By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
“I know how to market Cherokee because I am the demographic,” said anyone who has provided advice and guidance in a leadership role within our tribal government. It seems that we know what we like, therefore we know what they like (“they” being the 10.7 million traveler households within a 300-mile radius of Cherokee-our primarily geographic market, or the 323.1 million potential travelers in the United States, or 7.5 billion potential travelers worldwide, most of them not tribal members). For any one person or even a few people to state that they know what our prospective consumer wants is a bold statement.
Why do destinations employ marketing firms? Because, to be successful at something as complex as destination marketing, you need great analysis, educated planning, and expert execution. Because we need to, desperately need to, maximize the impact on the visiting public. Because with aging accommodations and attractions, we need to sell the prospective clients on our positives and downplay the negatives. Because many heads are better than one, especially if all those heads are dedicated to the task of dissecting our prospective customers wants and convincing them that we have what their heart desires.
The “I have lived here all my life and I know what the tourist wants” mentality has been slowing to the tourism efforts of Cherokee for many years. The promotional efforts of the Tribe are not always dictated by sound research, but the whim of an individual or small group. The Tribe invests money into surveys, competitive analysis (seeing what is working or not working in other municipalities), and research into the impact of our own efforts. But, if this research contradicts a favored project, then research is ignored in favor of the project. Just when some momentum is achieved regarding marketing development, a new face or a different agenda will change the entire playing field and the Tribe has to reinvent its marketing effort.
An essential element of marketing is engaging in product development. To sell a person on your product, you must convince the person that they need the product. So, when beginning to develop or overhaul a product, the first step would be to do the research necessary to find out who your target client is and find out what they want. This applies to accommodation, attraction, amenity, and event development. Next, you would come up with a strategic plan for development that included what the product should look like, where it fits within your overall community development plan, and a timeline for implementing the necessary changes and upgrades to craft the product into what the customer wants; not what you or I want.
You hear a lot about the good old days of tourism in Cherokee. You know, back in the day when you had bumper to bumper traffic and the hotels were full. Back when the tribal budget was in the millions instead of hundreds of millions. Back when most us were living off federal government commodity handouts instead of Ruth’s Chris. Back when the only “steady” jobs were summer jobs at the cultural attractions, instead of year-round employment paying a living wage at the casino. Back when the tribal employee count numbered barely in double digits, instead of in the thousands. And, back when tribal budgets were measured in grants and millions of dollars, instead of business revenue and nearly a half-billion dollars. Most of us are getting per cap checks that are bigger than our welfare checks were back in the good old days.
The evolution of marketing is very much like the evolution of cars. In the early development of vehicles and even into the early 1970s, when your vehicle had an issue, you were more likely to pop the hood or crawl under the car and “mechanic” it yourself rather than take it to a professional. Cars were simpler and we could trace the problem to its source and make the car run again. We could fix it ourselves. But, as cars became more complex, especially with the addition of computerized, hybrid, and alternative fuel vehicles, most of us realize that, when our vehicles fail, that we may do more harm than good if we try to play shade tree mechanic on our vehicles. Making mistakes in working on our vehicle will leave us with costly repairs and traveling on foot.
Marketing has evolved beyond the newspaper insert and the poster on a side of a barn. Marketers talk in their own language of acronyms and analytic terminology. Online, internet campaigns are launched with laser precision, using filters to put an advertisement before the eyes of a client that has been scientifically identified as having the right attributes to be a candidate for a specific product. Tinkering with that mix of filters without extensive expertise is like playing Russian roulette with your hard-earned tourism dollars.
We need to understand how very important it is that we get the marketing of the tourism right in Cherokee. We all know that, far and away, our adult gaming operation outpaces our cultural tourism effort by a staggering margin. But, we also know that tourism is currently our only fall back means of revenue generation, and represents the only diversification effort in progress. And, as we have been told by our leadership, threats are looming. In the best destination relationships, the government, experts in the field, businesses, and community all come together in support of each other with a common goal-to provide the product in an attractive way for the traveling public…our prospective clients.
Marketing is the most important aspect of economic development, particularly when it comes to consumer sales. You may have the best product in the world, but if it is marketed ineffectively, your product and business will fail. You may have the best marketing in the world, but if your product development is poor and not what the customer has been promised, your product and business will fail.
With so much riding on the successful promotion of Cherokee and the Boundary, it is critical that we analyze, plan and execute based on sound research and not opinions. It is why tourism development funding in municipalities dependent on that revenue stream is either put it at the top of their budgets, and they create a separate tax that assists in promoting “heads in beds”, commonly called an occupancy tax. Here, we call it a privilege tax.
Our uniqueness as a tourism destination is our culture and our lands. Surely, we have beautiful scenery, great rushing streams, and majestic mountains. And, just like any parent with a child, we say our land is the most beautiful. In our eyes, it is. From a tourist’s prospective, they see that beauty in our land, and all the land of the municipalities around us. It is not unique. We must show our historic and/or cultural uniqueness in a way that appeals to the target audience to compete for tourist dollars. We can say we have the best mountains, fishing, etc., but so do our competitors for the tourist and tourist dollar. Our product is getting older while our target audience is getting younger. How we handle product development in Cherokee will determine the future of tourism and possibly the economic viability of our government.
Our economic engines exist to generate revenue to provide services and for the benefit of our community. Our tribal leadership must find the balance between marketing, product development and governmental community services or the Cherokee community will suffer the loss.
David Ogilvy, recognized as a founding father of modern advertising, said this to the board of directors of his international marketing firm, “If you always hire people who are smaller than you, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you hire people bigger than you, we shall become a company of giants.”
Henry Ford is attributed with saying, “I am not the smartest, but I surround myself with competent people.”
Let’s not let power or perceived power stand in the way of doing the right thing when it comes to making important decisions like the direction of tourism marketing and economic development. We, as a Tribe, need to surround ourselves with competent collaborators that will help us make informed, educated decisions about economic development.