Tourism’s new buzz: Product development: Officials want to build on Indiana’s unique assets

Billboards in southern Indiana used to tug spelunkers in four different directions. Come to Marengo Caves. Spend an afternoon at Bluespring Caverns. Visit Wyandotte Caves. Don a headlamp at Squire Boone Caverns.

Two years ago, however, operators at the four attractions decided it might be a better use of cash to market the area as a single attraction.

They pooled their advertising budgets and printed a brochure that listed all four destinations. They also created a passport that visitors could get stamped at each site. Tourists that collected all four stamps received a small prize.

The result: More people are coming. And they’re spending a longer time in the area and leaving more dollars behind when they’re gone.

Carol Groves, a spokeswoman for Marengo and Wyandotte Caves, knew of one father and son group that “came into the area and were just going to be here for the day.” After learning about the passport program, “they decided to spend the night and do all the caves that weekend.”

The effort is a microcosm of the latest tourism buzzword: product development. It boils down to determining what’s unique to an area and exploiting it-either by repackaging what already exists or building new attractions.

And it’s the rage for state tourism officials who hope the strategy can give another boost to the state’s already booming $6.7 billion tourism industry.

The movement is fueled by the work of two former Ivy League professors: Joseph Pine and James Gilmore. The duo’s 1999 book, “The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage,” outlines a fundamental shift in the tourism industry.

It’s no longer enough to have some blackjack tables, a Hilton and a Ruth’s Chris, they argue. Fanny-pack-wearing tourists can find those anywhere. Unique experiences are the key to attracting tourists-and by extension creating jobs and fueling the economy.

Memphis, Tenn., for example, has been building on its music heritage by adding music-themed businesses and museums such as a Gibson electric guitar showroom, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

The Quad Cities now has the Deere Pavilion, arguably the largest agricultural museum in the world, which reflects its rich farming history.

Charlotte, N.C., is about to spend $107 million on a NASCAR Hall of Fame to reinforce its image as the home of stock car racing.

Each of the attractions is expected to spur additional development such as hotels and restaurants.

“We need to move beyond our historic marketing roles,” said Mitch Nichols, president of Phoenix-based Nichols Tourism Group Inc., who has visited the state two times to talk about product development. “It’s thinking, ‘What should we have?'”

One of Nichols’ favorite examples is Iowa.

In 2002, Iowa officials “planted their flag” as the home of the Mississippi River when they opened America’s River at the Port of Dubuque. The Mississippi flows through 10 states, but no state had effectively used it as a tourist attraction, city officials argued. So they pulled together $188 million from government, private and not-for-profit sources and built a series of attractions that, according to press materials, celebrate the “historical, environmental, educational and recreational majesty of the river.”

In 2004, its second year of operation, the museums, conference center and casinos in the development helped the state rake in an $18 million increase in tourism spending-a 6.3-percent increase, twice the national average.

So what’s Indiana’s Mississippi River? Motorsports? Basketball? Caves? Limestone? That’s a question state officials are trying to answer.

“We’re excited about product development,” said Amy Vaughan, the state’s tourism director. “We think there are a lot of opportunities there.”

In a few months, tourism officials will travel to Iowa and Kentucky to see what those states have done. They’re thinking about asking Nichols to audit the state and come up with a list of product-development opportunities.

This year, they also introduced a bill that would have helped put some economic incentives in place for developing new tourist attractions.

“The state uses the anticipation of future taxes to [spur] development, but tourism’s been left out,” said Jim Keith, executive director of the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention & Tourism Bureau in southern Indiana, who lobbied for the bill.

Although it never received a hearing, Keith said he’d like to see it introduced again.

So would Vaughan. She thinks the bill came up short simply because there wasn’t enough time in the short session to convince legislators to support it. That should change next year when the state has a long legislative session.

In the interim, tourism officials will take some minor steps. For instance, the average length of stay in Indiana is down. From 2001 to 2004, it decreased from 1.64 days to 1.45 days, according to Falls Church, Va.-based D.K. Shifflet & Associates.

That means “there are some opportunities for cross-selling,” Vaughan said.

Just like the cave operators in southern Indiana, she wants to educate front-desk personnel at area hotels to pitch additional attractions like the Indianapolis Zoo and Victory Field to people who might be leaving town. The goal is to get them to stay another night.

As for southern Indiana, while the cave operators are doing an admirable job, some would like them to go further. Why not team up with cave operators in Kentucky and Arkansas and market the entire area as the premier location for caving in the world?

“That’s certainly a good idea,” Vaughan said.

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