Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Attracting and supporting lifestyle entrepreneurs

Over the years of extension work in rural BC, our research teams have met numerous tourism business owners who don't necessarily fit the mold of stereotypical "profit motivated" entrepreneurs. These "lifestyle entrepreneurs" are motivated to enter into business for non-economic reasons and for the lifestyle benefits that emerge. Lifestyle entrepreneurs are particularly attracted to tourism businesses because there are ample opportunities to blur the distinction between "producing and consuming experiences". For example, it is not uncommon to find entrepreneurs that love kayaking so much (consuming it) that they decide to transfer their skill set to produce it for others - thus starting a business to "finance their leisure pursuits".

Academics have been trying to get more familiar with lifestyle entrepreneurs in tourism for the past decade. Some of their insights are useful to share with those who are wanting to support or attract lifestyle entrepreneurs into their area. Gareth Shaw and Allan Williams (2004) found that the small scale entrepreneur in tourism is different than in other economic sectors and needs to be better understood. Tourism attracts lifestyle entrepreneurs for three reasons: 1) it is relatively easy to enter into business in tourism as it does not require professional licensing, formalized education or approval, 2) depending on the sector, low levels of capital are required to enter, and 3) skill sets applicable to entry are largely transferable from other industries. Add to this today's fast paced society and people's desire to achieve balance - and lifestyle entrepreneurship becomes an attractive avenue for personal fulfillment. Irena Ateljevic and Stephen Doorne (2000) have studied lifestyle entrepreneurs in tourism in New Zealand extensively. They have found that many of them are motivated by a concious rejection of economic and business growth models. While this might seem to be financial suicide, they found that these entrepreneurs were more often the instigators of niche market opportunities in tourism and were often instrumental in introducing innovation to the wider industry. These ideas often have the value added outcome that they stimulate wider regional economic development opportunities.

While I couldn't find stats on the number of lifestyle entrepreneurs in tourism in BC or Canada, my guess is that in rural areas, they are a significant portion of businesses (in a Cornwall study, one third of tourism entrepreneurs were lifestyle motivated). I arrive at this based on the percentage of entrepreneurs that we have encountered over the years, mixed with the observation that rural areas afford individuals the amenities that are likely to contribute to overall lifestyle motivations. It is my observation that we still make the assumption that all businesses have dominant profit motives and are seeking mechanisms to grown and expand their businesses. In making this assumption, we are likely going to miss out on opportunities to a) support the lifestyle entrepreneurs that are already operating in rural areas and b) attract more lifestyle entrepreneurs to rural areas. Both of these are critical to rural tourism development as our already limited product base in rural areas is projected to decline due to the exit of entrepreneurs who plan to retire (baby boomers are shown to dominate) and regions need to find ways to stimulate the addition of small businesses in order to develop experiences for visitors. Indeed - Richard Florida argues that the only communities that will survive are those that are able to attract creative people to locate in them - lifestyle entrepreneurs fit that mold.

So how do regions attract lifestyle entrepreneurs? What questions do we need to be asking ourselves to understand their motives better? My simple answer is - I don't know yet - but the best way for us to find out is to ask them. Some of my research on innovators in sustainability has already shown that these non economic motives are dominant among early adopters in tourism. The lifestyle entrepreneurs I have talked with are more than willing to share what their motives and business support needs are - and these are not necessarily the things that we would expect. Some want to close shop for a couple of months of the year, some want to limit exposure during the season, and others are hiring people who share their passion. These are not typically the business practices that tourism development experts are encouraging or expecting. So it may seem that we have a disconnect if our economic development ideas are based on a limited type of entrepreneur that is neither present or attracted to rural areas. Another important consideration for rural areas is to note that lifestyle entrepreneurs often decide to locate in an area after repeated travel to a destination (for leisure pursuits largely). This phenomenon has been dubbed "travel stimulated entrepreneurial migration" (Snepenger et al, 1995 as cited in Shaw and Williams).

Simply put, lifestyle entrepreneurs are an important asset for rural regions and we have a lot of work to do to understand what they need to settle, set up shop and serve visitors. Let's start the dialogue and listen.

Ateljevic, I and Doorne, S. (2000). Staying within the fence: Lifestyle entrepreneurship in tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Vol 8, No. 5, p:378.

Shaw, G. and Williams, A. (2004). From lifestyle consumption to lifestyle production: Changing patterns of tourism entrepreneurship. Small Firms in Tourism: International Perspectives, Elsevier Ltd.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tourism routes can enhance product development

Last week I commented on the importance of thinking beyond communities to thinking about regional tourism development. One of the ways that others around the world have done this is to develop tourism routes that create unique experiences for visitors (Australia, South Africa, Spain, France). Simply put - route tourism is "an initiative to bring together a variety of activities and attractions under a unified theme and thus stimulate entrepreneurial opportunity through the development of ancillary products and services" (Greffe, 1994). Routes link bundles of experiences for visitors and make it easier for them to make their way through the abundance of marketing information to a travel decision that satisfies their overall needs. One of my favorite quotes on routes is that a" route can be experienced without necessarily ever arriving at a destination, and in turn, a destination can be experienced without following a route" (Murray and Graham, 1997).

