It’s tough for small towns to develop a robust tourism plan. For one thing, they’re small. Sparse lodging, restaurants, and attractions constrain many. Or, once-thriving factory towns may suffer from empty storefronts, abandoned properties, or poorly maintained infrastructure. These issues, though challenging, aren’t the worst problems for towns to overcome. The worst problem is having a bad reputation.
Sometimes a bad reputation is deserved, as in a town with a crime problem. Other times, having a bad reputation is undeserved. For instance, a nice, clean, friendly town may suffer from poor public perception. In this case, it’s not the storefronts and roadways that need to be rebuilt but the public perception of their town.
Rebuilding public perception is harder than rebuilding infrastructure. Minds are a hard thing to change. But, with planning and persistence, it can be done. Take Battle Mountain, Nevada, for example. Once pegged as “the armpit of America,” the town has rebranded and repositioned the public perception of Battle Mountain. The way they achieved this is an object lesson for towns struggling with poor public perception — whatever the cause.
Battle Mountain’s Wake-up Call
In the Nevada desert, surrounded by dry landscapes and barren mountain ranges, lies the town of Battle Mountain. It was (and is) a nice town: good people, adequate accommodations, and decent food. The area has a strong Native American heritage. It’s economy was built on gold mining, ranching, and the Central Pacific Railroad.
Battle Mountain was the kind of place where tourists would stop for gas and quick meal before moving on to Las Vegas or California. It was decent, but there weren’t a lot of choices. That’s the town that the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten discovered in 2001. Being a big-city guy, Weingarten was no doubt accustomed to having lots of choices. I was born and raised in Washington, DC, so I understand the mindset. Of course, he and I have never discussed the matter, so I don’t know for sure how he reached his conclusions. All I know is what he wrote in his articles. Here are a couple of lines:
“…several months ago I wrote a story in this newspaper’s Sunday magazine in which — after exhaustive research into the nation’s crummiest localities — I awarded Battle Mountain the title of “Armpit of America.”
“…this place of fewer than 4,000 benighted souls contains no movie theater, no ice cream parlor, no department store, no clothing store, no sense of culture, no feel of history, no sign of architecture, and one whorehouse.”
When Life Hands You a Lemon, Make Lemonade
Of course, the citizens of Battle Mountain were outraged by such abuse. Weingarten received letters from the governor, a U.S. Senator, many Battle Mountain schoolchildren, and more than 200 emails from indignant adults.
Worse, the “armpit” moniker was deemed amusing by other publications, and the insult spread from city to city. What could the town do to rid itself of this stigma and restore its reputation?
The town fathers (and mothers, I presume) gathered to consider a proper response. There were three possibilities:
- Ignore the sleight and hope it would go away
- Create a campaign explaining why their town was “more than an armpit.”
- Embrace the moniker and turn it to their advantage
They decided on door number three.
Seven months later, Battle Mountain launched its first annual “Festival of the Pit,” which included a parade, dancing, a magic show, a horseshoe throwing contest, and a beauty pageant. The Chamber of Commerce put up a billboard on Interstate 80, encouraging travelers to make a pit stop in Battle Mountain. CNN and USA Today covered the festival. Their new-found notoriety captured the attention of Old Spice Deodorant, which became a festival underwriter. So, instead of an old-fashioned egg toss, the festival staged a deodorant toss. In 2006, the festival was replaced with a Bluegrass festival. But by then, the rebranding was complete, and Battle Mountain had successfully turned around the public perception of their town.
There’s Still Work to Do
Battle Mountain’s tourism revenue has improved since the pre-armpit days. Roadside billboards draw tourists year-round. Hotel occupancy, meals, and souvenir sales (T-shirt, anyone?) have increased. But Battle Mountain is still far from being considered a tourist mecca. It’s hard for sparsely-populated rural towns to generate the money needed to develop and promote their tourism product.
Economic development is a process, and for towns like Battle Mountain, tourism is the engine that drives the process. To assist communities in developing tourism revenue, the Nevada Commission on Tourism awards grants to help fund marketing efforts. These are matching-fund grants, so towns must organize their efforts and raise their share.
The process begins with rebranding, starting with a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). Battle Mountain successfully completed its analysis, and the results are showing.