Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

If the pleasure of tourism had to be reduced to just one word, it might be "topophilia" -- love of place. The term was introduced to me by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper last week in Vail when I interviewed him at the state's annual Governor's Tourism Conference.

Topophilia, as a force for the best of tourism, is amplified when it's shared equally by residents and visitors alike.

"When people really love where they are, they'll invest in it, and it becomes more authentic and a more attractive destination for visitors," Hickenlooper said.

He called topophilia "the foundation of tourism."

Although he's clearly aware of tourism's economic benefits, Hickenlooper doesn't lead with that.

"Colorado is defined by the natural splendor of our wild spaces, and protecting that heritage has been a priority from the beginning," he said.

"Investments to drive tourism -- it's hard to say whether we're driving tourism or making responsible investments for the health and enjoyment of our population. They go together. That's what's brilliant about it."

The opening keynote of the conference was not linked to the governor's comments about topophilia but was in sync with his perspective and provided an interesting template for destination management.

That talk was presented by William Bakker, chief strategist for Vancouver-based Destination Think!, an advisory firm that counsels destination marketing organizations. It provided both a thoughtful way to responsibly exploit topophilia while avoiding excessive topophilia, i.e., overtourism, another topic at the conference.

He suggested it wasn't always intuitive for destination promoters to identify what it was that residents loved about their region, but he said it was crucial to do so. The game plan he ultimately laid out was nuanced and detailed, but it began with a simple Oscar Wilde quote: "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."

The governor had made the identification of Colorado's core attributes seem like an easy task, pointing to "outdoor recreation" as Colorado's overarching attraction, one that has myriad expressions, from trout fishing to skiing to hiking to whitewater rafting to mountain scenery.

Bakker said that defining a destination's attributes today requires putting a different spin on the question of a destination's value. Traditionally, the starting point would revolve around jobs and tax collection, but local leadership would be wiser to look at their destination in, well, a more Hickenlooperian perspective. Yes, the economic arguments remain, but they are bracketed by protection of the environmental and the social assets that also define a place.

By carefully defining environmental, economic and social objectives, one can then develop experiences -- and ultimately, narratives -- that tell the destination's story.

Identifying a place's DNA and then telling its story has become complicated because today, marketers' voices risk being overwhelmed by competing storytellers. All visitors have the means to provide a narrative about a place, on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, on blogs, in TripAdvisor reviews.

"We're obsessed with consumers understanding our brands," Bakker said. "But how do you build brand perception when your messaging is only a small fraction of what's being told about your destination? The only way to try to control the message is to develop experiences that support your message."

In other words, if visitors' actual experiences are consistent, they share similar stories. Even when the story is within a category as broad as outdoor recreation, the perception of those receiving the stories in any channel will likely be aligned with brand messaging.

There's another benefit, Bakker suggested, to consistently supporting the core story line: When you tell the right story, you get the right visitors.

If not? Well, Bakker showed a slide with a simple bell curve. An almost flat line to the left were the people who are crazy about a destination. A similar line on the right represents those who hate it, and the large bump in the middle was labeled "Meh."

The haters are the ones you really need to worry about. They're the "wrong" visitors, who will spread bad word-of-mouth. To counter their unhappy presence, they, too, need to be addressed. He pointed out that one destination, Greenland, even published material on "Why Greenland might not be for you" to discourage visitation by those who won't appreciate the place.

Over the course of the conference, I certainly sensed that Colorado tourism marketers not only understand Bakker's model but have reaped the benefit of thoughtfully exploiting topophilia.

The Colorado Tourism Office, under director Cathy Ritter, has racked up some impressive stats: It has stretched the streak of annual visitation gains to eight consecutive years, attracting 85 million visitors in 2017, who spent $20.9 billion and raised $1.2 billion in tax revenue. Social media engagement rose 27% over the past 12 months, and its website is the most visited of any U.S. state tourism office.

"I think we've grown the last eight years from being a regional destination to a national destination," Hickenlooper told conference attendees. "We're now moving to becoming an international destination."

Currently, international visitors represent just over 1% of the total, but their numbers have grown by double digits every year from 2012 to 2017.
To ramp up from there, it will help to have a destination story told with clarity and sincerity, backed up by promised experiences.

If that's the criteria, the pieces are in place to spread Colorado topophilia far and wide.

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