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What stories are hidden in your city's neighborhoods? | Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

From Pretty Backdrop to Vibrant Community: 4 Ways to Tell Better Stories About Cities


Published on October 27, 2020


In the tourism industry, there are two separate journeys: the customer’s journey through the sales funnel and planning process, and the actual journey itself once someone has made the decision to travel. Strangely enough, there is a lot of emphasis on the first type of journey — throughout the customer’s educational process and up to the point of decision-making — while minimal attention is paid to the traveler on the ground.

From a sales and marketing perspective, this makes sense. Travelers have booked their transportation and hotel, and they’ve made their plans about what to see and do. This is especially true in cities, where travelers can easily navigate and entertain themselves for the duration of an entire trip. The potential traveler has become a money-paying customer, and now that the cash is secured, those working in tourism can turn their attention to helping other would-be travelers through the sales funnel. 

Travel is a strange product though: While the transactional part of the journey is largely over once someone has turned from a prospective customer to a paying customer, the traveler journey is just beginning. Arguably, that’s when the real opportunity for thoughtful engagement emerges. 

Travel is a strange product: While the transactional part of the journey is largely over once someone has turned from a prospective customer to a paying customer, the traveler journey is just beginning. 

Now that the traveler is “sold,” they have their feet on the ground in the city and are truly ready to be immersed in a destination. DMOs and destination representatives have a choice: They can be content to let travelers use their cityscapes as just another pretty backdrop. 

Or, they can take full advantage of that undivided attention to tell more dynamic, honest, and interesting stories — the kinds of stories that can only emerge from the specific history, culture, communities, and residents found in this unique corner of the world. The kinds of stories that travelers can’t wait to share with others when they return home.

I suggest you choose the second option.

Now, let’s get those stories heard!

Encourage visitation to under-visited parts of the city — as dictated and desired by local residents.

Is there anyone who would say that the highlight of their trip to Paris was taking a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower? Probably not. Sure, stopping by for a quick photo is fine, but these backdrop-focused snapshots are not what memorable travel moments are made of.

Work with local residents to identify areas of your city that would benefit from tourism. In the post-pandemic world, chances are you’ll find quite a few neighborhoods that fit this definition. Continue those conversations with business owners and locals to surface parts of the city’s story that haven’t made their way to the forefront for travelers in the past — stories about businesses and attractions that don’t have marketing budgets, and creators and changemakers who are more focused on their work than attracting travelers.

Give these overlooked and underreported corners a bit more love on destination websites and marketing materials. Putting a fresh twist on a city’s stories — led by locals — is a great way to build community pride, entice return visitors, and disperse crowds from concentrating in a few areas, which is particularly important in mitigating pandemic-related problems and potential future overcrowding issues.

Complicate the narrative.

Too many travelers get their version of your city’s story through a sanitized filter. That filter is in place through your destination’s website, travel articles, influencer social media posts, and in other mainstream ways. The problem with it is that it often perpetuates the dominant narrative fed to people of privilege, so it is comfortable and predictable. This is a story that doesn’t rock the boat — but it also doesn’t provide any honest and interesting context about your destination.

It’s time to start sharing those parts of your city’s history and story that you’d rather stay hidden in dark corners.

Travelers are increasingly interested in having meaningful experiences when they travel, and that includes learning about the messy and hard parts of a destination’s story. Instead of shielding them from these stories, encourage travelers to learn from and grapple with the complexities your city is built upon.

Make this information openly available on your website. Encourage travelers to ask hard questions, and help local people learn how to answer them. Lean into the discomfort. It’s time to be honest about why destinations are well known for that kind of food, that type of architecture, and those traditions and customs. Where did they come from and why?

Complicating the narrative for travelers not only provides a more honest perspective of your city, but it’s also an important part of dismantling the damaging systems of oppression and racism in place, particularly in colonized areas throughout the world.

Amplify local storytellers. 

Who best to tell these stories than locals? It’s time for destinations to stop with the polished soundbites and pass the mic to those people whose history, culture, and stories actually make a destination the unique place that it is.

Seek out those people who don’t normally tell your destination’s story — that is, the people who don’t fit the dominant narrative. This is a powerful opportunity to promote and support small businesses, changemakers, and initiatives that are represented by marginalized populations. Increasingly, there are social initiatives and community groups offering city day tours, cooking classes and other cultural experiences, and citizen science projects that are eager to welcome travelers into their fold. It is also through these in-person experiences that travelers can build upon that sense of human connection.

Find these storytellers, promote and support them, and invite them to tell their stories through your powerful platform. 

It’s important to note that amplifying local storytellers does not mean giving a voice to the voiceless. People have voices and stories; unfortunately, many people have been silenced and not given the chance to speak. This is your opportunity to embrace and showcase your city’s diversity.

String it all together. 

Travelers often create their own itineraries in city centers. Help them build itineraries that are far more interesting than yet another list of “to see” sites. 

It’s time to start sharing those parts of your city’s history and story that you’d rather stay hidden in dark corners.

How? You found those under-visited neighborhoods, committed to amplifying local storytellers, and are ready to complicate the narrative, so put together several self-guided itineraries surfacing new and untold stories about your destination. Help travelers understand why these “new” stories are important, and how to show respect and appreciation for the communities and storytellers that may have historically been intentionally difficult to access.

These self-guided itineraries may run an afternoon or even over the course of several days; it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that your commitment to stick with your customer throughout their traveler’s journey in an engaged and meaningful way helps them have a more engaged and meaningful experience. It also gives your city a way to truly empower and celebrate the people, history, and culture that create the rich diversity that makes your destination special — regardless of how complicated that story is.

Your city might make for a pretty backdrop … but why stop there when it is so much more?

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, solutions advocate, and founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, storytelling, and social impact. Get in touch with her for partnership and collaboration opportunities.


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