Interpret Your Town or City: What Makes It Special

Bicycle events like New Belgium Beer's Tour de Fat are signature community outings and enjoyed by people of all ages.
Bicycle events like New Belgium Beer’s Tour de Fat are signature community outings and enjoyed by people of all ages.

We live in Fort Collins, Colorado, a very nice city of 100,000 or so people located at the edge of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Money Magazine recently named it the best place in America to live. Through the years it has earned a great deal of praise as a lifestyle city. And it is true that it is a pleasant place to live with great weather, beautiful bike trails, Old Town shopping and restaurants, many breweries and Colorado State University.

When you visit Fort Collins’ official tourism website it reads “Adventure Casual, and So Much More.” I don’t know what that means. I have worn no formal clothes on any adventure in my life. They have all been casual. Certainly casual clothing is the norm in Fort Collins. I don’t know how that tagline distinguishes the community in any way.

Cities like to declare themselves the capital of something. Austin is the “Live Music Capital of the World.” It does make a statement that is true. They have lots of live music venues, including Austin City Limits, a TV show held in great esteem. The Austin tourism website adds “What You Hear is True: Austin Always Dazzles.” Like “Adventure Casual,” it sounds good.  But I’m not sure it really means anything. I still like “Keep Austin Weird.” That’s a lot more interesting as a tagline and describes the eclectic mix of lifestyles that makes Austin such a unique place to live and work. Las Vegas brags, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.” I think that works in that it identifies Las Vegas as an adult playground. But some years ago when Las Vegas wanted to rebrand itself as a family destination, it found the tagline didn’t work in its favor.

Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia has a welcome sign that tells us what matters to them.
Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia has a welcome sign that tells us what matters to them.

City websites invariably give information about places to stay, eat, and visit, but unfortunately, many feel that is enough. Convention and Visitor Bureau websites sometimes take a stab at a brand or tagline to attempt to connect with a potential visitor. But most fail to say much about the real character of the place. Carmel by the Sea indicates it is a “world-renowned destination” with the sophistication of San Francisco and the glamour of Hollywood nestled into one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. That gives some idea of what is there, but mostly it compares itself to somewhere else.

Instead of relying on weak taglines or simple information, communities could tie into their real attributes and history and the deeper meaning of being in that unique place to begin a lasting relationship with residents and visitors alike.

Brain research indicates that we create memories around experiences that touch our emotions. It is not information that tantalizes us. We make memories out of experiences that include information, but it was not the information that attracted us. We go to new places for romance, adventure, relaxation, inspiration and many other intangible reasons. Our memories are complex mixtures of the facts and the happenings. I won’t return to Paris or Amsterdam because they have more museums, restaurants and gardens than anywhere else, even though they do. Those are useful facts about the cities, but my memories of those places are less tangible and more romantic.

The charm and romance of Paris is on the streets, in the cafes, not easily portrayed with facts.
The charm and romance of Paris is on the streets, in the cafes, not easily portrayed with facts.

Crafting websites and taglines that actually interpret a place and begin building some understanding of what makes the place unique takes thoughtful planning that goes beyond catchy branding. You can interpret your community in a more enduring way by tying the image, tagline, website, and promotional materials to the real sense of place, the experiences, the emotions evoked.

I still love Fort Collins, but “adventure casual” would never be in my description when I tell someone else what makes this a great place to live. This community is a place to ride a bike along the river and enjoy a beer at a brewpub in Old Town or take friends from out of town on the New Belgium tour. I don’t think of life here as an adventure so much as a healthy relationship with nature that manifests in a largely outdoor lifestyle.

If your community needs an interpretive plan to help tie the local stories together into a central message or theme, we can help. It’s worth the effort . . . and better than a recycled tagline.

– Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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