Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Authenticity in Cultural Heritage Tourism  

12-09-2015 17:35

What a difference a decade makes. Think of all the events that have shaped our lives over the past 10 years. Some are landmark events and some are less known, but all had a profound impact on what we value, what we desire, and what we know as truth. One event in particular has shaped my direction in the last decade -- the National Trust Heritage Tourism Initiative. It’s hard to believe that the definition of “cultural heritage tourism” has only been around in this country formally, since the mid-1990s. To understand how the heritage tourism segment has grown, understand some of its current challenges, and identify some of its opportunities, I talked with several industry professionals who were interviewed several years ago for the Forum Journal Summer 1999 issue on heritage tourism. I found one key theme connecting current research and trends in cultural heritage tourism -- the importance of authenticity.

State of U.S. Cultural Heritage Tourism

A 2003 Travel Industry Association of America (TIA)/ Smithsonian magazine study reports that 81 percent of all Americans taking a trip last year included a visit to a cultural heritage site or event. Further, the updated TIA Profile of Cultural & Historic Travelers underscores the importance of that industry segment to our nation’s overall travel industry. While many cultural heritage tourism leaders talk about the industry segment positively -- and applaud the distance we’ve journeyed in the past decade -- the consensus is also that we have a lot of work still to do to ensure future sustainable growth. Like all industries, cultural heritage tourism is constantly evolving. One of our unique challenges is to manage the external demands that place pressure on fragile assets.

More products, more experiences, more sophisticated travelers, and more com- petition top the list of current major influences on the industry cited by U.S. cultural heritage tourism professionals. Three trends emerged when talking with cultural heritage tourism leaders: Marian DePietro, board member of Plimoth Plantation and president of TOURCO, one of America’s leading tour companies; Mitch Bowman, executive director of Virginia’s Civil War Trails; Cheryl Hartley, general manager of Tamarack, West Virginia’s craft center in Beckley; and Rene Campbell, executive director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau for Columbus, Ind. (one of the 16 pilot areas for the National Trust Heritage Tourism Initiative).

Trend 1: Experience is now more important than destination. People are seeking experiences and getaways that combine a number of activities. Further, travelers desire drive-to destinations with year-round experiences. These combine to make visiting cultural heritage sites and events attractive activities for all ages. Managers must appropriately develop sites to accommodate various audiences.

Trend 2: Sites serve as educators for history. Cultural heritage sites are perceived as experts and are trusted to impart a credible presentation of history. Since September 11, certainly, interest in America’s cultural heritage has grown. American consumers -- the domestic market -- are seeking new ways to connect with their roots and become educated. The international market seeks out authentic American experiences to learn about our country. Both markets look to site managers and curators to provide an education that is missing from the classroom or long since forgotten. This means learning experiences must be developed for all ages.

Trend 3: Increased competition requires cultural heritage sites and events to provide high quality, authentic experiences. An abundance of new cultural heritage sites and activities, along with manufactured and other non-industry related activities, creates a host of options for travelers. The internet brings a whole new world to cultural heritage tourism. Strategic marketing and consistent experiences are necessary to maintain market share. The new product is thematic, easily purchased, and easily experienced. Above all, the messages must be based on fact.

Recognize Authenticity

Webster’s dictionary defines authenticity as “being actually and precisely what is claimed.” For professionals engaged in historic site management and cultural heritage tourism, the responsibility lies in preservation, maintenance, interpretation, and marketing of distinctive experiences founded on documented history.

A 2002 Heritage Tourism Study produced for St. Augustine, Ponte Vedre & The Beaches by the University of Florida’s Center for Tourism Research & Development includes some significant information on how visitors define and value authenticity. In exit polls, visitors were asked about the importance of heritage experiences. More than 95 percent of the visitors said that it was “somewhat” to “very important” to experience authentic elements on their trip; 38.9 percent of visitors polled ranked “experiencing authentic elements” as very important. To “experience the region’s historic character” ranked highest among the respondents (44 percent). Historic architecture, museums, and historic objects rated very high in authenticity (4.1 mean score out of possible 5), while souvenirs ranked very low (3).

When authenticity is compromised, cultural heritage tourism loses credibility. Moreover, when authenticity is compromised cultural heritage tourism loses what differentiates it from sanitized theme park adventures and recreated (rather than real) attractions. In some respects, the popularity of cultural heritage tourism has led imposters to our customer’s door. It is our responsibility to ensure that visitors continue to understand -- and value -- authentic sites and experiences. Only by ensuring that authenticity is not compromised can our industry earn the trust and confidence of current and future visitors. .

