From Bicyclists Bring Business: A Guide for Attracting Bicycle Tourists To New York’s Canal Communities
This guide will set forth strategies for building on what you already offer to enhance the appeal of your community and your business to bicycle tourists and strengthening the local economy.October 08, 2011
This is a joint publication of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Parks & Trails New York, New York State Canal Corporation
As with other tourists, bicyclists represent potential customers who can bring revenue into your community by patronizing businesses that meet their needs and contribute to their overall desired experience. And when a particular bicycling destination is so appealing to bicyclists that they will come from some distance away to enjoy it, the dollars they bring with them can be significant.
New York State’s canal communities provide such a destination— the Canalway Trail— and therefore have great potential to benefit from bicycle tourism. But, although “if you build it, they will come” has some truth in this case, the full potential will not be realized automatically; it has to be earned.
Bicyclists are potential customers who, like other tourists, can bring new revenue into your community and support your business. But there are some additional characteristics of bicycle tourists that make them an attractive audience for your marketing efforts: They are, on average, well-educated older adults from upper-income households.
In a survey of bicyclists on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, 81% reported having a college degree and 78% gave household incomes of $75,000 or more. In the Adirondacks, the mean annual income of bicyclist survey respondents was between $60,000 and $69,000. In a 2008 survey of users on the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile rail trail in Pennsylvania, 83% of respondents were 35 or older.
They typically travel in groups of friends or family members. In the Adirondack survey of people who had visited or were considering visiting for bike tours, for example, the average group size was five people.
They are interested in learning about your community and what makes it unique, and in participating in what it has to offer. Having already chosen a slower-paced mode of travel, they will take time to enjoy what they encounter. They like to visit historic sites and museums, to find unusual shops, to tour wineries and farms, visit art galleries and theaters, explore natural features, and engage in other forms of recreation.When the website bicycletouring101.com conducted an online poll recently, 64% of respondents said that when they come to a new town, they prefer to “look around for nice restaurants, historical attractions and interesting things to do while (they) stay and visit.”
They spend money. Many bicyclists who tour independently carry a minimum of equipment and pay for lodging in facilities ranging from hostels to hotels and meals in restaurants as they go. Sometimes known as “credit card cyclists” because of their willingness to buy what they need along the way, these cyclists have not been drawn to bicycle tourism because it is inexpensive.
Other cyclists carry much of what they need with them, perhaps including camping and cooking gear and food. These tend to be more frugal visitors, but still are likely to purchase food near the starting points of their trips and, at least on longer tours, need to resupply themselves periodically.
Finally, many cyclists engage in supported touring (guided tours) in which they join a group tour that is supported by an organization or business that makes all or most arrangements for lodging and food. For an end-to-end trip on the Erie Canalway Trail, for example, cyclists can spend up to $1,500 each, depending on the type of lodging and meals included. They are relatively low impact visitors. If they arrive in your community on a trail, they do not contribute to traffic on your streets, occupy limited parking spaces, add significant wear and tear on infrastructure, or bring the noise and air pollution associated with motor vehicles.
They provide an incentive for preserving your canal community’s unique character, historic heritage and natural features. Because of their interest in exploring and learning about the places they visit, they are likely to spend more money in communities that have preserved and interpreted elements of their past and their natural setting. Indeed, in a recent (2009) survey of heritage travelers, of which bicycle tourists are widely considered a sub-group, conducted for the U.S. Cultural & Heritage Tourism Marketing Council, 65% said that they seek travel experiences where the “destination, its buildings and surroundings have retained their historic character.”
Bicycle tourists choose possible destinations based on three broad characteristics:
1. The actual ride, including length, difficulty and type of route.
2. Support and services along the way, such as the availability of good maps, the ease of finding their way, and lodging and dining options.
3. Nearby attractions (i.e., what there is to do and see).
Support and Services:
Nearby Attractions/Destination Characteristics:
In the context of bicycle tourism, “destination” has a different meaning. For these tourists, it is all about the journey. So here, the word refers to the route to be followed, whether on a trail or roads. These attributes emerge as particularly important:
In the 2008 survey of trail users on Pennsylvania’s Great Allegheny Passage, 41% said that they stayed overnight in the vicinity of the trail for at least one night during their visit. These individuals reported spending approximately $100 per day, including lodging, while using the trail compared to $13 per day for those who did not stay overnight. Furthermore, 73% of the overnighters stayed two or more nights (unfortunately, the spending by this group was not separately tabulated).
