EcDev Journal

Exploring the Relationship Between the Visitor Economy and Main Street

Posted on Friday July 16, 2021
Figure 1: Main Street/Visitor Economy Concepts and Ideas
Figure 1: Main Street/Visitor Economy Concepts and Ideas

By: Dr. Tom Griffin - tom.griffin@ryerson.ca

Dr. Walter Jamieson FCIP - walter.jamieson@ryerson.ca

Natasha Francis - natasha.francis@ryerson.ca

 

 Institute for Hospitality and Tourism Research at Ryerson University

ABSTRACT

Main streets are important economic, social, and cultural centres integral to the success and character of communities across the country but have faced many challenges in recent years even before the pandemic, including changing retail habits, increasing tax rates and rents, low profit margins, social issues, and more. Since the pandemic, these issues have been exacerbated, with new concerns raised, and as strategies for recovery and revitalization are being sought, the visitor economy should be seen as having an important role in the planning and development of main street areas. This article introduces the work the research team has carried out and introduces the future directions the team is taking to further research and support the implications of the visitor economy for main streets. One major outcome of the team’s work is the acknowledgment of the potential of engaging residents as hosts of visiting friends and relatives (VFR). Ongoing research will be conducted to fully understand the potential of VFR in main street development. The second major outcome will be to develop a web-based handbook that addresses the need for strategies, tools, and approaches designed to engage the visitor economy with the most significant impact. Explanations, step-by-step guidance, and best practice cases will be used.

 KEYWORDS: Main street, business improvement areas, visitor economy, visit friends and relatives, tourism.

INTRODUCTION

Since early 2019, a team from the Institute for Hospitality and Tourism Research at Ryerson University has been exploring the relationship between the visitor economy and main streets. Main streets are important economic, social, and cultural centres integral to the success and character of communities across the country (Canadian Urban Institute, 2021), but have faced many challenges in recent years even before the pandemic, including changing retail habits, increasing tax rates and rents, low-profit margins, social issues, and more (Griffin, 2020). Since the pandemic, these issues have been exacerbated, with new concerns raised, and as strategies for recovery and revitalization are being sought, the visitor economy should be seen as having an important role in the planning and development of main street areas. This article introduces the work carried out so far and introduces the future directions the team is taking to further research and support the implications of the visitor economy for main streets.

MAIN STREETS AND THE VISITOR ECONOMY

The term main street can refer to downtowns, high streets, and neighborhood commercial districts that are hubs of economic and cultural activity making them central to local neighbourhood vitality (City of Toronto, 2021). In Canada, many main streets are represented by organizations commonly known as Business Improvement Areas (BIAs), but also Business Revitalization Zones (BRZs), downtown associations, and other related groups; this report uses BIAs to refer to these organizations collectively. Most BIAs are funded by a tax or levy prorated to all businesses who are required to pay based on the proportion of the combined property tax, or a similar calculation (Ratcliffe & Flanagan, 2004). BIAs vary in size, scope, and capacities, but broadly seek success for their district through attracting customers and making improvements to the area to help businesses thrive (Houstoun & Levy, 2003).

The current literature rarely recognizes a connection between main streets as destinations, BIAs as organizations, and the visitor economy. The ‘visitor economy’ is a broader concept than ‘tourism’, and embraces the contributions of all visitors including vacationers, local day-trippers, students, and even commuters (Reddy, 2006). Main streets attract visitors, and many already influence their behaviour and experience. Visitors of all types bring increased economic activity (Grimmer & Vorobjovas-Pinta, 2020), but also potential negative impacts such as congestion, pollution, and demand for services that are inconsistent with residential interests, raising the need for strategic promotions, visitor management, and planning. Our team believes there are substantial opportunities for many main streets to learn and adapt knowledge from tourism and visitor planning and management fields to affect positive benefits for their communities.

RESEARCH BACKGROUND

In Spring 2019, our team interviewed 29 Toronto BIAs about their experiences with and involvement in the visitor economy and found a high level of interest and appreciation of benefits the visitor activity. However, even in situations where there was an understanding of the visitor economy there tended to be a limited application of strategies to affect visitor type, volume, and behaviour (Griffin, 2020). In spring 2020 the research team grew. A thorough literature review of academic and practitioner work on main street recovery, revitalization, and links to the visitor economy was conducted. For example, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program in the US (Main Street America, 2021), the High Street Task Force in the UK (High Streets Task Force, n.d.), the Institute for Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Metropolitan University, 2021), as well as the Canadian Urban Institute’s Bring Back Mainstreet program (Canadian Urban Institute, 2020), among others, all produced materials to help track the impact of COVID-19 on main streets and offered frameworks for recovery. The visitor economy, however, was rarely mentioned in these important and useful projects, and our team was convinced that it could contribute to the development of innovative approaches to assist main streets as they plan for the future.

