Small towns have always held a special place in my heart. I was raised in Stuart, Florida, a wonderfully quaint seaside town with a population of less than 20,000. Growing up, I was always amazed at how many tourists flocked to Stuart because I often found myself thinking, “There is nothing to do here.” I can now attribute those thoughts to teen angst and hometown fatigue because as I’ve grown older and moved further from Stuart, I understand its appeal to travelers.
Before the age of the internet, small towns had a unique appeal to road trippers. There was truly nothing better than happening upon a gorgeous main street with a quaint diner where you can get out and stretch your legs as you’re traveling between destinations. I remember road tripping with my dad between Auburn, Alabama, and Tallahassee, Florida, and driving down a magnolia-lined street in Eufaula, Alabama. The antebellum houses were stunning, kept in pristine condition by residents and business people who had an apparent respect for their history and beauty. My dad still brings up our short drive down this small stretch of road to this day.
But in recent history, small towns like Stuart and Eufaula have shifted from pit stops to destinations, attracting tourists from across the nation to places that were previously small dots on a big map. What’s caused this, and how can your town or city get in on the action?
Exposure to small towns can be attributed partially to television (do we have any HGTV Home Town fans out here?!), but the main driving force in the resurgence of small towns is the internet. Individuals looking to travel now have seemingly unlimited options when selecting their next vacation, and access to exorbitant information that can sway their decision-making. In recent history, travel trends have noted that people are booking trips that allow them to be active, experience nature and eat amazing food. Small towns are places where travelers can do many of these things.
- Outline your town’s best assets and brag on yourself.
Does your town have an amazing hiking trail or a historic downtown square? Create a comprehensive list of your town’s unique assets and compile amazing photos and video highlighting each one. Share this content regularly on a blog and on your town’s social media pages. If you’re highlighting locally owned businesses, the likelihood that your residents will want to brag on their friends and family who own those establishments is high, so encourage them to share posts and extend your social reach. If you have advertising money to spend, consider running ads on social media to target your desired tourist demographic. These ads are affordable and can directly reach the people who are most likely to visit your town. How can you expect others to know about you if you don’t talk about yourself?
- Pursue targeted media opportunities.
Find opportunities for your town to be included on lists and in articles on travel websites. Perfect your media pitches by compiling all of your selling points into succinct bullets. Include photos and a short video with your pitch to drive it home. Cater the information you supply to your target outlet’s audience. For example, if you’re pitching to be included on a list of hidden gems in New England, include historical facts about the bed and breakfast in your town that was frequented by founding fathers. If you’re pitching an online article targeted toward millennials, include information about the nature preserve and distillery in the heart of your town. If you’re feeling even bolder, invite a journalist to visit your town and experience all you have to offer. If you’re lucky, you can land an amazing feature story.
- Submit your town for awards.
Award recognition is a great way to spread the word about your town. Seek opportunities for your town to be recognized in any outlet, small or large. Encourage local restaurants, hotels and attractions to enter into regional and national competitions to help gain recognition. You don’t have to win every contest you enter, but just placing often earns inclusion and digital backlinks. Every mention has immense value when you’re building the credibility of your town as a tourist destination.
- Make visiting your town easy.
Connect with the movers and shakers in your town and work to digitize restaurant reservations, excursion opportunities and hotel reservations. Now more than ever, travelers want autonomy over their activities. Your small town needs to make it easy to plan an amazing trip, or travelers will move on to the next site.
- Go above and beyond for tourists who do visit.
Reviews and word of mouth recommendations are crucial when trying to build your town’s reputation as a tourist destination. Collaborate with all of the entertainment venues in your town and focus on enhancing your customer experience. If visitors are wowed during their stay, they’re likely to share the experience on social media and with their friends, which could have a massive reach. Don’t underestimate the value of exceptional customer service!