Reinventing Economic Development

Tourism to the rescue

Premium content from New Mexico Business Weekly by Mark Lautman, Guest Columnist, Guest Columnist

Date: Friday, May 25, 2012, 4:00am MDT

A couple of things struck me at last week’s annual state tourism conference in Taos.

First, tourism people have way more fun than my economic development colleagues. Now I see why John Garcia used to call himself the Secretary of Fun when he ran the Tourism Department.

The other thing that caught my attention was the prospect of a wider role for the tourism industry in the economic development of New Mexico’s communities.

With the state’s economy down 50,000 jobs since the recession, and draconian federal spending cuts looming, many communities will have to get creative to avoid economic decline over the next decade.

Tourism by some accounts is already the state’s largest economic base sector and the linchpin of many community economies, and the industry seems positioned to play an even greater role.

It’s true that many of the jobs created in tourism haven’t paid as well as other economic base industries. But many of our communities lack the qualified workers needed to go after those high-paying industries.

Many are awash in unemployed, marginally educated and unskilled workers. Tourism might be one of the few viable economic base sectors in play for them.

The possibilities appear endless. A few minutes of brainstorming can stir up a long list of things to try. Each of us knows hundreds of people — family members, friends and acquaintances — who we could probably persuade to plan a visit sooner than later.

Since you probably don’t want them staying with you, your local tourist industry might be able to increase tourism by developing a hotel and resident referral bounty program. A similar referral program could be developed for business meetings and conferences.

Another area of opportunity revolves around New Mexico’s pioneering role in the development of the space tourism industry. What’s happening at Spaceport America represents a potential fountainhead of new business for every community.

Last year’s state tour by 40 of Virgin Galactic’s booking agents resulted in a list of “authentic experiences” they project to be in demand by the hordes of space tourists headed our way.

The list represents hundreds of new business enterprises and thousands of new jobs waiting to be created.

There should be a think tank dedicated to researching and conceptualizing these new experience-industry enterprises, along with a network of business incubators specializing in getting the ideas to market.

Some of those projects will be as simple as putting a cowboy poet and an astronomer together to take people out into the desert for a few hours.

Then there are the millions in the Boomer Bucket List market, those of us still shy of the $200k to get shot into suborbital space who are scrambling to get in a few more life-fulfilling experiences before our kids check us into the nursing home. It’s a target-rich market ready made for New Mexico.

At the conference, Tom Garrity presented a ranking of the state’s major tourism events. I was surprised at how short it was.

With a little encouragement, we could come up with more events like Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta, Santa Fe’s Indian Market and Deming’s Duck Race. Maybe communities would put on more events if there were a professional event development and promotion team available to augment local efforts.

The most promising new economic development role for the tourism industry is in the area of talent attraction.

Filling the gaps in qualified workers being created in most communities by retiring boomers, a struggling public school system and increasing technical demands of the workplace promises to be the new frontier in a rapidly changing economic development game.

In a market running short on qualified workers, the ability to attract and hold talent is going to determine who grows and improves and who declines. Economic development is quickly moving from an employer-attracting game to a talent-attraction game.

Many of the qualities that make our communities great tourism destinations for business conferences, relaxing vacations, peak experiences or connecting with culture and history are what make them compelling places to live.

When footloose talent can vote with their feet, your community’s pitch will be built around your tourism pitch.

Think about growing your economic base by recruiting radiologists who read film for the Cleveland Clinic, but who don’t need to live in Cleveland anymore to do their work, or the editor who doesn’t have to live in New York. It’s a long and rapidly growing list of economic base jobs up for grabs now.

Who knows? With a little collaboration and creative energy, tourism could be coming to the rescue.