The political orientation of a destination is shaping what visitors see and who might visit
Brought to you by the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Insights Collective
Hiding in plain sight. While the world was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and likely as one of its outcomes, the United States was further polarizing around nearly every cultural issue we faced. Red and blue became more vivid, as did black and white, male and female and young and old.
As our divisions become starker, it seems like everyday decisions would be influenced by which side of the dividing line a person stands. That is, how much are social issues and political perspectives responsible for product and brand choices, or to where people want to take a vacation?
Given this situation, we decided to research to understand better the extent that U.S. consumers’ positions on social/political issues and their perceptions of a destination’s socio-political orientation influenced decision-making to visit that destination.
Political variables factor into consumer choices
What we found first was surprising, but with deeper analysis, the findings began to make sense in today’s world. Political orientation, gender, race and the values within those categories are in play every day in the consumer marketplace.
Politics apparently a low priority among Steamboat visitors
Steamboat Springs travel designer Heidi Theis believes the only variables affecting tourism to any real degree currently are travel restrictions, cost and availability of supply.
Theis is the “chief compass setter” at Benvenuto Travel Design Firm, formerly known as Steamboat Reservations and Travel. She specializes in helping time-starved people manage their travel by creating customized experiences, whether in Routt County or elsewhere in the world.
Theis noted she has not seen politics enter into her discussions with clients, even those related to pandemic-related restrictions on travel. For example, she said she hasn’t had a single customer ask about mask protocols in planning their trips, whether for political or medical reasons.
“I recognize we live in a world that tries to politicize everything but travel has been a safe space from that in a lot of ways because it opens people’s eyes to other places, cultures, ways of life. Most people, when they are traveling, are seeing things in their best light.”
Pandemic thinking has influenced travel choices, however
What Theis is seeing more of are personal values being a more pronounced influence on travel choices.
“Personal values can be as simple as grandparents who have decided in their retirement or later active years that they want to spend all of their travel with family,” Theis said. “The trip they would normally plan for just themselves is not what they pick any more. They pick where they can take their grandchildren or adult children or spend quality time with them.”
Personal values can also drive “people who have a strong desire to learn what’s going on in other cultures.”
“What they consider to be leisure travel is building a water supply in a Third World country,” Theis said. “Or they want to educate their children about the planet and nature and those types of things. That’s how they want to spend their family vacation time.”
According to the 2020 Consumer Culture Report, “71% of consumers prefer buying from companies aligned with their values. Twenty-one percent of Baby Boomers surveyed say buying from brands that share their values and ideologies is essential; with Generation Xers, this number rises to 50%, and for Millennials, even more, 62% believe it is important.”
The research highlights the importance of aligning brand, company values and ethos with the customer’s, so that businesses seek to attract or retain to remain competitive and relevant.
Consumers not only purchase from companies and products aligned with their social or political beliefs, but two in three have boycotted a company they previously purchased from because of its stance on an issue.
Political orientation also influences where we live. A recent study by Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos suggests people live near others from the same political party. Using spatial data computation, the authors present evidence of extensive partisan segregation throughout the country. (ryandenos.com)
Personal politics also impact where we go on vacation
If political alignment influences the products we buy and where we live, why wouldn’t political orientation, gender, age, race, personal values and purchase behavior also influence tourism destination selection?
Our findings show that as many as 39% of those politically oriented to the right indicate a destination’s political orientation influences the types of places they visit. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed on the left indicate the same. Those that identified themselves in the center politically were the least influenced by the political orientation of a destination they would consider visiting.
Political Orientation Influences Types of Places Would Visit and Practices
And real-world politics influence visitor perceptions
These findings suggest significant implications for tourism destinations. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for destination marketing organizations is that they cannot control how that message is being shaped to visitors and potential visitors.
A destination’s political perception is shaped internally by residents and politicians and externally by others outside of tourism, such as traditional media and social media influencers. Examples of this can be seen at every level.
At the state level, consumers have seen the impact of political orientation in Georgia and the impact of its legislature’s changes in voting regulations. These resulted in Major League Baseball relocating the All-Star game to Colorado, as well as critical responses from Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola, two of Georgia’s most venerable, locally-headquartered corporations. They are now joined by a host of other companies based in and outside of Georgia.
How much impact do ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon, influence consumer decisions not to travel there? In Southern California’s trendy Huntington Beach, one of the coast’s most desirable areas, this politically conservative city was recently the site of a controversial “White Lives Matter” rally. How many consumers will subsequently decide that this is not a resort town they want to visit?
The political orientation issue can also be regionalized as DMOs in the South have had to juggle issues related to Confederate monuments being publicly fought over by those for and against their removal.
Insights Collective; a Tourism Economy Think Tank and Resource Center – is a collaboration of destination travel industry experts who are collaborating and working, together with mountain resort communities and their stakeholders, to understand, plan, and navigate through the emerging tourism marketplace. TheInsightsCollective.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
So how do you still promote tourism in this climate?
Amid this polarization and politicization, DMOs are still tasked with destination promotion and messaging. While they are crafting inviting messages to visit, some are being undermined by political events they can’t control. And in other cases, they may be turning off a part of the traveling public.
More recently, some DMOs indicated they want to attract the “right kind of visitors,” those that match their destination’s values. Which side of the divide will consumers perceive they are on in taking this positioning? Is it the logical extension of a divided country?
Historically, the tourism industry has been about communicating destination attributes and largely avoiding political issues. This situation is changing. Perhaps it was inevitable that polarization would reach the tourism industry. It is new territory and destinations are going to have to be very nuanced moving forward.
But be careful; taking a position can either repulse some of the more significant generic visitor segments or align with others. It could attract entirely new visitor segments looking for a place where they feel comfortable, or completely turn off others.
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