More crowds, more problems? Yes, but it's also pushing the industry to take a more collaborative and inclusive approach to marketing outdoor experiences.
The surge in outdoor recreation and road trips since the pandemic has presented major challenges for destination management organizations, gateway communities and custodians of America’s great outdoors.
In turn, the need to manage overcrowding, minimize negative impacts on delicate ecosystems, and direct visitors towards lesser known areas is leading to increased collaboration between the tourism industry and agencies in charge of national parks, trails and public lands.
And that means innovative approaches to outdoor travel marketing and management are emerging. Among the latest examples is the newly launched online trip planning hub for the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, which crosses 16 U.S. states from Pennsylvania to Oregon, as well as 15 Indian reservations.
The website, designed as an insider’s local guide for travelers, currently lists 1,050 attractions and small tourism businesses and is the culmination of a geotourism project managed by consulting firm Solimar International, and spearheaded by the National Park Service (NPS), in collaboration with the American Indian Alaskan Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), as well as tourism boards and stakeholders located along the trail.
Their shared goal: to showcase the trail’s offerings across all states — from outdoor activities to sights, restaurants, shops and lodging — as recommended by local residents and businesses, and to preserve the natural environment while spreading the economic revenue among local communities.
“It was really forward thinking with the Lewis and Clark Trail to do a project like this, in that oftentimes NPS doesn’t affiliate themselves with tourism,” said Derek Schimmel, project and communications manager at consulting firm Solimar International.
“Despite having record numbers of visitors each year, they really don’t see themselves as a tourism entity, so for Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to take this step, it’s really allowing them to think outside the box.”
The portal also provides travelers with background and tips on visiting Indian Country along the trail — written and developed by AIANTA — plus insights on sustainable communities, and tips on responsible visitation.
“With a project like this, one of the things it does is it helps people find things that they might not otherwise know about,” said Mark Weekley, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, based in Omaha, Nebraska. It provides that little bit of extra information on some of those cool things, some of those local community things that they might just miss.”
The site also gives smaller venues and sites an opportunity they might not otherwise have to market and promote their businesses, Weekley said.
It’s a similar intent that lies behind Discover Puerto Rico’s new tourism campaign, “Population: YOU,” designed in collaboration with the island’s Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (DRNA).
“While we’re always in close collaboration with local stakeholders like DRNA on initiatives that influence tourism, the “Population: YOU” campaign is our first joint effort of this caliber,” said Leah Chandler, chief marketing officer at Discover Puerto Rico, in a statement.
“We see this as an opportune moment to partner and educate travelers on the Island’s many natural wonders spread across a number of our unique municipalities.”
As outdoor recreation and consumers’ desire to support local businesses continue to reach new heights, boosting tourism’s community and environmental agency collaborations as well as placing local narratives at the forefront are becoming part of the solution in preserving the outdoors while “building back better.”
NPS’ Weekley said he hopes the approach that drove the portal’s creation can become a way of doing business.
“Long distance trails, because we’re so partner focused and community focused along the trail, anything that gives us a chance to bring in many different voices — particularly people in the community, the tribal people to be able to be the ones to kind of drive their own tourism and tell their own stories — I think it’s a great model.”
It’s About Building Up Partnerships
For the Lewis and Clark travel portal, the process of getting all parties on the same page started with community engagement workshops and community visioning, Solimar International’s Schimmel said.
This meant getting on the trail, meeting with different groups including tourism boards, chambers of commerce, and the different Native American tribes to identify all the voices would be driving the NPS-funded initiative.
“It then moves on to an interactive map development and building out an actual platform where people can go on and log in and nominate their particular place,” said Schimmel. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a tangible business, restaurant or museum, it could be a scenic overlook. It could be beautiful places to watch the sunset, it could be a drive somewhere.”
Getting the tourism boards to be advocates and serve as a liaison to individual stakeholders in their areas was key, and the last two years have focused on building out web nominations, and increasing awareness among additional stakeholders through storytelling.
“We have 56 community partners all along the trail that are helping us to get some of that content live,” said Schimmel. “At a bare minimum, we can write the content and they can put their spin on it and make sure everything looks good, so it’s coming from their voice, or they could be the ones that press it out.”
When the push for the project comes from somebody who lives in southern Montana, Schimmel said, versus from an outside consultant, people are going to receive that way better.
Puerto Rico tourism’s partnership with the natural resources department was key to developing an outdoor tourism focused message.
“DRNA and municipality representatives were eager to participate, and we’re thankful for their support as they helped with proper permitting, ideas on how to maintain the environment and integrity of these locations, and other logistical needs,” said Discover Puerto Rico’s Chandler.
