Small town tourism challenges? Survey says…

Small town tourism challenges are everywhere, even the World's Richest Acre in downtown Kilgore TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

“World’s Richest Acre” historic oil derricks are a highlight of downtown Kilgore, Texas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Our Tourism Currents co-founder Becky McCray spends most of her time these days focused on advocacy for rural and small town entrepreneurship, but her work still occasionally intersects with tourism and destination marketing issues.

A recent survey on her website is a case in point. Small town people listed challenges where they need help, and small town tourism ranked in their top 5.

Take a look at the survey details and Becky’s insights below….

It All Relates: Tourism, Downtowns, and Small Town Partner Frustrations

Missing out on tourism opportunities was the fourth most popular challenge of five, chosen by 45% of people.

Choosing tourism as a challenge was highly correlated with also choosing the top three challenges: having a dead downtown, no one shopping in town, and losing their young people.

If people chose one of these challenges, they were more likely to choose them all as a set, indicating an interrelated set of challenges.

Related – Rural tourism challenges and opportunites – 2023 survey results

Tourism professionals will recognize a number of the common themes that emerged from both the structured and open-ended survey responses….

1.  Lack of cooperation and negativity among local leaders was the most commonly-mentioned challenge. Personal agendas, local organizations that don’t work together, and infighting are problems that hold communities back.

One respondent summed it up, citing “obstinacy and stubborn pessimism.”

2.  Lack of cooperation among local businesses. Participants mentioned competitiveness, antagonism between unrelated businesses, lack of participation in group promotions, difficulty coordinating marketing, and the need to pool resources.

They even mentioned business staff parking their own cars in spots meant for customers….this is an easy fix once everyone understands that doing this adds to the perception of a lack of downtown parking.

[Note from our Leslie McLellan, who is also the DMO for Visit San Jacinto Valley in southern California – “San Jacinto Valley is finally starting to get away from the competitiveness problem. I think hosting our first national blogger press trip in November – which was organized by a travel blogger I met at the TBEX travel blogging conference – helped us turn the corner for good on this issue.”]


3.  Marketing issues for small businesses were the next topic mentioned most often. Competing locally, nationally, and online is challenging. Several people mentioned the difficulty of keeping up with changes in marketing (tipin our email newsletter we act as your personal scouts to help keep you ahead of the pace of change.)

Reduced effectiveness of newspaper advertising, the fast rate of change of online marketing, and difficulties in reaching customers today leave some businesses at a loss.

[Leslie knows of a small town that is dealing with a print newspaper owner’s understandable – but shortsighted – fight to keep people away from digital advertising (primarily on Facebook, which can be very effective and affordable) and keeping them spending ad money in the physical paper. It is hard to balance supporting the local hometown news organization while also acknowledging that methods to get in front of your markets have changed and will continue to change. Tourism partner businesses simply must stay informed and keep learning.]
Small town tourism challenges: getting people to take the Main Street exit (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Take the Main Street exit in Kansas for small town delights; love the sunflower on their highway signs (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

4.  The fourth most-mentioned challenge was finding and keeping volunteers. Changes in the way people get involved in their community are causing a shortage of unpaid help for traditional organizations.

We just saw one Nebraska small town probably lose a popular festival because the volunteer base was simply worn out, plus they acknowledged a lack of understanding by their volunteers about how to use social media to market special events and reach today’s event attendees.

5.  Common business weaknesses made up the other most-mentioned issue. Businesses require support to address specific problems that threaten their operation. Businesses not staying open past 5 p.m., and generally not presenting themselves professionally or competitively, were common threads.

Specific Concerns & Challenges, in Their Own Words

When given a chance to add their own challenges in the open-ended survey comments, more tourism-related issues came up. Here are some of them in their own words:

  • “Our town has an unfair reputation that other communities won’t let die.”                            [Says Leslie to this – “The San Jacinto Valley has also dealt with the unfair reputation issue, but through the positive updates from our VisitSJV Facebook Page – our main communications tool – plus positive messages from bloggers and Snowbird seasonal visitors over the past 2 years, that tide is turning.”]
  • “We are a very seasonal area and everything dies in the winter”
  • “How do we recruit international tourism?”
  • “Competing with online competitors and trying to attract enough visitors/customers to our hospitality business to make it viable.”
  • “Developing an effective website on a small town budget, yet looking like a ‘big town’ outcome.”
  • “Starting Ag (agricultural) tourism and need to know how to get funding for small projects.”
  • “How to encourage more nightlife in a small town [that’s] trying to lure more overnight stays.”
  • “We desperately need another motel. How do I get one?”
  • “I think we need large billboards to bring people in, as they are going around us because of billboards pointing away from us. How can I convince other small businesses to pool resources and compete with other signs directing people away from us?”


In reviewing these survey results, don’t get caught up in looking at only the difficulties. One very positive takeaway is that you are not alone.

Most towns, cities, and regions have dealt with at least one of these issues – it takes time and a concerted effort to make the necessary changes/shifts in thinking.

Naming the problems and getting started moving toward solutions is half the battle.


Survey details – a total of 227 responses were collected online between April 12, 2015 and May 11, 2015 from subscribers and visitors to Respondents identified themselves as rural. 175 identified themselves as business owners by responding to the business challenges question. Participants included 206 from the USA, 11 from Canada and 10 from other international locations.


(Want to learn on your own/self-paced, but also checking in with us regularly for coaching and consulting? That’s our online Full Course with Full Support – learn how to use social media and digital destination marketing to bring more visitors to town! Lessons are kept updated, and you will never lose access. Ask questions and get feedback any time, in any course module. Includes the option to join our private Facebook Group, “Our Town Matters.”)



Top Posts on Our Social Media

(Tip – when we reviewed our website stats and began re-sharing the posts that Google Analytics said were most popular, those re-shares had excellent engagement. Lesson: don’t let your archives die!)

**  The most popular recent post on our Tourism Currents Facebook Page? An update with a link back to our post on social media for tour operators.

**  The hottest recent tweet from @TourismCurrents? Culture, arts, and tourism money in downtowns, referring to a blog post by our co-founder @SheilaS.

**  The most engagement on our LinkedIn Company Page? An update that linked to our tips for a destination marketing blog.


Want to get this newsletter post via email?  Click here for the Tourism Currents newsletter signup page.

Comments are closed.