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PIBIO- Experiential Destination Marketing, and the ‘Disneyfication” of our new Island visitors

By Peter Huston

One day in early April a lady called me on the phone to ask what the cost of admission to the island was (seriously!), and then a few days later a man and his family stood in front of the Put-in-Bay Chamber Office looking at a map discussing what was open that day on the island. They asked what rides (they meant attractions) were open. I explained about how the island was slowly opening up week by week and recited to them a list of what they could do that quiet Tuesday, The father exclaimed that it was “a rip off, {since] nothing is open”. I hate to hear people’s disappointment, but we are not Disneyland. However, we may start to be confused with a heightened expectation of an “experiential destination experience”.

According to a July 2000 article in Spin Magazine a young NY marketing executive named Steve Riffkind had begun selling the idea of “strategic experiential tourism” even if he did not call it that. He was getting fees of upwards of a million dollars to advise businesses on how to create a destination experience. He saw that the use of signage to control people (coming to the ball park) and keep them from thinking about the real issues. …using “expressway” signs on the routes entering and leaving the ballpark (Yankee Stadium) area, buying up advertising signs, … was a revolutionary, cost-effective approach to marketing and promotion.

In 2004 when the first plans for the “new” New York Yankee’s Stadium were being unveiled few people had heard of the concept of “Strategic tourism planning for sustainable destinations and sites”. This was a new idea that posed the notion that a stadium was not just an athletic venue, but a tourist destination. Yankee Stadium was among the very first “planned” experiential marketing campaigns at a sports venue that utilized this approach to design a complete fan experience.

According to surveys this idea led to a broader fan experience, Fans attending a game at the new ball field said that felt like they were in familiar territory from the time they stepped off the subway or parked their car. We have started to do this with gateway signage on Route 53. The Miller Boat Line is working on upgrading their entry point to the island with signage and directional information. And plans are in place to add more waypoint signage on the island in the coming years augmenting the first time visitor experience.

Walt Disney was probably one of the earliest innovators of this concept when he built Walt Disney World in Florida in the late 60’s. He had planned ahead buying up land around the park site to ensure that the entire visitor experience at the park was under his company’s control. Today, everyone who goes to Disneyland or Disneyworld expects to have that full “Disney” experience regardless of the time of year or day of week.

It is no surprise that a Disney consulting group sells this experience now to companies, sports teams, amusement parks, even art museums like “the new Whitney Museum… New York City’s newest world-class cultural destination” according to the NY Times. These higher risk destination ventures are tapping into this concept. Experiential destination marketing of new venues has spread across the country from Kansas City to Omaha, Seattle to Providence.

Our visitors to Put-in-Bay are much more savvy travelers than ten years ago and they are bound to have experienced these emersion style visitor experiences. That unique experience may lead them to expect more and more for their vacation dollars.

There is however a fine balance between creating a positive and unique visitor experience and embracing the complete “Disneyfication” of Put-in-bay, What we want is for our visitors to enjoy their island experience without creating expectations that are beyond what we can deliver. What makes us unique is our collective individual approach that celebrates each individual’s path to a happy island experience without becoming a blurred reality that causes visitors to think we are Disneyworld. So keep celebrating “Island Style”.


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