Routes have emerged around the world primarily to link products in rural areas where awareness of products is enhanced by creating greater access for visitors who otherwise may not put in the effort to travel to an area. While the impacts of route tourism are still being studied, there is some evidence that routes promote partnership among tourism suppliers resulting in expanded market opportunities. Some have shown that visitors will stay longer and spend more in a region - something many rural areas are striving for.

This week I want to summarize some points from an article called "Route tourism: a roadmap for successful destinations and local economic development" written by Marlien Lourens. Marlien provides some good tips for those who were considering working on tourism routes based on evidence from South Africa and Spain case studies.

Step 1: The route must be grounded in solid market research that identifies key target markets and their needs - this must be done on an ongoing basis to be responsive to trends and shifts in markets.
Step 2: An audit should be done on the tourism products in the area including all natural and cultural assets. It may be valuable to determine criteria to be included as part of the route to ensure consistency of quality in the travel experience.
Step 3: Scrutinize the assets to determine the unique selling features of the area and then develop a macro level strategic plan to consolidate tourism planning for the area.
Step 4: Determine the size of the membership base for suppliers on the route - the buy in of these members is critical to the success of the route for they are the ultimate delivery agents of the experience. It is important to ensure the product mix is diverse and does not over represent any of the sectors (i.e. accommodations) as visitors will expect that all aspects of their experience will be available.
Step 5: Members should establish a clear brand identity for the route and then market this according to the targets identified.
Step 6: Members should decide upon what sort of governance and operational structure they need to ensure that the route is maintained.
Step 7: Members should think long term about the finances required to make the route a success in the minds of visitors. The author suggests that many routes start small and can take 20-30 years to mature and deliver substantial economic benefits and therefore realistic goals should be set about return on investment.

It might be worth considering the potential role of tourism routes to BC's product base as there are currently few well recognized routes available to visitors. While there are a few circle routes listed on the Tourism BC website and drivers see occasional signage on these routes when driving BC highways - there are questions about the level up uptake and ownership of these routes among BC operators or among residents. Are these routes based on ongoing market research or random clusters of natural assets? Do people know about these routes? Are they uniquely positioned in the marketplace? Do operators know which routes they are on and do they tie into these to help position their products? These are all questions we need to ask to understand the impact of these routes or to develop new ones that tie together suppliers in ways that satisfy visitors needs.

The full article citation is: Lourens, M. (2007). Route tourism: a roadmap for successful destinations and local economic development. Development Southern Africa Vol 24, No. 3, September.
Reference to Greffe, X, 1994. Is rural tourism a lever for economic and social development? Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2:23-40.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Think regional

During my recent leave from work (fall 09), I missed the opportunity to attend the Reversing the Tide: Strategies for Rural Revitalization" conference in Prince George. One of my first to do's getting back was to catch up on the reports from the conference - and I was pleased with the topics and materials that came forth. I would recommend taking a look at the Communities in transition site for more material in particular, I will comment on some of the insights in a paper by Mark Drabenstott titled:
"Summary paper: Revitalizing rural BC: Some lessons from rural America"

In his paper, Mark raises numerous points that those involved in tourism development in rural BC should consider. The key point I wanted to highlight is one that I have been making in presentations and boardrooms for some time now - we need to move beyond community tourism thinking in BC to develop regional thinking. Mark makes the case better than I will in the paper, and provides strategies for this to take place, but I wanted to make some comments to reinforce some of his suggestions based on my experiences in the field.

First - Rural areas need to think regionally because visitors do. Simply put, visitors from key markets are usually not familiar with the small communities in our province. And, when they plan a trip, they are unlikely to travel to just one small community. More realistically, they will decide what region or route they will travel to experience a range of amenities that satisfy their travel needs. Depending on their form of travel, they will likely encounter many other communities on route.
In this scenario, our current form of tourism development (community based investments) may be causing some marketing fatigue and confusion. Additionally, the tradition of community rivals in rural areas often transcends hockey games. We make it a regular practice to stop along communities on route when we are travelling for research and asking residents what we can expect in the community we are going to. We write down verbatim the comments that are made and these inevitably are of interst to the study community because they indicate that communities are pitching themselves against one another in the tourism game instead of collaborating.

Mark makes the points about the need to collaborate very well in his paper. He suggests, and I agree once again, that these regions need to be self determined and not follow traditional jurisdicational boundaries if these are not appropriate. I see this in many areas of BC where unique tourism products exist and small groups are working together to leverage their ideas for the betterment of all (Gold Countries Community Society, Alaska HWY, Yellowpoint Cedar area...) but they often have to battle against jurisdictional lines that impede their success and require significant acumen in governance issues. So when I suggest more regional thinking, I am not necessarily suggesting that our current tourism regions take on the task of regional tourism development. For, as you can see by the map itself, these regional lines do not necessarily represent the type of unique competitiveness that Mark is recommending. In fact, for those interested in regional tourism development - it might be a good exercise to consider your regional map completely void of lines and work instead on what the competitive assets are that can be bundled together to create experiences (tourism products) that are unique to the market.