Preserve and Develop the Authentic Product

Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist lauded the merits of traveling without ever leaving the armchair. Think of all the books -- from contemporary best-sellers to the classics -- that bring a place to life through words and stories. Yet, as aptly conveyed in America’s Challenge, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s 2001 report, “we revel in the genuine article -- the truly memorable experience that only the actual place can provide.” For preservationists, the task of saving and conserving our heritage must extend past the built environment to include the landscapes, the culture, and the traditions of the native peoples.

When focusing on authenticity, cultural heritage tourism managers must be mindful of the total experience -- not just single sites or events. According to a Geotourism Study (Phase I) conducted by the TIA and National Geographic Traveler in 2002, 61 percent of American travelers who took at least one trip in the past three years said “my experience is better when my destination preserves its natural, historic, and cultural sites and attractions;” 52 percent percent of this same group is “very/extremely likely to take trips to places that have authentic historic or archaeological buildings and sites;” and 49 percent are “very/ extremely likely to take trips to places where I can experience people, lifestyles and cultures very different from my own.”

And yet, historic site and cultural heritage tourism managers cannot preserve in a vacuum. As Mitch Bowman, executive director of Virginia’s Civil War Trails, recognizes, the tourism industry expects the infrastructure as well -- adequate parking, signage, handicap accessibility, consistent (and appropriate) hours of operation, maintenance, and trained staff -- to accommodate visitors.

To assist cultural heritage travelers in their quest for authentic experiences, numerous destinations are establishing “authenticity criteria.” Lancaster County, Pa., formed one of the first planning groups to create specific criteria for use in identifying and developing heritage sites, events, and services. UNESCO has also attempted to apply authenticity criteria to evaluation of World Heritage Sites. While debate looms about how to judge authenticity, we must be mindful that the expectation of the customer is that sites will provide truth and integrity in regard to preservation and presentation. We must not be mired by political boundaries or mandates when establishing an authentic experience; we must serve the customer with integrity.

Interpret with Integrity

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges today is to reach a wide range of audiences with compelling information so that the experience exceeds preconceptions. Communication with the customer begins with the first browse on the internet or reading of the lure brochure and doesn’t end until after the visit. So how do we deliver an engaging message that can affect a child of 10, a teen, an adult of 40, or a senior at 60? The curatorial obligation is to tell the story of the people and places with fact using engaging practices of delivery. Making it appeal to the masses, says Mitch Bowman does not mean “dumbing down” the story. Instead, it means getting to the heart and soul of the story -- to portray the human drama, the relevance -- to people today.

Marian DePietro, president of TOURCO and board member of Plimoth Plantation, shares a couple of ways historic site and destination managers can foster growth in cultural heritage tourism. First, develop more interactive activities, rather than traditional static museum exhibits. For example, Plimoth Plantation has introduced a series of programs that tell the story of early settlers to New England. The “Eat like a Pilgrim” tour features a foodways interpreter to explain what the fare was in 1620. It expands the imagination and education -- whatever the existing level of interest or knowledge of history the customer has -- in a fun and engaging way. Second, heritage sites managers must make touring easy to purchase and easy to experience. Eight museums in New England joined together to offer a $30 collective rate of admission. The perceived value makes the ticket attractive, and this joint pricing is fast becoming an industry standard. It is especially attractive to tour operators or international visitors wanting to pre-purchase activities. The price also helps establish the sites as on par with other gated theme parks and attractions. Nonprofit organizations must understand that customers will pay for experiences if they are perceived as desirable and good value.

Marketing guru Leo Burnett once said, “If you are writing about baloney, don’t try to make it a Cornish hen, because that is the worst kind of baloney there is. Just make it darned good baloney.” Too often we try to mask the truth about our site or destination with flowery adjectives or bland descriptions rather than telling the distinctive, unique story that sets one place apart from another. Yes, it is work to uncover those stories, but they provide the rich, authentic foundation that is the reason to visit, to preserve, and to connect with our past.

Market Authenticity

Fundamentally, the product creates the market. If we provide a consistent, quality “authentic” experience every day -- whether it is accommodations at a historic hotel, a local dish served up at a neighborhood diner, craft demonstrations at a gallery, or an interpreted tour program at a house museum -- the positive word of mouth generated from existing customers becomes the most powerful marketing tool available. We must combine a strong product with quality messages and communication tools -- internet sites, brochures, trade shows, and sales missions -- to create a distinctive marketing strategy that tells our unique stories to desired audiences.