“We also enlisted two local Puerto Rican social media influencers to help identify ‘off-the-beaten-path’ locations to highlight the Island-wide varied landscapes and natural offerings.”
With the pandemic hitting and shifting tourism towards regeneration, Solimar International said the Lewis and Clark efforts, which began pre-Covid, became well positioned because of its focus on the economic, cultural and environmental.
The increased push towards social inclusiveness, however, meant finding a way to partner with Native American communities, whose history naturally predates Lewis and Clark’s.
“They’ve been there way before Lewis and Clark and it was their land,” said Schimmel, adding that this point came up during outreach efforts with communities rejecting the narrative of a ‘core discovery.’
“What we realized is that we’re not in a position to navigate these waters, so we linked up with AIANTA and they’re our liaison with the Native tribes,” said Schimmel, adding that they have great staff of writers on their team to help to tell the stories on a dedicated “Indian Country” page.
For Puerto Rico, regeneration is also behind the impetus of the campaign.
“Discover Puerto Rico is targeting responsible travelers who follow local guidelines and restrictions, protect the environment and leave the Island better than they found it, respect local communities, and treat those around them in a conscientious manner,” Chandler said, noting that the locations in the campaign had special meaning to local communities, hence the importance of reaching the right audience with the right message.
A Middle Ground Approach, Not Top Down
For sustainable tourism to take hold, public private partnerships are key but they must move away from a top-down approach, which often result in excluding community wants and needs.
“I think what geotourism does, especially with Lewis and Clark, it kind of helps to bring those two together,” said Schimmel. “So you’re working with NPS being a federal entity coming from the top down and then you have the different destinations along the trail that are working from the ground up, and we find this way to meet in the middle.”
For Schimmel, the Lewis and Clark travel portal points to a model that can be replicated because it starts with stakeholders being able to tell their own stories — and the project is driven by folks who believe in tourism, and believe in sustainability.”
By giving them a voice in the beginning, essentially giving them a platform where they can build it as they see fit, you find that middle ground and for me I think that’s the way to build a sustainable tourism model.”
AIANTA’s August newsletter highlights the organization’s role in the Lewis and Clark website portal in building up the experience of Native America along the trail, and calls on tribes and tribal businesses to reach out for free listings on the new portal as well as on its own website.
“We are excited to work with the National Park Service to help tribes along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail share their stories,” said Sherry L. Rupert, CEO of AIANTA, in a media release.
“Native Americans are often left out of the historical narrative, so we are thrilled that NPS is looking to deliver a comprehensive inventory of tribal activities and cultural tourism experiences for visitors interested in traveling all or parts of the famed route.”
Qualitative Not Quantitative METRICS
Measuring campaign results may come easier for Puerto Rico, but determining the success metrics of a larger online collaborative project between natural resources departments and the tourism industry is unchartered territory.
For the Lewis and Clark web portal, while visitation in the area is up, according to NPS’ Weekley, the parties remain unsure of how to monitor the Lewis and Clark portal’s success in directing travelers and spreading the tourism wealth.
“Metrics are an incredibly difficult thing on long distance trails because we don’t own the land, we don’t have controlled access points,” said Weekley. “I mean we can certainly look at visits to the site, but knowing whether or not that really translates into better services and better connections on the ground — it’s a tough one.”
Schimmel agreed and said that a success metric for the Lewis and Clark travel portal would be somebody actually leaving the site and taking part in activities because that means they’re actually finding it from there.
“And to link up with, you know, over 1,100 partners and finding out what their analytics looks like — it’s just a tough one. We work with universities trying to have them build out some outlines for economic studies and and such, but the first question is, how are we going to know who’s on the trail who’s not on the trail, how are we going to deal with 4900 miles? It’s a beast, quite frankly.”
The measure could be qualitative as much as it is quantitative, Schimmel said, in the sense of having these stories reproduce themselves throughout the different communities.
Ultimately, the game changer will be the tourism industry receiving direct, long-term collaboration and support from governmental agencies in charge of the environment in steering outdoor tourism towards a more regenerative future and travelers towards a more conscious way of exploring.
“We want people to get out and experience the trail, we would like them to do it in a sustainable way to the extent possible, and I think this will help them do it,” said Lewis and Clark’s superintendent Weekley. “I hope down the road, in some type of metrics, I can look back and say yes this was a smashing success. Time will tell. But I’m optimistic.”
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Photo credit: The new travel portal for the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail showcases and directs travelers to local businesses and Indian Country experiences. Bob Wick / Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management