I was reminded many times throughout the article about the good work being done by all the leaders, operators and associations in the Northeast of BC. They were part of a Regional roundtable in 2007-08 that illustrated many of Marks points. As the evaluator of this initiative, I had the opportunity to travel up north many times and observe the process that the group went through. Although the project met up with some operational issues in the end, I think it is fair to say that collectively the points about working together as a region were made. At one of the first meetings - Mayors and First Nations leaders from communities along the Alaska HWY (one of BC's unique products) got together in a room - perhaps for the first time. It took sometime for people to understand that they were expanding their scope of stewardship to extend beyond political domains. But using exercises like storytelling and the sharing of knowledge, the region made headway with regionalizing tourism. The project also exemplified the challenges that Mark cautions about - government agencies are not often supportive of the efforts to think regionally as it requires new alliances and support systems. Or his quote "it requires reaching across long established jurisdictional boundaries which have often been more like battle lines than invitations to collaboration" (p.11). Also, the entire effort is slower and more process oriented - it isn't about quick decisions about which capital projects to fund in a community - it requires a shift to think what the region needs to pursue opportunities that give them a competitive edge.

BC has used a dominant community based tourism development paradigm for a long time. Our funding programs have endorsed the idea that communities can direct their destiny by getting their tourism house in order. While this is important at one point in the continuum, I have long believed that we will not achieve our full potential until we think the way our markets do about our products and combine our limited assets to leverage our strengths.

So - next time you are working on community tourism initiatives, ask yourself how engaged your community is in defining what the regional visitor experience is like. It's time - let's add this language to our discussions and receive the same benefits Mark highlights for rural regions in the US.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

BC's first rural tourism conference coming up!

Over the years as we have travelled from region to region in BC with our students, we have met over 700 community leaders and business operators that shared their experiences in tourism development with the TRIP team. As early as 2007, the Advisory committee for the project agreed that it would be a good idea to host a conference on rural tourism to help bring people together to learn from one another and develop networks thoughout the province. Indeed, when we arrived in a new community, the first question we were asked was "so what are they doing in X community". There are few opportunities for rural leaders and operators to connect with others and learn new strategies that they can bring back to their community. Indeed, this was one of the reasons we took knowledge on the road with TRIP - and we were often met with people that commented that it was nice for them to not have to travel to the "city" and spend their valuable time and money to gather new ideas.

The idea of a rural conference for a region is not unique - indeed Alberta has been hosting a very successful conference for a decade now (see Growing Rural Tourism Conference). The conference is unlike the typical "industry conferences" where the focus is often on updates from government, agencies and associations and instead it focusses on capacity building for small operators and decision makers in rural areas.

Rob Hood from Thompson Rivers University, one of my colleagues in TRIP, was successful in an application to Western Economic Development last year to build on the success of TRIP and focus on assisting communities in the Pine Beetle affected area of the province. One of the aspects of the province was to host our desired BC Rural Tourism Conference and I am happy to announce that folks should mark their calendars for April 6-8th and plan to travel the the North Shuswap region of BC. More information on the conference can be found on the web. . The call for submissions for workshops, sessions, etc is open right now so consider putting in a proposal to the conference committee to share ideas with all the others that will be there.

We hope the conference brings together many of the people we have met along the way to hear updates on your successes and for us to share with you what we have learned about rural tourism in BC throughout the last few years.

Mark your calendars!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Keeping up with technology

Hello everyone and welcome to the first post of this new blog. I am not usually an early adopter, particularly when it comes to technology (still don't own a cell phone). But, after attending a session on the value of blogs to share knowledge and ideas at the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa in May 2009, I became convinced that blogging could play a role in sharing ideas, insights and innovation with those developing tourism in rural and remote areas of British Columbia (and beyond). So, here it begins...

What I intend to do with the site are a couple of things:

1. Take hard to digest research information from academic, industry and government sources and translate them, pull out the key points and discuss what I think they mean for rural areas;
2. Provide questions around important policy debates, industry issues and other events to help ignite inquiry, debate and dialogue that helps with decision making;
3. Share innovative ideas from businesses and communities that are doing things that others should know about;
4. Explain and instruct on some strategies that will help improve business success in rural areas, or help inform sustainable planning and development decisions at the community and regional level.

It is a tall order and it will take time but I encourage others to follow, contribute and provide me ideas as it evolves. Ask questions and I can investigate the answers, tell me what you or your community is doing, or ask my thoughts on an issue that is facing the industry.

I look forward to helping infuse the industry with this insight into 2010 and beyond.