Rene Campbell, executive director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau for Columbus, Ind., recognizes successful marketing is built on understanding who and what Columbus is. Columbus is a town where corporate leaders focused on quality architecture for public buildings to create a distinctive sense of place. While many people traditionally consider cultural heritage tourism in terms of 18th- and 19thcentury features, Columbus focuses on 20th-century history and design to promote the spirit of their community. Local leaders keep architecture and marketing in context. They pay attention to maintenance, safety, and resident quality of life. Has it worked? The town is ranked sixth in innovation and design by the American Institute of Architects; the poet Maya Angelou says “this is the way a community ought to be”; and Rand McNally included the Indiana town in its 2003 “Best of the Road” award-winning travel routes. Praise indeed.

Measuring the market is critical for cultural heritage tourism management. Research and hard data are vital to understanding what current customers think of our products, what the desired customer wants in an experience, and what is most appropriate for us to deliver. Sometimes the research results confirm our instincts. Other times the findings highlight new opportunities. For example, Tamarack, West Virginia’s craft center, recently conducted market research that uncovered some surprising statistics: Canadians make up only a small percent of its market; in December 38 percent of sales come from West Virginia; and Ohio is the biggest buyer. Having hosted their three millionth visitor last year, the research shows that many of Tamarack’s customers are repeat visitors -- and buyers. Signage is critical to creating awareness: but there are other factors at work; 30 percent of guests walking through the doors are visiting friends and relatives in West Virginia.

Market research can also help in planning for the future. A June 2003 study by Marshall University on the economic impact of the craft industry in West Virginia states that Tamarack directly contributes over $3 million annually in sales yet provides greater value through its ability to keep a high profile for craft with its quality brand presence. Since opening its doors, Tamarack has contributed $44.4 million to the economy and $2.4 million in sales tax. With the new Kentucky Craft and Cultural Center in Berea now open, Tamarack envisions a more regional approach to marketing -- with collaborations from neighboring states to foster a corridor of craft through Appalachia.

Noted author and scholar Philip Kotler said, “authentic marketing is not the art of selling what you make but knowing what to make. It is the art of identifying and understanding customer needs and creating solutions that deliver satisfaction to the customers, profits to the producers and benefits for the stakeholders.” Working with the tourism industry, historic site and heritage tourism man- agers can develop and deliver the appropriate and authentic messages that draw the desired results. To maintain credibility and grow the segment appropriately, heritage tourism professionals must join together to fund or partner with the travel industry to ensure that measuring the economic and social impact of cultural heritage sites and events is included in market research studies conducted locally, regionally, and nationally.

Find the Appropriate Balance

Cultural heritage tourism is the new creative economy for many communities, and as such the investment and philosophical support must be in place to net the desired benefits. As cultural heritage tourism gains popularity, it also attracts the attention of elected officials and business leaders. While this notice is critical to the growth of this industry segment, the real focus must be on balancing the needs of three assets: the resource, the resident, and the visitor. All must benefit from cultural heritage tourism development for sustainable success.

If the resource is not protected then the very opportunity to attract visitors with authentic experiences vanishes. For cultural heritage tourism, the authentic resource is defined by an entire “sense of place” -- inclusive of the gateway, the built environment, the landscape, the cuisine and cultural traditions, and the souvenirs to purchase. If the resident is not considered in the development, marketing, and management of the destination, then the benefits are often lost. Community tourism has evolved as a new industry segment to ensure that “community” values are respected, that there are local economic and social benefits, and that messages marketed to attract visitors authentically represent the stories of peoples past and present. Finally, visitors will only continue to be lured to cultural heritage destinations if they find value in the authentic experience -- either through education or a nostalgic experience that has meaning and meets expectations.

According to Mitch Bowman, when you have authenticity everything else falls into place. Interpretation is easier and more powerful. Marketing is much more effective because people value “the real thing” -- and the real thing doesn’t have to be the best, first, largest, or most important to have meaning. Maintenance is ensured because the community finds it worthwhile and valuable to sustain and nurture its singular, irreplaceable cultural assets.

Publication Date: Fall 2003

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Author(s):Cheryl Hargrove
Volume:18
Issue:1