CURRENT PROJECT

Our more recent study was designed to further explore Canadian BIAs’ experiences and perceptions of the visitor economy within the context of COVID-19 (Griffin et al., 2021). In total, 44 people representing 32 BIAs, and 9 related organizations across 8 Provinces were interviewed between August and November 2020. Some key findings include:

  • Almost all BIAs interviewed acknowledged the value of the visitor economy in achieving their goals; many promote to visitors, and the need to create a more appealing destination through design, streetscaping, creative programming, and more.
  • Although many BIAs anecdotally reported decreased visitation during the pandemic, some reported increased demand from regional visitors. The pandemic affected businesses in various ways as different visitor groups seek diverse services and stay for different periods of time. Some businesses thrived, while many others struggled.
  • Many BIAs established or strengthened partnerships with their members, other local BIAs, destination marketing organizations (DMOs), and related organizations. These partnerships have led to new strategies, product development, and advocacy to share concerns and ideas with various government departments.

Following this work, the team is firmly of the opinion that the tourism and destination planning fields can assist main streets in developing ideas and frameworks to manage the visitor economy. There are two main outcomes of the project that the team will continue to work on, and explain further below:

  1. Engagement of residents as hosts of visitors, and
  2. Development of a handbook with strategies for main streets to develop the visitor economy.

ENGAGING RESIDENTS AS HOSTS OF VISITORS

One major outcome of the work is the acknowledgment of the potential of engaging residents as hosts of visitors. One of the most popular and powerful travel motivations is to visit friends and relatives (VFR), and there are many reasons that make this an intriguing consideration for main streets. The broad recommendation is that main streets should consider engaging residents as hosts of visiting friends and relatives, for the following reasons.

Beneficial Impacts

VFR visitors bring additional economic impacts to local businesses. In comparison with other types of visitors, VFRs are more likely to be repeat visitors who build their own attachments to the area and become destination ambassadors themselves. VFR demand is also less seasonal than many other types of visitor demand and is more consistent with residential behaviour and interests; meaning that the services and experiences that residents like themselves will benefit from this visitor group (Griffin, 2013).

For a main street, attracting VFR visitors means engaging locals as hosts rather than distant disparate potential visitor markets. Leveraging residents’ own connections can efficiently generate meaningful and powerful communication to give potential visitors a reason to visit and ideas on what to do. To encourage VFR travel, main streets could engage residents as hosts, encouraging them to invite their friends or relatives for specific events, offering incentives or suggested itineraries. Little substantial infrastructure is needed to develop VFR travel: no new hotels or iconic attractions need to be built, as locals provide hospitality. Encouraging residents to invite their friends and family can inspire a sense of local pride, as residents show guests their communities and the experiences, businesses, and activities that make the place distinct. Hosts also know their guests and can curate a satisfying experience, leading to greater word-of-mouth marketing about the area in the visitor’s own networks. VFR is also a mechanism for creating memories and story-telling nested within the community. Hosting has been shown to help newcomers to a community feel more connected, and facilitate valuable and significant opportunities to spend time with loved ones that can have an enduring impact on individual well-being. Encouraging VFR can provide a powerful motivation for hosts and visitors to explore the community, contribute to economic and cultural development consistent with residential interests, generate authentic word-of-mouth marketing, and make the community a more vibrant and appealing place for others to travel to.

A HANDBOOK ON REIMAGINING MAIN STREETS THROUGH A VISITOR ECONOMY LENS

The second project is a handbook designed for main street leaders and members based on the idea that every main street is, or could be, in the visitor economy business. The handbook recognizes that many main streets already have, or could have, strong visitor-related strategies, while for others the visitor economy is less appealing, or is seen as the responsibility of other stakeholders. Therefore, the handbook will be designed for those main streets that have decided to engage visitors. The handbook will be an online and living resource and will contain a range of different types of information, from purpose written material, blogs, articles, cases, and more. Contributions from all interested parties are welcomed; please contact Dr. Walter Jamieson for details (walter.jamieson@ryerson.ca).

There has already been a great deal of good work on main streets, and the handbook does not intend to duplicate this. Instead, it will very much be focused on the intersection of the visitor economy and main streets. The handbook will identify and explain strategies, tools, and approaches to engage the visitor economy with the most significant impact. Explanations, step-by-step guidance, and best practice cases will be used.

 

Some specific topics that will be covered include visitor-led community and economic development, curation and designing experiences, measuring impacts, place making, storytelling and interpretation, main streets after 6pm, and partnership development. The handbook is being developed within a series of concepts and ideas summarized in Figure 1.

