Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a way to make visitors feel so enthused by your area that they want to stay for much longer, take loads of photos, share them with all their friends and tell everyone?
Ideally, it would be a way that costs very little, worked as well in Winter as in Summer. In an ideal world, it would also lesson the impact on the environment, perhaps encouraging visitors to explore on foot, and spend more money in local businesses too? For once the ideal isn't an impossible dream. It is possible. Let's take a fresh look at local distinctiveness and sense of place.
I'll offer some practical tips on how you can actually use local distinctiveness later in this article.
First though, what does local distinctiveness actually mean and why is it important?
It's what makes one place different from another. Major landmarks and famous sights can mark one place out against another but it’s not just big features that are important. It's often the small details that many of us take for granted. It's the 'essence' of a place, that tells you where you are. You can't feel it in a chain pub, even when they've put mass-produced pictures on the wall and bought in old books by the yard. It's hard to find in most newly built chain hotels. It's much easier to find in independent businesses. You can feel it in a forest, or at the top of a hill, in a tiny hamlet or a large town. Sometimes you notice local distinctiveness without really realising. Sense of place can be an instinctive feeling, which is all the more appealing to visitors once they've noticed it too. Survey after survey shows how much visitors enjoy 'savouring the ambience' of a place. This is largely down to local distinctiveness.
Our impressions are formed through so many aspects of an area’s character. Local distinctiveness is the combination of aspects that makes each place special. It’s the essential details, large and small, natural and man-made, that combine to create a sense of place. Local distinctiveness can be experienced and enjoyed with all our senses. Everyone appreciates something different, whether it's drinking beer in a cosy pub, overhearing snatches of conversation in a certain accent, hearing birdsong in a hidden valley or the nostalgic feeling of cobbles underfoot.
Features that you take for granted aren't necessarily obvious to everyone. They might be special and extraordinary for some visitors. So to take advantage of your local distinctiveness, you have to find it, describe it and make it more apparent, and easier to enjoy - without making it feel contrived, or taking away its authenticity.
Changing markets - the time is right to use local distinctiveness
Visitors are certainly changing. There’s growing interest in all things ‘local’. Visitors want to understand more, to experience places in different ways and to meet “real” people. They are ready to buy locally made products. They want to do as well as see. Visitors are increasingly interested in anything that helps them understand and appreciate the essential character of a place. Today’s visitors are looking for ‘something different’ from their normal life. They look for places with ambience, atmosphere and soul. They welcome in-depth experiences, opportunities to participate and chances to meet local people.
An opportunity to offer a different type of information
Traditionally in the tourism industry we’ve offered visitors lists and directories containing lots of information. The focus has been on covering everything, being neutral and leaving visitors to make their own decisions. This no longer works. Visitors increasingly use social media and websites like TripAdvisor for second and third opinions. They want insider tips and specific ideas for things to do. They've started to shy away from "official" in favour of more in-depth, personal recommendations.
How can you use local distinctiveness in your business or area, to attract longer staying, higher spending visitors?
Most tourism marketing talks about the highlights, the well-known, the headline-grabbers. This is important but as these images become more familiar, visitors mentally tick them off their list. They start to move from one 'big name' to another, barely noticing what's in between. When we only promote the honeypots, there's a tendency for visitors to move quickly between them and then think they know an area, without feeling inclined to visit again.
We need to slow visitors down, to help them see the undiscovered gems, the places that are special but often hidden or less obvious. Visitors who enjoy a different experience are more likely to stay longer and spend more. They have more of a story to tell so they recommend the area to others. They also realise that neighbouring areas are likely to be equally interesting and may come back to explore other places.
Here are 3 simple things you can do to use local distinctiveness right now:
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Please note: all articles are copyrighted Susan Briggs