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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Reflections on NW PA Living: 5 ways to tap into the growing tourist market in northwestern PA.

Photo by Rowan Rose

It’s beautiful in NW PA isn't it? It's one of the reasons we moved here with our pottery business!

There is access to everything you could want to do outdoors and it’s peaceful in a way city dwellers will never know. 

Outdoors tourism is the natural industry of our area. When you live in an area that requires tourist dollars for your local economy to thrive, it is important to make sure every dollar that walks through your town has the potential to end up passing through your business and sticking to your fingers. Town leaders always talk about revitalization, to revitalize, residents in historic towns have to be willing to live in the present and look to the future while preserving the very best of local history.

All those people who made your town thrive were scrambling to make a future.

My wife and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to better market our pottery. We have both spent  years traveling all over the east coast to sell pottery.  There was a time when I was on the road 40 weekends a year, going from New Hampshire to Florida. We've been in a lot of small towns and even while selling our pottery at festivals, we are also being tourists and visitors. It gave us a good perspective for looking at towns from an outsiders point of view. We are practiced at searching for businesses to take care of our needs and have spent a huge amount of money at some businesses because they took certain steps to raise their visibility, offer hospitality and inspired us to have confidence the them.

Photographer Unknown, but what a great picture!
One of the things I have noticed about small towns is they are fierce about their independence and frugality runs in their veins like blood. You hear things like “what do you need that for?” “That’s not the way we do things here!” “It was good enough for me, good enough for my folks and their folks, why do you want to change things?” These are great tenacious characteristics but often the very thing that can keep success just out of reach. The independence and need to preserve the past in an unchanging way stifles new growth and leads to a slow disintegration of otherwise valuable assets. Our economy in the US is based on growth. Small towns are a microcosm of the nation. We must grow and change. The growth must be controlled and guided, but it must happen.

A little story from my past.

 I grew up in Lemont, a small town outside of Penn State University and State College, PA. My family wasn't affiliated with the university but they had deep roots in Lemont going back to the late 1700’s. While I was growing up, we had some of the only undeveloped land left in Lemont and my mother and grandmother had that old school, fierce, small town independence. Any new growth project the township sponsored was a waste of tax money. Any changes to the scenery was an unfortunate shame. Everything should always stay as it was.

That beautiful property had passed from generation to generation and gradually become more and more a burden as it passed from a 1790’s homestead to farm, to rental farm, and finally into disuse.

 That was the part I remember most vividly.

 My mother told me stories of active farming and big family gardens, horses, pigs and chickens. They were beautiful, wondrous stories of the past, presented with bright eyes in full glorious color and the clear beauty of happy memories. But they were only memories. The 13 acres that remained were expensive to maintain and slowly falling into disrepair because no one was actively caring for, or using the land. We didn't think too much about it, that’s just the way things looked. At the time the land finally passed to my aging mother it was too late. The only value left was in the land. The antiques stored in outbuildings had been compromised along with the integrity of the buildings.
At the time PA had a draconian death tax on the assessed value of the property, so taxes forced my mother to have to sell the property to pay the taxes. It's a neo-Victorian development now, and occasionally I look back and realize that instead of the total destruction of the our collective family memories we could have re-purposed and reinvented the land and made it useful and productive again. If only the idea of preservation of the past had been backed by new vision for the future, we would still be living there.

Since moving to the NW region of PA, I see a lot of similarities to growing up on that dying farm. There is a great reverence for the past and people don’t seem to notice the slow degradation of something that was once grand and vibrant. In their memories everything is perfect and we can’t change things because that will disturb the vision of the past they hold so dear.
Distressed buildings are cool right? Very rustic.So what if that place doesn’t actually look open, or have a sign. Everyone knows about it right? And who wants a bunch of people in town anyway? It’s quiet around here and we like it that way! Except that the services the town offers slowly degrade and soon it’s so quiet you can’t even get a coffee and a sandwich without driving 30 miles.

It is unlikely that any big manufacturing will come back to the area, most of our employment opportunities in the future will come from the service or recreation industries. People who need to escape from urban life will come to our small towns in droves if we can offer them the things they need and are used to having.  If we give them a reason hunters, hikers, fishermen, birders, campers, leaf-lookers and their families will come and spend their time and hard earned money.

Here are things you can do to increase your business's appeal to tourists and visitors.