An informal Vermont survey of more than 30,000 bicycle tourists in 1991 supports this finding and suggests that the figure may be higher: visiting (non-local) cyclists spent an average of $115 per person per day. About 30% of this total was spent on lodging, while the rest was roughly equally divided among food, bicycle supplies and outfitters, and personal expenses.
Furthermore, the longer the bicycle trip, the more bicycle tourists tend to spend per day and the farther they are willing to travel to get to the location. For example, a study of the economic impact of bicycling inMaine found that the 2% of cyclists who went on cycling trips of two or more days accounted for 17% of all bicyclists’ spending. In addition, 80% of cyclists reported that they would travel no more than 100 miles to reach a location for a one-day trip, while 90% said they would travel more than 100 miles for a four to seven day tour and over 80% were willing to travel 300 miles or more for a trip longer than a week. Maine survey respondents also said they would travel farther to bike on a multi-use trail than to use roads.
In the case of the Great Allegheny Passage, people who traveled 50 miles or more to get to the trail spent about twice as much per day as those who traveled less than 50 miles. Our general rule of thumb regarding spending is that day trippers from outside the immediate area spend four times as much as local cyclists, and multi-day cyclists spend twice as much per day as day trippers.
Based on these studies, we estimate that those who take long-distance, multi-day bicycling vacations spend between $100 and $300 per day on food, lodging, and other items, with “credit card cyclists” typically near the upper end of this range. A group of six cyclists, therefore, each spending $250 per day on, say, a seven-day trip would leave behind $10,500 along their path. If the Canalway Trail could attract 1,000 such bicycle tourist groups in a season, those visitors would contribute $10.5 million to canal community economies.
Is this a Reasonable Expectation?
Here is some evidence: Missouri’s Katy Trail, a 225-mile rail trail under development since 1982, draws 350,000 bicyclists per year, about a third of whom (100,000+) are tourists from outside the local area.
A 2007 economic impact study of the Great Allegheny Passage, not yet complete at the time, determined that it was generating $12.5 million in revenue annually. And the New York State Canal Corporation’s 2008 report, “Economic Impact Study of New York State Canal Tourism,” estimated that 2.4 million “day-use visitors” of all kinds use the Canalway Trail system each year. It seems likely, therefore, that the economic impact of the Erie Canalway Trail will reach, and perhaps exceed, the above figure.
Before they can even decide whether the Erie Canalway Trail is an attractive destination, bicycle tourists must become aware of the opportunities the trail offers. How they typically do that may surprise you. Word-of-mouth— the most powerful influence. A survey of previous and potential bicycle tourists in the Adirondack region of New York found that word of mouth via friends, family, co-workers, and a growing number of online journaling sites and blogs, is the most influential information source for making decisions on where to go, with nearly 60% of respondents relying significantly on it.
In a 2006 user survey of the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Pennsylvania, 48% of the respondents said they learned of the trail through word-of-mouth. Another 18% identified the Internet as a source of information. The latter includes several blogs and interactive sites where people can post their own experiences, which can be seen as a form of word-of-mouth communication. This means that, by welcoming and serving bicycle tourists today, you are also creating a cadre of promoters who will be a major source of publicity for the trail, your community and your business that will bring even more customers in the future. Further, it also means that the future of your business and your community is intimately linked to the success of other businesses and canal communities and to the appeal of the Erie Canalway Trail.
Your task, then, is to help give these visitors the experience they are seeking, thereby generating positive word-of-mouth “buzz.”
Building a Bicycle-friendly Business
Okay, you’ve begun to think about and address the needs of your bicycling customers. As a business owner or operator, the steps you choose to take will vary with the nature of your business and other factors. And you can proceed incrementally. Bicyclist friendliness is a matter of degree rather than a “yes or no” quality.
While individual businesses that understand and cater to the needs of bicyclists are essential building blocks of a bicycle-friendly community, a broader, community-wide effort to appeal to trail users— to get their attention and attract them into your community— is key.
