Originally published as “Testing tactics in heritage tourism” on July 19, 2013 on economicdevelopment.org
Over the years, our economic development office has tried very hard to promote heritage as part of the tourism product offering. Hopefully our latest try — leveraging the power of a popular folk band — will get tourists to visit us and celebrate our musical legends.
Norfolk County has fantastic, vibrant museums with excellent programming and strong support from locals and visitors. There are numerous heritage-oriented activities throughout the year, too, from Doors Open to battle re-enactments. Despite these solid experiences, it remains difficult to ignite the desire to travel to Norfolk County for a heritage experience in anyone other than a history buff. Beaches, the lake, cottages and camping are, and will continue to be, the bread and butter of motivation for visitors to set their sights on Norfolk County.
A few months ago, an opportunity came along that we couldn’t pass up. For a variety of reasons, the award-winning U.K. band Mumford & Sons shortlisted Norfolk County to host their only Canadian stopover on the Gentlemen of the Road tour. The musicians clearly have an avid fan base, so we captured some video of their decision-making trip to Norfolk County and kept it in the can for a potential walk-in-the-footsteps-of-Mumford promotion. What better way to boost visits and spending?
On the day of the announcement by Live Nation, promoter Jason Grant praised the locals who welcomed the site selectors. But he also specifically named Rick Danko, member of The Band (with Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson et al), as a primary motivator. Rick grew up in Norfolk County, then left to become famous. When we mentioned to Mumford & Sons that this is his hometown, Jason said, they lit up immediately. Remember when they performed The Weight as part of the Helm tribute at The Grammy Awards?
Success can be distressing sometimes. When tickets were released, they sold within half an hour, even with the band’s attempts to thwart scalpers. More are being made available, but they will sell quickly as well. The new goal was to lure people to Norfolk County in the weeks before and after the concert. This was a major challenge but our authentic, local connection, Rick Danko, provided inspiration.
We plotted the old dance halls on a map, read some history books, then turned to Facebook friends for memories. Overnight, local residents were telling stories on our social media sites about the fun they had at Norfolk County dance halls in the 1950s , ’60s and ’70s. That was when big names like Ronnie Hawkins, RUSH, Lighthouse, BTO, Chubby Checker and others toured the dance hall circuit.
The Summer Garden in Port Dover was the most popular dance hall. It was where Rick met Hawkins, which led to the formation of The Band. The Summer Garden was torched by an arsonist in 1979 (causing many in Port Dover to weep in the streets) but the legacy of the musicians who played there lives on.
So, our office pulled together a touring route that connected the old dance halls, none of which are open anymore. It appeared a bit empty on the route, so we mentioned all the other things to do along the way, including our theatres and museums, hotels and B&Bs, farm markets, beaches, campgrounds and more. Check out the route on this Google Map.
The community got involved. The Port Dover Harbour Museum set up a special Summer Garden exhibit. Comfort Inn and Barrel Pizza created discounts for visitors who mention Mumford & Sons. Cottage North Soapworks made I Will Wash soap bars with moustaches. Norfolk County Council approved gateway signage as a tribute to Rick in the rural area where he grew up.
Our local newspaper, the Simcoe Reformer, stepped up and secured free tickets for Mumford & Sons from our friends at Live Nation. To win the tickets, visitors must travel the route and take a photo of themselves along the way. We will post the photos on our social media networks.
Yes, it is an experiment. However, we couldn’t pass up the chance to try to promote our heritage when such a wonderful opportunity appeared out of the blue.
We will see if it works. If it does succeed, we couldn’t have done it without the help of Mumford & Sons, Live Nation, our local partners and residents … and, of course, Rick Danko and the ghosts of the Norfolk County dance halls.
The Gentlemen of the Road Simcoe Stopover in Norfolk County was an undisputed success. It is estimated that the economic impact on the community was more than $10 million. CBC’s The National prepared a documentary about the event, called “The Mumford Effect“. There were large increases in traffic to www.norfolktourism.ca leading up to the event, causing an overall 60% incremental increase in web visits for the year. Anecdotal evidence continues to highlight that visitors are returning to Norfolk County after visiting GOTR.
An extended interview with Mumford & Sons included encouraging words for Norfolk County by band members.
Read the Simcoe Reformer article by Sarah Doktor.
Watch the Walk in the Footsteps of Rock Legends video.
Norfolk County Council: Final Summary of the Gentlemen of the Road Simcoe Stopover