it does not set the area apart from the majority of other tourist destinations.
“You must jettison the generics,” Brooks said. “You have to narrow your focus.”
Once the focus is found, the key is to continue to develop your tourism product. He said this development never ends and that the communities of Marion County cannot “rest on their laurels” when trying to continue to keep tourism dollars flowing in.
“The days of strategic plans are over,” Brooks said. “We need an action plan.”
Knoxville paid thousands of dollars to RDG Planning and Design in 2007 to develop a strategic plan. Portions of this are being implemented through the Downtown Streetscape project. Among the other recommendations for Knoxville, by RDG, was to improve way-finding signage. Brooks also pointed this out for not only Knoxville, but Pella and Pleasantville as well.
“You have zero way-finding,” Brooks said. He described the difficulty he had in finding Pella Christian High School, where his presentation took place. When he asked for directions, several locals did not know where the school was or how to get there.
Brooks stressed that once signs are purchased, they should be reflective of the community's theme and should include no more than five points of interest per sign.
Signage suggestions also included placement of “gateway” signs welcoming people to the community at attractive areas possible. Signs say a lot about a community and a business, Brooks believes. They should be placed and showcased with pride, with the ability to grab attention.
He showed a photo of a sign in Pleasantville, which stands in front of a shop. He suggested moving it and using the reader board under it to tell people about upcoming events.
“These are first impressions,” Brooks said.
As for Knoxville, he showed a picture of a sign along West Pleasant that stands in front of Graceland Cemetery. He thought some people may get the message, “Welcome. Come here to die.” Though they are still new, Brooks was critical of the slogan on other welcome signs that bear the words, “Passion, progress, productivity.” In his opinion, they are too general and every community could say they have those qualities.
Brooks further expounded on the need for signage to include downtown businesses. He suggested more “blade signs,” which hang in front and can be seen by someone walking down the street, informing them of what businesses have to offer.
This touched on Brooks' recurring theme of selling the experience before the destination. For instance, if one is selling a particular product, the product should be at the top of the sign, with the business name below. They should hang no lower than seven feet and no higher than nine feet. If people don't know what a business is or what it sells, they will not bother with that business, Brooks added.
“We've seen cities spend millions on streetscapes and still be dead as a doornail,” Brooks said. He suggested that the communities could start with one block, in which businesses are specifically promoted and go from there.
“Success breeds success,” Brooks said.
Having visitor information available at all times is also key to encouraging tourism. Each community should have either pamphlets available at areas frequented by visitors – such as public bathrooms – for them to peruse and consider coming back. Kiosks with QR codes, which can be scanned and read by smart phones, should be standing in other areas with heavy foot traffic. Local suggestions included Lake Red Rock, the Scholte House and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum.
“When you're not open, how much business are you losing?” Brooks said. In all three communities he focused on, all of them disappointed him for not having businesses open after 6 p.m.
He was especially disappointed with the lack of activity around the Molengracht in Pella, which he believes should be showcased and utilized more. According to Brooks, 70 percent of all consumer retail spending is done after 6 p.m. He believes if more of Pella's businesses are open until 9 p.m., spending would triple.
Lake Red Rock was an issue all its own for Brooks. He said he could not find ties back to the lake among the communities. Finding an overall “brand” for the county, to bring all of the communities together, remains a challenge presented to tourism leaders.
One suggestion he had was for the county to think of its 10 best food vendors, 10 best destination retail shops and 10 places open after six, and include them in informational materials.
“Even Pella struggled with this one,” Brooks said.
But downtowns have other issues. Brooks believes three-hour parking limits are a “good way to kill downtown.” It discourages people from spending time in the area, thus reducing revenue and repeat business. One community he pointed out, instead of writing parking tickets, are given notices and suggestions of where they can park for free all day. Public lots that allow all-day, free parking need to have big signs to let people know.
“It's incentive to stay longer,” Brooks said. Taking care of anchor tenants, while orchestrating an effort to have businesses working together, could help Marion County.
“None of your downtowns are really alive, even during the day,” Brooks said. The importance of having people inside local business, knowledgeable about the area and able to make recommendations to visitors, was also discussed. Brooks said visitors go where residents go when looking for places to eat and recreate.
“I think you have an amazing destination as a county,” Brooks said. He encouraged everyone to focus on finding reasons why something will work, instead of why they won't. Marion County Development Commission Executive Director Carla Eysink said it will take people to bring even more success to the area.
“It's not me as a government entity that can make it happen,” Eysink said. “I can't do what all of you could do.”
In finding a brand for Knoxville, he suggested trying to have the town synonymous with all wheeled sports, not just sprint cars. If Knoxville, which already has Bike Night, Knoxville Raceway, car clubs and a bike trail, tried this brand, it could keep visitors coming all year and not just during race season. Brooks suggested finding a way to incorporate snowmobiles into Knoxville's branding.
“What moves you” was a suggested slogan. He encourages Knoxville to do what it can to make tourism a year-round industry, beyond the spring and summer. With so many “ghost towns” in America today, Brooks said action is needed to try to avoid becoming one of them.
“It's time to step up and do something,” he said.
Brooks' presentation will be distributed to those in attendance. When received, we intend to put it on our website.