by Kristin Brighton on August 15, 2011

With the kids now running amok until school starts, three of my high school girlfriends and I took our families last week for a three-day vacation get-together at Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City, Kan.

Because I’ve been spending much of my time lately working closely with cities, destination branding has been on my mind. Thus, like a total marketing nerd, I couldn’t help but spend a lot of my time on vacation studying Great Wolf Lodge as an example of how to create a destination getaway in the middle of a Kansas pasture.

This was my family’s fourth trip to GWL in three years (my kids are 7 and 5, so we are the perfect target audience), which allowed me to look beyond first impressions and really study why this place is so successful. (My kiddos literally think GWL is the best place in the world. It never fails: On the last day, my son always asks if we can live there…).

Last winter, to save a few bucks and in an attempt at some variety, we skipped GWL and spent our holiday at CoCo Key Water Resort , which is attached to a Holiday Inn across from Kauffman Stadium. CoCo Key has a tropical theme, but that theme isn’t carried into the hotel. While the hotel is nice, it is just, well, a nice Holiday Inn. Thus, your experience begins and ends at the water park. The overall bang for your buck just isn’t the same, and so it is fitting that you pay less to play there.

Basically, when you go to GWL, you feel as if you have managed to squeeze in a major vacation. In fact, we had multiple conversations with my 5-year-old daughter explaining to her that we were STILL in Kansas, not quite two hours from home. While there, you feel as if you are in Colorado, Canada, or the woods of the north. In fact, it is kind of jarring to look out beyond the property and see the prairie terrain, the interstate, and the Kansas Speedway on the horizon. (It was well-planned to put GWL across from Cabela’s and Famous Dave’s, however, for all three complement each other.)

While you are inside the Lodge, the completeness of the theme’s branding is remarkable. From the carpeting to the furnishings, from the water park to the various shops and restaurants, GWL completely stays in character. EVERYTHING supports the theme — down to the branded disposable bottle opener we got at the bar. You become so lost in the details that it is easy to overlook some fairly important flaws like so-so food and ho-hum customer service.

[Side Note: I do have to admit, however, that the MagiQuest electronic scavenger hunt game that lines the hallways doesn’t match the theme, and it has always bothered me. While they try to make it blend in, the dragons, wizards and fairies totally don’t match. Too bad there isn’t a way to do something similar with bears, fireflies, crackling campfires and a yeti or something…]

While it is much easier to thematically brand a resort with a corporate owner than an entire city that must deal with both public and private entities, I think the lessons of GWL apply to a city that is trying to increase its tourism appeal. Using a common theme is critical to building consistency and continuity — and keeps your planning from getting off on various discordant paths. Just like Branson’s theme is built around country music and hillbilly livin’, Dodge City appeals to those craving a Wild West experience, and Lindsborg strives to cater to those wanting to escape to Little Sweden, we’ve been working with various Kansas cities to create a theme we can build their identity around. We want to help them establish an expectation that intrigues people, attracts them to visit, and then doesn’t disappoint.

For this to truly happen, a community has to be fully dedicated to the initiative. Everyone — city governments, chambers of commerce, convention and visitor bureaus, tourist attractions, colleges and universities, hospitals, schools, downtown groups, private businesses, etc. — has to buy in and be willing to collectively support the theme. Investment in the idea has to be made over many years, by both public and private groups. And in general, it works best to have design standards and key messages in place to help everyone stay on the same path. (We can help with those!)

So, as you go on your end-of-summer getaways, take a moment to reflect on the power branding plays in shaping your experience (especially if headed to a casino, amusement park, resort or small-town tourist destination). While some places can draw upon their rich history or their natural environment to shape their branding, for more “man-made” destinations like Disney, Vegas resorts, or Great Wolf, the more thoroughly developed the theme is, the more successful its results will be.

Thanks, GWL, for a howlin’ good time — and for being a great role model to others who’d like to increase the tourism revenue in their economic pie.


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