Should National Parks be Marketed Like Disney?
Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times on Dec. 24, 2009
This holiday season, my family is going to Disney World.
Our son hasn't been to Disney World since he was in grade school, and now he's a father of two. I made reservations to stay at the resort, got tickets for the various theme parks, and I thought trip planning was finished. Instead, I got a steady stream of marketing e-mails, from the time I booked, almost daily through December.
Since I spend a lot of times in the Smokies and on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I got to thinking: What if our national parks marketed themselves like Disney World?
Two months before your visit, you'd get an e-mail:
“Are you getting ready for your visit to the Smokies? Planning to enjoy the climb up to Mount Sterling on Baxter Creek Trail? Sign up for your Smokies fitness classes now.
“Learn about a Great Smoky Mountains National Park vacation from a very special panel of advisers — everyday hikers and visitors who've been to the park often.”
A month before:
“Bernstein family, it's only a month until your exciting visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. By now you should have bought your hiking boots and pack. Break in your boots and get your gear together. No hills where you live? Climb several flights of stairs at your school or office to simulate climbing to Gregory Bald.”
Three weeks before, open a message with a huge picture of Smokey Bear:
“Dear Bernsteins, I see you're coming with your adorable 6-year-old. She would love to have lunch with Smokey Bear. Sign up now for a delicious lunch of peanut butter and jelly on 100 percent whole wheat bread. Bring a water bottle. Remember, reservations are limited.”
Ten days before your trip, the e-mail message arrives flagged as high priority:
“You've reserved two campsites at Smokemont Campground. We highly recommend that you check in online and avoid waiting in line. This will give you more time to spend exploring the park.”
So you check in online and you read the terms and conditions that apply to your stay in the Smokies. You find that you agree not to harass the wildlife, leave food out on your picnic table or take your dog on backcountry trails. You've also agreed not to pull out plants, leave litter on the trail or roads and be very careful when you put out a campfire.
Three days and counting:
“Wow! Only a few more days to go until you're celebrating the magic of your Great Smoky Mountains National Park visit. Consider bringing back “Trails of the Smokies,” a guide to every trail in the park so you can plan your next Smokies vacations. Smokies stores are conveniently placed throughout the park.
And by the way, plan to keep checking your e-mail throughout your stay for more tips.
OK, so you can't get cell phone service in the Smokies and certainly not Wi-Fi. And the national parks by law can't advertise. But if national parks could market their attractions, maybe more visitors would be prepared to get out of their cars and on the trails.