Found in a private Hudson collection, this fold-out poster appears to date from the late 1960s or early 1970s. Inviting visitors to “Come to Columbia County” (exclamation point — !), the poster divides the local terrain into six regions: The Hunt Country, The Highlands, The Lakelands, South Fruitlands, Centerland, and North Fruitlands.
I have never heard a single resident use any of these terms, except maybe an occasional real estate listing which references “Hunt Country” to give a property a more aristrocratic air. When walking out the door for a drive to Clermont, one doesn’t usually call out: See ’ya later, honey—I’m off to the South Fruitlands!
Every decade or so, a new effort is made to rebrand or “market” Columbia County to the outside world. In the City of Hudson, such efforts occur more on a five-year plan. And though these typically occur with much anticipatory excitement among those businesses which depend on visitors, they proceed with little if any real analysis of the previous campaign, or the current target audience.
Vivid but worthless anecdotal reports about visitor needs and complaints drive group conversation at first, as it is more fun and inflammatory to talk about the most extreme examples than to do in-depth demographic studies or figure out how to really match messages with audiences.
Over time, though, both the more extreme examples and the more creative edges get shorn off, resulting in a watered-down end product which neither offends nor appeals to much of anyone. Drab, or corny, or excessivly boosterish, the end product arrives almost as an afterthought in train stations, B&B lobbies, coffeeshop displays, and the like. Those involved feel a sense of accomplishment, and backslap each other endlessly on what a great job everyone did.
But it is not at all clear that these brochures, posters, maps, etc. have much impact. Visitors and house-hunters often pick tourist guides up without ever really reading them, due to a combination of crammed 7-point type and lack of graphic and editorial punch. When visiting a place, one feels reassured having these flyers in one's pocket, but as a practical matter it is happenstance, or word of mouth, or a personal recommendation, that really matter. Having a list of a zillion options can feel like having no options, if one does not know where to begin. Asking a local proprietor of an impressive store where you should have dinner is worth 1,000 listings or Yelp reviews.
So what does drive traffic to places like Columbia County? Having grown up in the neighboring Berkshires, and now in my 15th year of living on this side of the State line, I’d postulate the following:
(1) Friends with country places. Many people’s first experience of a provincial region like the Hudson Valley comes from spending a weekend with friends who have already taken the plunge—or hearing from those friends about how great it is Upstate. Some of these become homeowners themselves, or just repeat visitors to either their friends’ homes or area lodging. (As a corollary to this rule, some become familiar with the Hudson Valley’s appeal from buying produce from its growers in urban greenmarkets.)
(2) Must-see events. Others discover a place because of some event they simply must attend. When I organized a benefit concert with Patti Smith in 2003 at the Basilica, with the help of Rudy Wurlitzer and Lynn Davis, it was astonishing to see what a loyal following Smith had all over the world... The concert hauled in reservations from all over the U.S. and Europe. A small number of events of this type already rope in visitors here, such as the NADA art fair, also held at the Basilica. However, it is not at all clear that the region’s ever-proliferating festivals and parades and walks necessarily have the same effect of expanding the market, as they often draw the bulk of their audiences from a static, existing pool of local residents and others already familiar with the area.
(3) Good times, bad times. Places like Columbia County which are situated within striking distance of a major city have a peculiar relationship to the fortunes of that city. In good times, people in the metro area have more cash, and are more likely to spend it on houses and vacations. In bad times, a certain percentage of the metropolis’ residents move (often cashing out of their real estate) and take their remaining income and savings to the provinces. In the run-up to 9/11, for example, the County was on a steady upswing; the terrorist attack of that day caused many to think that business would die on places like Warren Street. But the opposite happened, as many City residents sought out a place to Escape From New York either temporarily or permanently.
(4) Sustained media coverage. Whenever a feature article appears in a well-read, high-circulation publication, local businesses tend to see an immediate jump in visitors in the following weeks. Even better than a single prominent article is a sustained spate of publicity over a period of 6-12 months, such as that which occurred in 1998-1999. It’s not any one article that really puts a place on the map, but a series of good press. The third time someone reads about a destination, that’s when s/he says: Huh, I keep hearing about this place... Maybe it’s time to check it out.
(5) Infrastructure. Most crucially, the location, accessibility, and fundamental appeal of a place is what brings visitors, far more than marketing or branding. To convince someone to commit to a trip takes more than a single image or catchphrase. Columbia County’s accessibility via the Thruway, Amtrak, Taconic Parkway, and to a much lesser extent via the Albany airport, coupled with its remarkable terrain and building stock, are what keep people coming, not throwaway brochures or posters, or billboards, or Greyhound Getaway Specials.
Two out of five of the above are within a place’s control, while three of them really are not controllable. Residents and businesspoeple can encourage more must-see events, but these tend to happen more because of one couple’s connections than any group effort, as in the case of the Patti Smith concert.
It’s far more crucial to just get people here than to spend a lot of effort creating long inventories of every single thing they might possibly do once they arrive. People like to explore places for themselves, to follow their noses and make their own adventure, maybe at most relying on a tip from a shopkeeper or waiter or passer-by. This place is not so big and complicated that people won’t find good stuff on their own, especially with everyone carrying around handheld devices with more connectivity and power than a supercomputer from 20 years ago.
As far as courting more media, to my knowledge none of the many County and City business groups and development agencies has a complete file of all the remarkable publicity the area has received over the past 20 years, which in itself would be a strong marketing tool—because half the media does indeed repeat and copy itself routinely, liking nothing better than a proven story. The other half wants novel angles and stories, so effort there might best be devoted to developing a dozen “pitches” to reporters and editors—unusual new takes on a territory whose basic contours others have already covered to death.
Speaking of death and marketing, it’s always worth giving Bill Hicks the last word on those topics whenever they come up: