Tag Archives: downtowns

Service Town or Tourist Destination?

Downtown Grand Marais - Beaver HouseThroughout our travels and in working with our clients and their destinations, it comes up time and time again:  Is your town a supply town or a tourist destination or both?

Generally what we see in larger centres is that the larger they become, the more service oriented they are and the less kitschy, touristy and personality driven they are.   The problem with size is that the local consumer demand begins to outdrive the visitor’s needs.  Large communities suddenly become filled with generic chain stores or box store strips that are not appealing to tourists (even though they may be appealing to shoppers) and do not drive visitors to your community because you look the same as everywhere else. 

On a smaller scale, look at a typical town of say 5,000 to 10,000 people.  Does the community have a demand generator?  Something significant to influence a potential visitor to leave their home, travel to the community and spend some time? Examine the main street.  What is the retail mix?  Walk the main street and classify each operator as local or tourist.  My guess is that the majority of stores are service oriented, catering to the local population base.  This of course is not wrong, but we see too many communities promoting their downtowns, attractions and community as tourist destinations when in fact there is very little for the visitor to see, do and buy there.

Want to make a change in your downtown?  Focus small.  Work with a small cluster of shops within one block: a coffee shop, a pub, gallery, and a candy store.  Support these businesses and encourage other like-minded retail to locate within this small district.  It will quickly become a hub of activity, especially after normal business hours.  Suddenly you will have a retail destination that is worthy of promoting. 

Have a small downtown you want to convert into a traffic driver? Encourage the development of several of the same type of retail experiences in close proximity.  Shoppers will drive to your town to find selection.

Overall, it’s okay to be a service town!  If your town is en-route to a tourist town, concentrate on getting cars to stop to stock up on supplies.  Food is a very good motivator to get drivers to stop the car.  Magnificent butter tarts, the oldest aged cheddar, or the best burgers quickly get flow through traffic to throw on the brakes.  Ensure gas station and grocery store facades are appealing and customer service is top notch.  Concentrating your efforts on supporting these suppliers, will turn you into a top notch supply destination, and allow you to reap the rewards of flow through traffic and not simply watch them pass you by.


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Filed under destination development, Destination Marketing, tourism, Tourism Development, Tourism Management, Tourism Marketing

Thinking Outside the Big Box Store

Somewhere along the way, it became unfashionable to provide a unique shopping experience in most Canadian cities. In the past decade, the way we shop has been transformed by big box store complexes being built across the country. At first glance, one might think it is great to see these highly desirable chain stores locating in their city. But have you ever travelled to another city and noticed their box store complex looks eerily similar to yours?

This change in development style has drastically altered the way we shop. Before the big box store phenomenon, it was possible to walk, drive or bike to a downtown and visit several stores by strolling down tree lined sidewalks with interesting storefronts to glance in as you walk by. These were desirable places for people to spend their time and money.

As these cookie cutter box stores popped up, people stopped visiting downtowns as they were less automobile friendly than the concrete jungle that is a big box complex. The power centres are usually located far from the road, and rarely close to any residential neighbourhoods, forcing most visitors to drive there. They are located far from the road to allow for massive parking lots, and huge store fronts with very few windows. Overall this has created a very bland, boring shopping experience.

Have you ever visited a big box store, and wanted to visit another one that was close by? Did you walk or did you get back in your car to drive 30 seconds to the next parking lot? If you drove, I don’t blame you… it’s not your fault! These plazas are not designed with the pedestrian in mind, with very few sidewalks, and massive amounts of automobile traffic.

But it does not have to be this way! Local governments need to recognize that they are in control of the type of development that occurs in their community. These stores WANT to locate in your community in order to make money. Developers need to be told that if they want to build in your city, they’ll need to do it in a way that does not just meet their needs but the needs of the people that will be using the shopping centres for years to come.

Unfortunately, it appears local governments struggle to do this unless there is significant public opposition to cookie cutter development. A successful example of this was seen in Park Royal Village in Vancouver. When city planners and public officials heard a significant amount of public opposition to another cookie cutter development, they were able to hold the developer to a higher standard and the result was a great, unique shopping experience for the community to be proud of.

These shopping centres shape the way we live and interact with our city, and every effort needs to be made to create the best spaces possible. All you have to do is say something.

Special thanks to Dr. Brian Lorch for the photo of the Vancouver Home Depot and background information.

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Filed under Rant, Tourism Development

The Little Bench That Could

Recently I learned of a very interesting story of one person’s determination to make his downtown more inviting…. a place that people would want to come and spend time in.

It’s an atypical downtown where a major highway dissects it and large volumes of transient traffic flow through each day. That in it self stacks the cards against this small town. It has likely been atleast 20 years since any major physical improvements have been made and the retail sector has suffered the usual Walmart big box store invasion. Some merchants have made façade improvements but its just not getting there.

Bring in, lets call him Walter, who purchased a very small linear store to operate his office in. He didn’t have to locate his business in the core but wanted to in order to be able to help contribute to real, positive, meaningful downtown change. His business would have survived nicely in a back ally, industrial park or side street but he decided to be in the downtown.
Immediately after taking ownership Walter significantly improved the interior and the exterior of the store. Change was beginning. He then worked with the municipality to change the signage bylaw to allow perpendicular business signage, a major downtown design fundamental.

After the flower planters, it was time to give passersby a place to sit. Like all other downtown design elements, places to sit are very important. People are social creatures and want to be with other people….and where there are people there is happiness and where there is happiness there is commerce. Walter’s little bench on this busy thoroughfare is symbolic that small things can make a difference. You watch, it started with one, lets see how many sprout up and see how many more people call this downtown a place to be.

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Filed under Rant, Tourism Management