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Placemaking and Outside Expertise

When looking for consultants or agencies to help you with placemaking — be it branding, marketing, web design, etc., you’re not at a loss for options. Any agency, near or far, will claim to do an outstanding job. But within that statement that brings up an important question: do you stay close to home or reach outside of your community for help? Which is the best choice for tourism?

Local freelancers and agencies have some obvious benefits:

  • They’re nearby, so neither of you don’t have to travel far to meet.
  • It’s easier for them to get the content (photos/videos, event recaps, etc.) you need to promote consistently.
  • They’re super familiar with the community: its businesses, culture, weather, and so on.

But it’s that final bullet point that makes them the worst choice to work with — at least in the beginning. I’ll explain why you should have both: a mix of outside perspectives and internal support, but all good placemaking starts with the former. An outside agency doesn’t have the same history, sees the community for what it is (not what it’s been), and can remain completely objective about what they see.

Here are a few benefits to having that outside perspective to set your placemaking project in motion:

You’ll avoid overused, boring concepts. To someone new to placemaking, the idea of promoting a community as “a great place to live, work and play” may seem creative — until they see that countless destinations have claimed to be the exact same thing. An outsider has seen those concepts in other communities and, more than likely, helped them go beyond them toward something that’s more authentic and creative. They know what else is out there, what yields results, and what is simply noise.

They’ll see your destination as first-time visitors see you because, well, they are first-time visitors. Their first impressions will be current, relevant, and processed through the lens of other current tourism marketing experiences. Everything from cell signal issues is where to find a public restroom is seen as new — not something they’ve grown accustomed to. When done right, all of this is documented and brought to bear within the final campaign.

They can guide your team toward what really matters. It can be easy to think more about your new logo instead of the necessary research to get you there, leading many to want to speed toward the more fun stuff. Not only does an objective perspective avoids that, but they also know how local governments typically work and can focus more on things like establishing community and stakeholder buy-in early in the process. This prevents “design by committee” and having people feel left out of the process, which is something that can make this entire experience very painful later.

You’ll work through — not around — the big problems. I can say that from my own experience, most of the placemaking process is dealing with larger community issues: businesses not being open on weekday evenings, infrastructural inefficiencies, poor coordination with other departments (parks, community development, economic development), and others. An expert in this industry has seen these problems before and has spent enough time working on solutions for them to have answers for your community.

The process and result will be suited for a local government. Working for clients in other industries (consumer goods, small businesses, B2B, etc.) requires different skill sets and ultimately, different deliverables. Whether you’re a government CVB or a nonprofit Main Street organization, there are similarities in procurement, processes, approvals, rollouts, metrics, and standards that aren’t found in any other industry. An expert that can see far down the road can provide a smoother process at each milestone. Work is quicker and more thorough because there’s no unnecessary learning process.

I mentioned earlier in this article that local resources aren’t the best choice in the beginning. I’m not here to beat up on local agencies (after all, to some communities, we are a local agency). They can be invaluable to a destination because of the proximity and familiarity they offer, and they should definitely be considered after the initial campaign. In fact, I recommend a gradual transition period from the outside agency to the internal resource as part of the initial scope of work. A team that’s hundreds or thousands of miles away is at a disadvantage in getting the content, having the in-person brainstorms, and continuing the groundwork laid by the initial process. Nothing can replace the ideas that stem from in-person meetings, no matter what apps like Zoom try to make you believe.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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