Grappling with Progress a Destination Denies Chains.
By John R. Hendrie ~ CEO, Hospitality Performance, Inc.
Monday, 3rd October 2005
The character of a destination.  How will the community define itself, maintain its integrity, traits, history and essence, yet meet the expectations of the tourism engine which drives its commerce and livelihood.

Ogunquit, Maine is the latest Destination to fight for independence, waging a campaign against the "formula" chain restaurant scourge, in the minds of many citizens.  This battle is not new, with towns like Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, Bristol, RI, and even the neighboring town of York, ME enacting strong preservation measures.  But, Northern New England states, with their cachets and je ne sais quoi, particularly tend to challenge the Chain mentality.  The debates are visceral, alliances are fragile, emotional discourse abounds, as these New England communities address progress and retail commercialism.  It starts out with that demon Dunkin Doughnuts or McDonalds and then accelerates with villainous Starbucks and Chili's.  Lock the doors, bar the windows, hide the children, secure the women – the Huns are coming!

Every community has not only the right but also the obligation to define itself and protect the community interests.  The histories of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are particularly instructive.  The character is fiercely independent with a strong Puritan tradition, governing a wonderful and unique landscape of the ocean, grand lakes and resplendent mountains.  But, those darn "Flatlanders" have historically caused uproars. Trust Funds be damned!  Havoc wreakers all! Patriot, Ethan Allen, wanted Vermont annexed to New York State and the ski area, Killington, percolates to secede to New Hampshire.  That state's "Live Free or Die" slogan neglects to mention property taxes that attracted Massachusetts residents some twenty years ago, who are now moving back to the Bay State.  And, Maine tussles with the reality of two regions in the State – Southern and Seacoast Maine and all the rest.  Progress is a tough nut!

From city to hamlet, the community leaders have combated retail (this includes Hospitality).  It may have started with Wal Mart, which threatened the very fabric and heart of these localities.  Battle lines were drawn, laws enacted, citizenry engaged and often, enraged.  Never mind that in these communities was a Mobil station, a local bank that may have become regionalized through merger or acquisition, or even an A&P. Corporations "from away" were already there.  But, somehow the fast food type retail operation caught everyone's attention and became symbolic of the crush and turmoil to come.  The only certainty is change, although this can be controlled, guided, and directed to the common good. 

AP writer, Clarke Canfield, caught the spirit of the debate very well in the Portsmouth Herald, 10/1/05, with his article, "Not in Our Town – Ogunquit group lobbies to ban chain restaurants".  Persuasive arguments abounded:  "pristine and special", "character", "change the whole color of the landscape", and "Once you have a Dunkin' Donuts, you're going to have a TCBY, a Subway and a McDonalds."  Debate is one thing, reality is another.  Some Destinations have descended into the crass miasma of commercialism, while others have integrated worthy contributors.  It is about balance, but certainly Ogunquit has the right to self determination, but do not "bite the hand" that feeds you!

What gets lost in the proverbial wash is the poor Visitor, and Ogunquit is dependent upon Tourism.  Beyond being beset with horrible traffic on Historic Route 1, which wends its way through town, they must then search for elusive parking. But, Ogunquit really is a gem of a small resort area.  As Writer Canfield opined, "Ogunquit…is a popular summer Destination known for its quaint bed and breakfasts, art galleries, restaurants, summer playhouse and white sand beaches".   At some point in time, the Visitor will wish to dine.  With a chain restaurant, a visitor knows that their expectations will most likely be met – there is familiarity, consistency, and known Quality Control.  In a destination with only independent operations, the visitor is disadvantaged, taking a chance, uncomfortable with the lack of reliability for their meal choice.  This is very real! 

You now have an uninformed visitor, totally at the discretion of the dining establishments.  Who captures Visitor satisfaction, who responds and corrects customer complaints, who is accountable for the Visitor Experience?  Guidelines and standards provide that confidence.  Without those you are potentially preying on a captured, uninformed audience.  Matter of fact, a group of enterprising independent restaurants in Portsmouth, NH recognized this fact, exacerbated by competition from the chains in outlying malls.  They banded together, rallying around a Quality Assurance Certification, which gave them a competitive stance with the chains and a comforting message to their prospective customers.  It was an effective Awareness Program and marketing outreach.

Ogunquit is indeed a marvelous Destination, but the argument appears to be related to the "me" in this issue versus to the "them", the visitor, who has no alternatives.  Maintain the character, promote the qualities, but, for goodness sakes, give the Visitor some means to make an informed decision, feel confident in that choice, and provide a forum for community accountability.  Just as we have laws and ordinances to address behavior and performance, should we not have the same through a set of standards to meet or exceed expectations, particularly as the Visitor is our "bread and butter"?

Many of us have encountered these issues in our towns and our businesses.  Let me know your thoughts:  jhendrie@hospitalityperformance.com
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