Do Chains Help (or Hurt) the Travel Experience?
In the age of Anywhere, USA, the strip mall, hotel chains and box-store-induced phenomena that make one town nearly indistinguishable from the next make it seem as if the authentic travel experience is going the way of the dinosaurs.
More and more, hitting the road for a vacation in a distant location means being faced with the same hotel chains and familiar restaurants that you find in your own backyard half a country -- even half a world -- away.
"I call the phenomenon the 'stripmalling' of the world," says Michael Bociurkiw, editor of MySavvyTraveller.com. "Main streets in cities and towns are starting to look the same, and that is very sad."
And while the spread of nationwide chains into towns that previously lacked them is seen by many as economic development, says Bob Billington, president of the Rhode Island-based Sustainable Tourism Planning and Development Laboratory, the phenomenon "may provide a service, but it does nothing for the long-term sustainability of the community.
"It just brings sameness, and sameness is the opposite of what tourism is about," says Billington, "Tourism is about discovering new places, cultures, people and communities, and when you strive to make everything the same, there is no differentiating point."
That sameness is precisely what the town of Springdale, Utah -- a community of roughly 500 people surrounded by the stunning landscape of Zion National Park -- was intent on avoiding when a 2006 ordinance was put in place to ban 'formula restaurants' from setting up shop within city limits. The town is currently involved in a lawsuit for not allowing Subway, the national sandwich chain, to open here.
"There are some concerns that once a chain of any type starts entering the town, it opens it up to more and more chains, and all of the sudden it completely takes away the feel that the community has always wanted to maintain," says Dean Cook, president of the Zion Canyon Visitors Bureau.
"The community that has lived here for years has wanted to maintain a certain aura, as a small-town, cozy, friendly place to come and visit," he says, "and there's some paranoia about what a chain could do. It starts to detract from the Mayberry R.F.D. feel."
Cannon Beach, Oregon is another tourism-centric small town dead set on keeping chains away to preserve the unique quality that makes it an authentic travel experience. "Like most communities, people here have varying opinions, " says Jeff Jewel, Executive Director of the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce, "but one thing most everyone in our community is in agreement on is that we don't want chain restaurants and shops in our town."
Jewel says that as a result of fostering the growth and success of local business owners, such as independent hotels, restaurants and shops, Cannon Beach has developed impressive and unique amenities for a town of just 1,600 residents. "We literally have dozens of fantastic restaurants," he says, citing where to get the best Reuben (Seasons Café and Deli). "Whereas in towns with a Chili's and Applebee's and restaurants like that, people tend to support those big chains."
And while there's no Starbucks in Cannon Beach, says Jewel, coffee culture is alive and well, with three independent coffee shops.
In a time when travel isn't always the relaxing endeavor it's meant to be, however, many people prefer the reliability of chain hotels and nationally-known restaurants to take the insecurity and guesswork out of their travel plans.
"For me, it's stressful to travel, and when you're in a certain situation you want what you know and like," says Lauren Bailey, a government employee who lives in Washington D.C., but travels several times a month to meet up with her West Coast-based husband.
Bailey said she and her husband often choose to stay at Hampton Inns and Holidays Inns because "they are inexpensive and have customer loyalty programs." But when Bailey and her husband are visiting a destination for purely touristic purposes, she says, a boutique hotel with a sense of place is her first choice because it provides an authentic travel experience. "Staying at a chain in those types of situations can take away the flavor of the experience."
For travelers who frequent the same hotel chain time and again, there are clear benefits to becoming loyal patrons -- from racking up reward points to knowing what sort of bed you'll be sleeping on (the major chains pride themselves on uniformity) and being assured of the presence of perks that smaller establishments tend to lack, such as late-night dining options and 24-hour security.
But for visitors to Anna Maria -- a white sand enclave near Sarasota, Florida with nary a skyscraper in sight -- the fact that there are no hotel chains and restaurants is a lure for visitors.
"The little town itself is very manageable, it's a very human scale, " says Lizzie Thrasher, who, with her husband, owns Pineapplefish, a collection of seven beautiful vacation villas decorated with artwork by local artists. "There are no big industries and businesses -- it's very much people who want to set up small businesses and live and work in the same place." The couple, originally from England, chose Anna Maria over other places in Florida for the town's individual character and independent spirit. And she says she hears the same thing from guests who opt to stay in her villas over a chain hotel in one of the larger beach communities nearby.
But does frequenting hotel chains and popular formula restaurants necessarily detract from the authentic travel experience?
To answer this question, take a look at a prime tourism destination, Orlando, Florida, where chains run rampant. Yet, according to the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, the chains have supported the smaller businesses in town, too.
IHOP, Roy's Restaurant, The Capital Grille, Taco Bell -- from highbrow to cheap and quick, nearly every brand of national restaurant and hotel chain can be found in Orlando's tourist corridors.
"Chain restaurants have benefited our destination in two ways," says Susan Lomax, spokesperson for the CVB. "For certain travelers looking for familiarity, it provides them with a lot of known options. They know the cost, the value, what they are going to get."
Another way the rise of chain restaurants has benefited the area, says Lomax, comes with the relatively recent arrival of high-end chain restaurants -- places like Capital Grille, Ocean Prime and Oceanaire -- that have deemed Orlando a worthy market, and thus sent a message to other businesses to take a look, too.
"It makes other independent chefs and restaurants take a closer look at the destinations and attracts small business owners to offer other high-end things," says Lomax. "We now offer a really well rounded dining experience to all visitors, whether they're looking for a chain or non-chain."
Indeed, even in chain-heavy locales like International Drive and Lake Buena Vista, visitors will find everything from independent Brazilian steakhouses to Vietnamese noodle shops in the mix. A few high-end hotel chains have also been attracted to Orlando of late, with the Waldorf-Astoria Orlando opening its first location outside of its Manhattan flagship near Downtown Disney in 2009 and a Four Seasons hotel expected to open in 2012.
Moving from a behemoth tourist destination to the relatively small northwest Alabama town of Florence, population 38,000 -- which draws tourism primarily for the fishing opportunities in the lakes and river here -- an influx of chain hotels has largely been seen as positive thing for the community. Florence attracted its first Hampton Inn in 1999 (there are now two in town), and later courted the Marriott, which ended up building a conference center hotel in town.
"After we got one [chain hotel], they started coming after us," says Debbie Wilson, director of Florence/Lauderdale Tourism. "It really started snowballing after the Hampton." In the past year alone, three hotel chains opened here, including a Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Inn and Suites. "Now we're in a great position of having newer properties," says Wilson. "While a lot of other areas have aging product, we're in the great position of having lots of new rooms."
And while Wilson says that authentic travel to the region has not suffered with the rise of hotel chains, pointing out that the river and nearby lakes are still the draws they always were, she does concede that the location of most of the new hotel chains -- on the outer loop of the city -- does "lend itself to generica."
If you think the generic chain phenomenon is limited to the U.S., think again. From London to Cancun, American chains and their foreign cousins (think Tesco in England, a major supermarket chain around which entire communities are being built) breed a sameness in urban areas that is comforting to some travelers and off-putting for others.
The fact remains that where you find one town forbidding chains in the U.S., chances are that not very far away there's another town neon-lit with every familiar name in the restaurant and hotel chain yellow pages.
In a world where everything is starting to look all too strikingly similar, those holdouts of individuality are worth celebrating for the authentic travel experiences they strive to preserve.
"Cannon Beach people want something special," says Jewel, admitting in the same breath that the town isn't for every type of traveler. "We don't even have lighted signs -- all the signs are carved wood. It gives our town a very different feel."
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