  1. WWW:  If you do nothing else, this is the most important thing to do. If they can’t find you, they can’t give you money! Get a professional website of some sort. Here is the one my wife made for The Tionesta Market Village.  It can be simple, but it should be clean, direct and have all the important and most current contact information as well as hours of operation. Remember this is for people who don’t know you, or the area. No one stops at a gas station to look at the Yellowpages anymore. Families on the road use their smartphones, or they do research from their home computers. People use Google, Yelp. Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor to look for interesting regional activities, services and restaurants. Make sure your business is listed on all these sites! This can make your business a destination, not just a lucky find. Once you have a web presence, expand into social media to keep contact and let your customers know what the specials are, or what the latest event is.

  2. Beautification:   A welcoming, clean and tidy storefront inspires confidence for new customers. A craftsman knows the details are important. Tidy your storefront, Wash the windows, replace or repair your sign. Add a coat of fresh paint, add some landscaping, sweep your sidewalk and show that you care about the appearance of your business. If you can’t clean your front door or windows, no one is going to believe you keep a sanitary kitchen. Disrepair isn’t rustic. It’s neglect and you pay for it in consumer confidence.

  1. Hospitality: Be friendly to everyone! Don’t politicize your business. You want money from both sides of the aisle. Be welcoming! Be open, be courteous, treat all your visitors like the welcome guests they are! Not everyone who walks in your door will be an immediate customer, but eventually they might be! Make sure they are willing to come back!

  1. Be positive: Take down all those handwritten, negatively worded signs. Those who really need to read them don't and it just makes you look grumpy to everyone else. The only signs you should see are for the services you offer, exits, or directions to the restrooms. Which of course you should offer to anyone who walks in your door. These are people and people need restrooms, it doesn’t matter if they buy something or not.

  2. Take Credit Cards: Remember, today’s economy is not the economy of 30 years ago. Money flows differently and cash is not as convenient as it used to be. Many people never see an actual paycheck because they have direct deposit and many haven’t written an actual check in years. Debit and Credit cards are king. Tourists and visitors carry limited amounts of cash but may have fat bank accounts. If you are worried about that 1.75 to 3% charge, raise your prices by 5% and your costs are more than covered. Customers are willing to pay for convenience, not having to go to an ATM or bank to complete the transaction is convenience. You won’t be sorry.

     No one will ever complain that you do accept credit cards, but they will often walk away if you don’t.  Make those dollars stick to your fingers!

    These ideas are just a start. There are a lot of great resources available. Check out the PA Wilds Resources website. If you don't have a business yet, there are still plenty of consumer needs to be met! What can you bring to your town?  


  1. Great post. My small town, Marietta, Ohio, also struggles to keep it's stores open. I've recently attended a couple of workshops given by our local CVB (convention and visitors bureau). The theme of the workshops is for businesses to be aware of the local attractions- trails, ancient Indian earthworks, festivals, and to communicate this information to customers. The idea is to keep them interested in coming back to the area.

    I grew up in New Castle, PA and when I was little my parents brought my family to Cook's forest about once every summer. I believe it's near your town. I loved it! I always thought it was a magical place.

    1. Thanks Melissa! I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I'm becoming more and more passionate about the area. It has such potential! I want to seen everyone thrive!

      Cook Forest is about 1/2 hour away from us. It's got a lot going on, we haven't explored it as fully as we would like, but we've been to a few places. As we get ourselves acclimated to the area and eventually get out for leisure we'll probably spend a lot of time there! Cook Forest has a great social media presence, so we always know what is going on!

  2. You bring up so many excellent points! I live in a small southern town, known for pottery. Most shops are closed on Sunday and Monday. We choose to stay open. Many people travel to the area and are disappointed to find so few places open on Sunday. We finally got a grocery store in town and even they are closed on Sunday! Unfortunately many of the businesses here are resistant to keep up with changing lifestyles. In the end, I think it has hurt the area economically.

    1. We thought about Seagrove as a possible relocation spot, but it was even further away from my wife's aging parents. All other things being equal, I'd love to be closer to a community of potters. I'd probably choose to be closed on Monday and Tuesday, because weekends are tourism days. I suppose many are closed on Sundays for religious reasons,but I say Tuesday works just as well!

      One thing we have going for us here in Tionesta is we came to the area with a thriving online business and several wholesale accounts. Those are what pays the bills, local sales help, but are really a small part of our overall business. I think we could do much better locally if we could get all the local businesses to work together and maintain certain guidelines for operating. If we are all on the same page it makes it easier to promote the whole area as a destination.