Today’s niche tourism segment- psychics, mediums and Ghost Hunters

Have you ever stayed in a hotel that forbid seances?

Yes, it’s true. I just returned from an overnight stay at Lily Dale Assembly,the world’s largest center for spiritual development and the practice of the Spiritualist religion. For 131 years, Lily Dale has offered a world-renowned summer program of lectures, workshops and other activities featuring best-selling authors, leaders in academic and scientific research into psychic phenomena, as well as the world’s most powerful mediums, teachers and healers. Lily Dale is widely known as a place where knowledge and enlightenment converge in ways that deepen faith and heighten awareness. The energy of the universal life force can be felt, experienced and developed here in this serene 19th century lakeside community surrounded by towering, old-growth forest.” 

Now I am not a Spiritualist, but I know this is a very popular destination in Chautauqua county for people from all over the country and the world.  My beloved aunt has been coming here for decades – the same aunt that taught me how to use a Ouji board at age 8  and showed me  how to levitate the neighbor kids using only our fingertips. So I knew a bit about what I was getting into but I thought ‘what the heck’ and went with her and my mother. 

It’s a small self-contained village on the shores of a small lake. There is an admission fee to enter the village and once you are inside, you don’t need to leave. We stayed in the Maplewood, a small, three-story wooden building that could be part of a movie set. My aunt assured me that the room she reserved for me was not haunted like many of the rooms were. They were very basic rooms and most of the guests congregated on the rocking chairs on the front porch and chatted. The village also had many small cottages, most of which are homes to registered mediums, or people who connect with spirits. The mediums have little appointment books on their front porches and you can sign up for a reading. Many of the guests seem to come back every year to meet with their favorite mediums and there were stories galore on the porch about messages that were shared from beyond and things that had come to pass just like they were told.  

 There are services and meetings open to everyone where mediums will speak to people out in the audience- just like a John Edwards show.  A medium called me from the crowd and told me that I would be creating things and that I act as a role model for many. Well, I could buy that.  There are no fancy restaurants in the village- just a cafeteria, an ice cream stand and a coffee shop. There are several gift shops that sell crystals, books, and all kinds of psychic materials. 

There are special events throughout the summer and Saturday night was a presentation by the stars of the TV show “Ghost Hunters”. Apparently Jason and Grant are both from upstate NY and so Lily Dale is a natural fit for their involvement with the paranormal experiences they cover. The crowd at that show was diverse- elderly guests along with young people sporting all types of tattoos and piercings. 

Maybe it was the fact that there were no phones or TVs, or the fact that it was so peaceful by the lake. But I felt rejuvenated by my trip and I realized that there are so many reasons that people travel that we aren’t even aware of. It was neat to step into another world for a day.

Geocaching – a wonderful marketing tool for Rural Destinations

Geocaching is an outdoor activity that is quickly growing in popularity in the U.S. It is often called a “hi-tech treasure hunt” since it involves the use of a handheld GPS unit. Participants plug in coordinates (latitude and longitude) and walk to that location in search of a ‘cache’ which can be as large as a shoebox or as small as a film canister. There are usually small trinkets inside and a log book to record your visit. Geocaching is great for families, individuals, couples and groups looking for a fun reason to explore the outdoors.

It’s a great marketing tool for rural destinations for several reasons. First, it does not require a lot of research or advertising. The website geocaching.com will show you a list of existing geocaches by simply plugging in your zip code. You can find them and place small tokens or marketing collateral such as wooden nickels with your destination logo and website.  Pencils with your logo/website are always welcome as well.

Secondly, I find that local geocachers are very helpful and are willing to help you place a cache. There are rules that geocachers follow in order to have the cache be placed on the Geocache website so I have found it is best to take their advice. This means no placing geocaches within a certain distance of an existing geocache, and as one NY Geocacher with the geocache name of sapience trek told me  “keep the cache free of business names, any sort of interactions with merchants, requirements to go inside a business, promotions, recommendations, that sort of thing and you should be ok.” So while you can promote your downtown area with geocaches, you cannot promote individual stores.

My friend Joshua Noble, Director of Tourism for the  Kingman Arizona Chamber of Commerce started a geocaching program in his town last year. It is located along  the fabled Rt 66 and he has found success with his efforts. As this article in the Kingman Miner newspaper says:

Geocaching may sound like a niche hobby, and it essentially is. But those who practice it are dedicated, and Noble said he has encountered a number of geocachers who go out of their way to find as many caches along their route as they can. “You definitely get a feel for where people are coming from, and it seems to me it enhances the experience and is more likely to bring people back than some text and images in a magazine somewhere,” he said. “Between different materials to put a dozen of these together … it costs me $50, $60. And I’ve already gotten more feedback than I get from ads that are $500 to $1,000.”
The handful of caches Noble has already placed have gotten online kudos from geocachers as far away as Germany and the Czech Republic.
“The nice thing about it is, the crowd you’re bringing in is environmentally conscious and socially conscious,” Noble said.
“They have a sense of respect, because they want to see the hiking trails stay and they want to see these historic sites preserved. So it’s definitely a good group of people to promote to.”

The Experience Economy- Take a Lesson from Fairmont Hotels

The Experience Economy is a term first coined in the book of the same name by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore. Even though it was written more than ten years ago, the information they gathered and shared is still relevant. Basically, it shows that people are willing to pay more for a product or service if it is part of an experience. The most cited example is a cup of coffee. Coffee beans are a commodity that is traded at a set price, a pound of canned coffee is a bit more, a cup of coffee at a restaurant can cost up to $2. But a cup of coffee at Starbucks? People pay between $3-4 a day for their morning cuppa. Why is that? Pine and Gilmore say it is because Starbucks was smart enough to create an entire experience around getting that cup. The music, setting and community feel as you stand in line is worth more to many people. Add in the fact that you can sit on a cozy leather couch all by yourself or with a date and you have an entire experience for only a few dollars. Now that’s worth it, isnt’ it?

The Experience Economy is particularly important for the tourism industry. Visitors have tired of only looking at an exhibit in a museum or just staying at a hotel and hoping some activity presents itself. People want to come back from a vacation with something to talk about, not another souvenir or pictures of pretty scenery.

Fairmont Hotels is a well-known and upscale hotel brand, based in Canada. They have released  a new program called Discovery Vacations which includes Cultural Packages such as helping on Turtle Patrol at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion in Barbados, or visiting a Masai tribe while staying at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club in Kenya. Or how about attending a Barbecue Academy while staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs? You can learn from ‘International Barbecue Champ’ Rockin Ronnie Shewchuk.

So what can you offer? It doesn’t have to be expensive or rare. Think of 1. activities that the locals do for fun, 2. attractions, festivals and activities that visitors come to see. Start talking to a few of the people who plan these and see how you can put a package together. Unique ideas can often also get some press so keep that in mind as well. Price should not be your first concern when planning this, but the uniqueness of the experience.

Let me know some experience packages you offer or ones you have heard about!