I am not a city planner. I am a traveler. And as I planned and made a recent trip to several Midwestern towns and cities, I was struck by what a difference attention to details can make in welcoming visitors. Every town and city, no matter the size, can become an inviting space that leaves travelers smiling and glad they passed through, by making the most of what is uniquely theirs.
First, capitalize on what you have. If there's a river or a lake, clean it up, clear a public beach area, create a park, provide a narrated riverboat tour with local drinks and food. If there's welcoming climate, plan open air concerts and markets, and rooftop and sidewalk dining spaces. Feature regional foods: NC barbecue, Chicago pizza, locally grown peaches, local wines . . . Decorate the targeted area with brightly painted murals, creative and brightly colored flora . . . If there's history, preserve it, clearly mark it, and make it a focal point of city marketing. If diverse cultural groups, celebrate them with their own annual festivals. In a trendy eatery, name sandwiches or plates for famous people from the area or for main attractions. No need to copy other places. Start with what is uniquely yours.
Order merchandise (magnets, key rings, bags, t-shirts, etc.) with city and attraction names, and sell in local businesses. Get fun slogan ideas from some of your young artsy crowd. Make colorful fun city attraction maps, and place around the city for free. This gives your city the feel of a special tourist destination.
Make attractions easily accessible; pedestrian friendly if applicable, and also consider trolleys, or clean inexpensive buses, trains, bicycle rentals, maybe even water taxis or horses and buggies or golf carts . . . whatever fits your region. Offer 1-day and 1-week passes for a special price. Consider offering free downtown parking, if not always, at least evenings and weekends.
Appeal to the younger generations. Provide charging stations for phones and other technology. If it's a college town, or even for high schools, sprinkle the city with school logos and school merchandise. Make conveniences app accessible, or payable/reservable via smartphone. Sprinkle the city with intentional photo spots and/or unexpected fun sightings, related somehow to the local attractions. For example, in Milwaukee, the colorfully painted trees, the unexpected giant lady bugs climbing the building, the brightly colored bicycles lining the streets as flower planters, and the "Bronze Fonz."
Two more important issues: Remember the cleanliness. Nothing else matters if that is lacking! And genuine local friendliness, which, by the way, quite impressed me in the Midwestern cities!
With your own ideas stirring now, here are a few photos from my recent trip:
Above: In Milwaukee the city parking meters are app accessible, and there are app controlled bicycles available for rent throughout Milwaukee and Chicago.
Above: Bright colors add fun. Above, just a few of Milwaukee's many decorated trees, a mural in Charleston WV depicting much of what the city has to offer, fun unexpected ladybugs climbing a building in Milwaukee, and artsy colorful decor inside a Milwaukee mall, which, despite it's very modern look, is housed in a line of historic downtown buildings.
Above: Milwaukee's "Bronze Fonz" is a good example of an intentional photo spot. Think about possibilities related to your area. We, especially the younger generations, are living in a photo-crazy era, and the more intentional photo spots the better.
Also in Milwaukee, downtown streets are lined with brightly painted bicycles creatively used as flower planters. And what a fun idea to paint mascot tracks on crosswalks leading to college campuses or the zoo . . .
Above: Highway welcome signs can attract visitors. On this recent trip I especially liked the state of Ohio's exit sign, and Lebanon Indiana's brightly colored welcome painted across the concrete of the overpass. Gently attention-grabbing, happy, and inviting. (Unfortunately I didn't get a Lebanon photo.)
Above: Why stop there? Even public restrooms can be fun! The top photo in a restaurant in a high bike traffic district of Milwaukee designates bathrooms with bicycles. The lower two, in an artsy restaurant in Charleston WV are designated with creative 3-D female and male outlines.
Make it unique. Make it fun. Make it cause spontaneous happy smiles. They'll post happy photos of their visit on Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, blogs . . ., and both they and their friends will be back.