When we return to a destination, it might fail to measure up to the memory of our first visit. We find that the colorful Caribbean fishing village we fell in love with 20 years ago has been replaced by luxury condos. A Starbucks sits on the lot where an old woman used to prepare conch fritters. And the thatched-roof vegetable market has been replaced by a structure that has all the warmth of a Quonset hut.
Regardless of how current visitors seem to be enjoying themselves, or whether residents now have a higher standard of living, we become nostalgic and mourn the loss of "authenticity."
Brands are another story. It would seem that authenticity is beside the point with a brand, because a brand is a contrivance from the start. With hospitality brands in particular, we demand change. We do not mourn the loss of orange shag carpeting or dark wood paneling. There is no nostalgia for mattresses that trench down the middle.
As a result, we can't trust our previous experiences with a brand to be a guide to what it is like today. I thought about this last week after spending four days previewing the "Wonderfall" autumn promotion from the all-inclusive Beaches Resorts chain (www.beaches.com/promos/wonderfall).
I last vacationed at its Turks and Caicos resort six years ago. The experience was good. My children enjoyed the beach, water slides and much of the programming, but I also thought there was nothing that made the programs stand out; I could not put my finger on what made it a "Beaches" experience. And I thought at the time that the child care center for toddlers, in particular, was in need of improvement.
I did take notice in 2004 when the chain made an agreement with Sesame Workshop to introduce Sesame Street characters, shows and activities aimed at preschoolers. But in retrospect, I had underestimated the impact this would have on the Beaches brand.
On my visit last week, I had also underestimated the impact the presence of Sesame Street would have on my two youngest children, ages 7 and 5. My 7-year-old son had lost interest in Sesame Street three years ago, and his younger brother, who takes all cues about entertainment from his older brother, immediately moved with him to SpongeBob SquarePants. So I was surprised last week when the 7-year-old melted into hugs from Cookie Monster and even from the ultra-pink, ultra-girly Abby Cadabby character. His younger brother followed suit.
My best guess is that 7 years old is not too young to experience nostalgia. And although the Sesame Street programming is developed for preschoolers, it seemed to induce nostalgia in parents, too, who were themselves raised with Bert, Ernie and Grover.
When visiting Beaches and seeing the Sesame Street characters, something apparently is triggered inside parents that's akin to returning to a Caribbean fishing village after 20 years and finding that nothing has changed. Regardless of whether one is confusing sentiment with higher emotion, nostalgia feels authentic, and that's what guests experience.
Beaches, just 11 years old, has figured out a way to tap into a better-established brand and the emotional responses it evokes.
None of this is stated to detract from the quality of the programming itself. I spoke with Jane Park, who creates curriculum goals for Sesame Workshops, and I also spent some time with Joel Ryan, the entertainment director for Beaches. It's clear that they take their missions seriously. The quality of the programs at "Sesame Camp" in Beaches is superb, a quantum leap ahead of what was available six years ago.
Sesame Street, approaching its 40th birthday, has become iconic, but it's not static. One change that's occurred in Sesame Street's programming sometime during the last 39 years -- and, incidentally, over the past six years at Beaches -- is the introduction of healthy food choices, present in Beaches' restaurants and emphasized by Sesame Street programming.
While I'm glad as an adult to see healthy options offered in the Beaches restaurants, I'm also glad that this was not a focus of Jim Henson when he created the first set of Sesame Street characters. I don't think my 7-year-old would have melted quite so easily into a hug from the Broccoli Monster.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].