Stakeholder management: Most people working in main streets are aware of the challenge of stakeholder management, and our focus will be on how it relates to the visitor economy.

 

Understanding retail: As the retail sector continues to evolve, its relation to the visitor economy as primary attraction and secondary service is important and will be expanded upon.

 

Innovation: One positive of the pandemic has been the willingness of many stakeholders to innovate and apply new ideas and processes in a short period of time. The team  will share ideas and best practices relating to the visitor economy.

 

Marketing and branding: All main streets are involved in marketing and branding, and understanding potential visitor motivations and experiences can help tweak existing programs.

 

Curation: Main streets vary in their perceived role in curating a diverse or consistent main street, and the team will consider this from the perspective of the visitor economy.

 

Design thinking: The team would like to suggest how a design thinking approach might be appropriate in better understanding the intersection between main streets and the visitor economy.

 

Integrated and multidisciplinary: Main street coordinators and committees are accustomed to dealing with a range of government programs and agencies. Many are becoming very sophisticated in their ability to integrate themselves into the overall policies and plans of their communities. Our intent here is to demonstrate how the visitor economy can be further integrated into overall planning and development.

 

Strategic thinking: The team is constantly impressed with how strategic many main street communities are. Through discussion and best practices, the handbook will demonstrate how strategic and tactical thinking can be used to further the opportunities that the visitor economy provides communities.

 

Data analytics: Many main streets are already collecting a significant amount of data. The handbook will discuss relevant visitor economy data sources and identify how they can be collected, analysed, and interpreted to support an overall strategy.

CONCLUSION

The team very much appreciates the opportunity of sharing these ideas with you. A website has been created to provide a place for further information to be sought and ideas exchanged. The VFR research will continue and will contribute to the work of the Institute as well as articles appearing in the academic and professional world. The handbook will be developed in sections and will be made available to those who express interest in the handbook by emailing Dr. Walter Jameson (walter.jamieson@ryerson.ca). The team very much sees the handbook as being the product of a co-creation process to ensure that it meets the needs of those responsible for our main streets. Please send us any suggestions for case studies or further research and development ideas. Given that there has been little work carried out on the relationship between the visitor economy and main streets, certainly within the Canadian context, the team looks forward to the opportunity of working with practitioners as well as academics to better understand what the team see as an important area of inquiry and development.

REFERENCES

Canadian Urban Institute. (2020). Bring Back Main Street. Retrieved from https://canurb.org/initiatives/bring-back-main-street/

Canadian Urban Institute. (2021). Memo #1: Why Main Streets Matter. Retrieved fromhttps://bringbackmainstreet.ca/memos-from-main-street/why-main-streets-matter 

City of Toronto. (2021). Retail Main Streets Study. Retrieved fromhttps://www.toronto.ca/community-people/get-involved/public-consultations/retail-main-streets-study/

Griffin, T. (2020). An Exploration into Toronto’s BIAs’ Engagement of the Visitor Economy. www.ryerson.ca/htmresearch/research/current-research/bia-s-and-tourism-development/

Griffin, T. (2013). Visiting friends and relatives tourism and implications for community capital. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events5(3), 233-251.

Griffin, T., & Jamieson, W. (n.d.). BIAs and Tourism Development. Retrieved from https://www.ryerson.ca/htmresearch/research/current-research/bia-s-and-tourism-development/

Griffin, T., Jamieson, W., Francis, N., & Bird, A. (2021). The Visitor Economy and Main Streets in a Post-pandemic World. https://www.ryerson.ca/htmresearch/research/current-research/bia-s-and-tourism-development/

Grimmer, L., & Vorobjovas-Pinta, O. (2020). From the sharing economy to the visitor economy: The impact on small retailers. International Journal of Tourism Cities, 6(1), 90-98. doi:10.1108/IJTC-01-2019-0015

High Streets Task Force. (n.d.). Supporting communities and local government to transform their high streets. Retrieved from https://www.highstreetstaskforce.org.uk/

Houstoun, L. O., & Levy, P. R. (2003). BIDs: Business improvement districts (2nd ed.) ULI-the Urban Land Institute.

Main Street America. (2021). About Us. Retrieved from https://www.mainstreet.org/about-us

Manchester Metropolitan University. (2021). Institute of Place Management (IPM). Retrieved from https://www.mmu.ac.uk/business-school/research/research-centres/institute-of-place-management/

Ratcliffe, J., & Flanagan, S. (2004). Enhancing the vitality and viability of town and city centres: The concept of the business improvement district in the context of tourism enterprise. Property Management, 22(5), 377-395. doi:10.1108/02637470410571210

Reddy, P. (2006). Understanding the Visitor Economy. Northwest Regional Development Agency. Retrieved from http://culturehive.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Understanding-the-Visitor-Economy.pdf