Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Understanding Consumers Interests is More Important Than Regulating Them

The consideration of bylaws that restrict overnight RV parking to private and public camp grounds has been discussed in a number of communities and on the surface, it appears to be a well intentioned initiative to direct all traffic to financially support the camp ground industry. Truthfully, I used to be in favour of them. However, the consideration of implementing such regulations and the unfortunate choice of words used to describe this segment in a recent local editorial fails to look at the larger picture and artificially creates an issue that really isn't leading to any collapse of the tourism industry. In the long run, it hurts us.

What we must maintain as the cornerstone of our entire tourism strategy, is to focus on what the consumer wants…and not every consumer wants or needs the same overnight experience. Thunder Bay has an exceptional array of high quality municipal, provincial and private campgrounds, all well operated and offering different services to attract different segments within the large RV travel market. We invest significant resources to promote these natural environment establishments, encourage their use and direct commerce in their direction but we also can never lose sight of the fact that some of our guests desire a different or basic alternative. No business, in any segment of the economy, can assume the entire marketplace thinks and acts and wants the same.

We approach this segment, like others, in a pragmatic means to grow the market and drive more traffic to all tourism partners, not simply divide it into smaller slices or even reduce it’s overall value. Those who park overnight in free lots reflect a small percentage of the overall RV market.

Defending the decision to ban parking in private parking lots (and come on, this only occurs in one lot, right?) fails to consider that some RV owners arrive in the community late or leave early, may have large relatively immobile units, don’t have needs for ancillary services or may simply want to be near urban dining or retail experiences. We should not, as a business community, condemn this very small market for wishing or needing to save $30 per night given that they still leave an economic impact in terms of food, retail, attractions admissions, repairs and fuel. They are even known to use, for a fee, pump out stations and showers at campgrounds (did I say "for a fee"?) Irregardless of how and where the economic impacts occur in our communities, it is almost entirely to tourism partners who pay property and taxes and employ local residents.

Most importantly, however, its all about creating a warm and welcoming environment and reputation to ALL of our visitors, irregardless of their economic impact. Imposing bylaws that unnecessarily restrict visitor movements and public editorial comments equating this travel segments to “tenants skipping out on rent” and labelling them as “free loaders” is typicval of a ready shoot aim mentality and does more damage in attracting and welcoming visitors. RV enthusiasts communicate on a digital stage and will avoid such destinations. Frankly, I'd rather have the 200 or so RVers annually who park for free but shop and visit local attractions than not have any of them at all. These regulatory tactics and negative customer service attitudes can very well backfire and end up putting the entire visitor oriented RV supply chain further behind in advancing this important and diversified travel segment.

To succeed in growing our tourism economy it is imperative we stop forcing guests through regulation to do what they don’t want but rather understand the scope of our visitor’s travel motivators, range of interests and true impacts and respond to them with exceptional levels of service, delivering value and extending a warm welcome. If we stay to this course, the market will grow and everyone will benefit who has the entrpreneureal desire to.

At the end of the day, knowing and respecting what consumers want and desire is a far more enlightened approach to regulating them to do and see and experience what we think they should want or forcing them to chancge their travel motivators to suit us. To be successful, shouldn't we be doing a better job catering to them? We have to pick our battles when it comes to tourism policy and this one is very ow on the list.

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