Sunday, September 21, 2014

Marketing college towns to tourists

Sporting events, like this Aggie football scrimmage, are a natural college-based tourist attraction. But successful college towns also know how to draw on other university assets, like academic expertise that can be translated into retreats, culture-based vacations or therapeutic experiences. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise file photo

By John L. Gann Jr.

College towns always have drawn students and their families for campus visits and commencements and scholars for academic meetings or visiting professor engagements. But many of them have, or could have, appeal for other kinds of visitors to the benefit of local businesses and taxing bodies.

Because this appeal is not usually obvious, however, college towns wanting revenues from tourists usually have to market their attractions. There are some ideas worth considering in going about this.

* Develop college-based attractions: At one university I know, there are at least two professors who have written bestselling popular books that I bet could be spun off into related offerings that could bring people into town.

Traditional tourism offers pleasures but not the useful information, instruction, inspiration, skills development, or sense of accomplishment that colleges can provide. Academic expertise can be translated into retreats, culture-based vacations, or therapeutic experiences. Cornell University’s summer programs are a good example.

Universities’ athletic facilities can be draws for those inclined to active holidays. Their art studios and theaters could attract others. Many older college campuses boast architectural and landscape amenities that rival the nicest resorts and vacation towns. Campus resources go largely to waste during the summer, when tourism peaks.

If youth is wasted on the young, why should enjoyment of the delights of college towns be restricted to students? With a little imagination, initiative, and smart marketing, it doesn’t have to be.

* Market the right name: One rural college town wanted — perhaps for political reasons — to expand its tourism marketing to include the entire county. I advised against prominent use of the county’s name, which had a Mayberry flavor that might deter those not already familiar with the area. And a county’s name is almost never as well-known as a college town’s.

So selling a place in the name of Centre, Story, Dane, Alachua, Tompkins or Riley County — all home to large universities — presents a challenge. It’s usually better to market in the name of the town and include any hinterland attractions as a bonus.

* Don’t mistake media buying for marketing: A common confusion is assuming that just buying a lot of advertising media constitutes effective marketing. Even in sophisticated college towns, tourist marketers can exhibit this confusion.

The latter-day proliferation of trendy new electronic media has kept the media focus going. We are discovering, however, that despite all the hype, people don’t like, and largely ignore, things like banner ads, unsolicited emails and poorly thought-out websites.

Media are essential to marketing. Marketers nonetheless are smart to carefully consider what and how much media to buy, how best to use it, and, most important, what message to convey whatever the media chosen.

* Tap academia: College towns sometimes take surprisingly little advantage of the wealth of knowledge available on campus. Their local governments and civic institutions seldom show evidence of superior performance based on the expert knowledge that’s so close by.

In my experience, the chief shortcoming of communities’ marketing efforts is lack of good thinking. Thought is presumably what universities are all about (that and football). Community marketers do well to fully tap the knowledge of relevant academic experts.

* Think global, not just local: Even in university towns, community marketing staff and consulting talent are predominantly drawn from the local folks. The local knowledge these people have is important, but it’s not enough for the greatest effectiveness.

It would hardly be beneficial for university students to study only the work of poets or scientists from the county or region where their school is located. Local programs similarly need a broader perspective.

Colleges and universities have connections to expert knowledge worldwide. Through the Web we can also tap the most knowledgeable specialists wherever they are. College town tourism marketers do well to take maximum advantage to supplement local capabilities.

* Measure results, evaluate and improve: Marketing is not about just spending a marketing budget: It’s about getting results. But communities seldom measure what results their various marketing initiatives are, in fact, producing. Or they track outcomes not directly related to meaningful results. Name recognition, image and website hits do not necessarily produce business.

Also surprisingly rare has been meaningful evaluation of community marketing programs to identify improvements that can boost results or save money. In 2008, I wrote for the International City Management Association what incredibly didn’t exist before: a guide specifically to evaluate the marketing that cities and towns do. Three years later, I wrote the only guide to marketing college towns. You’d think someone would have beaten me to both of them decades ago.

I found the college towns I studied when researching “The Third Lifetime Place” had great unexplored economic development potential but had been mediocre marketers. Underperforming community marketing doesn’t have to be, especially in college towns that so value knowledge and expertise. Good thinking can make marketing budgets do better in growing sales to tourists.

— John L. Gann Jr. consults and trains in economic development marketing as president of Gann Associates, based in Chicago. Reach him at



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