The Basics of Being a Bicycle-Friendly Community
For about a century, we have designed or redesigned our communities and transportation systems around the automobile. This orientation is so ingrained that it can be challenging to recognize the obstacles it presents to people who travel by other means. Bicyclists do have different needs than motorists.
Fundamental Elements of Becoming Bicycle-Friendly
Whether you run a B&B or a hardware store, staff a welcome center or a museum, or serve on a city council or a planning board, consider these steps:
Shift your perspective. To grasp the needs of traveling bicyclists, there is no substitute for being a bicyclist. Bike from the trail into your community; go where visiting bicyclists are likely to go— restaurants, lodging, shops, historic sites, etc. Can you find them readily? Do you feel safe? What barriers do you encounter?
Welcome bicyclists. Offer the services and facilities they need. Start with some simple signs: “Welcome to Your Canal Community” on the trail itself; “Bicyclists Welcome” at businesses, attractions, parks, etc. If your community has a “bicyclists welcome” program, participate in it and display the logo; if not, start one to encourage others to consider bicyclists’ needs
Give them information. Bicycle tourists crave information! Especially about where they are or soon will be and where they can find what they need.When we ask participants in Cycling the Erie Canal what improvements they would like to see, “more signs telling us where we are and how far it is to the next town” is always at or near the top of the list.
Help them find you. Trial-and-error doesn’t work well for bicyclists who have just ridden 30 or 40 miles. Use a map and/or signs to show the way from the trail into your community. If you are not close to the trail, work with other businesses and community leaders to develop a “gateway” on the trail with a directory of businesses and their locations.
Provide safe access. Be sure that the roads bicyclists will use to get from the trail into your community or to your business are bicycle-friendly with:
Bicyclists need parking, too! Once bicyclists find you, then what? Bicycles need protection from theft and, if possible, weather. Provide convenient and secure bicycle parking facilities (bike racks). Keep them in good condition and the area around them clean. They should be in a lighted area if they will be used after dark and, ideally, covered for shelter from rain.
Don’t hide the amenities. Make water and public restrooms easy to find. If not clearly visible from the trail, provide directions. If public facilities aren’t available, will businesses open theirs? Rest and shelter are important to bicyclists, too; chairs, benches and covered porches or pavilions in parks are great. Compile a list of places where showers are available (e.g., health clubs, the YMCA/YWCA, a welcome or visitor center, nearby state parks).
Going Beyond the Basics
At the community level, being bicycle-friendly refers to:
In seeking to enhance these two qualities, the task can be seen as consisting of three stages:
Although the specific steps you take in each of these phases will depend on your community’s particular situation and attributes, there are some elements to consider that can be adapted to most circumstances. As with individual businesses, canal communities can adopt an incremental approach to becoming more bicycle-friendly, undertaking simpler and more low-cost steps first and more complex or expensive ones later.
Keep in mind, also, that becoming more bicycle-friendly will directly benefit all residents of your community as much as it does bicycling visitors. By broadening options for transportation, recreation and physical activity, it will contribute to improved health, a cleaner environment and an enhanced quality of life.
Who is going to make it happen?
Making changes to attract more bicycle tourists cannot be done by one or a few business owners. It will require broader community participation and decision-making.
Once your community has decided, through municipal legislative debate, public forums or other means, that it wants to better serve bicycle tourists using the Canalway Trail, a group must be designated to provide the leadership needed to move forward. This might be an existing group, such as a downtown revitalization committee, chamber of commerce or industrial development agency, or a new one formed to focus on this effort. Regardless, inclusion of all stakeholders and ongoing opportunities for public engagement are important for long-term success.
Here are some initial steps you can take at minimal cost to lay the foundation for becoming more bicycle-friendly and attracting more bicycle tourists:
Drawing Bicyclists In
If the Canalway Trail runs through or immediately adjacent to the heart of your community, getting the attention of trail users will be relatively easy. You are hard to miss. If, on the other hand, the trail is only on the outskirts of your community, getting noticed may require more effort. In either case, once you have their attention, you must answer the bicycle traveler’s question, “What is here that’s of interest to me?”
Consider the following actions:
Create a community gateway. Clearly identify the main access point into your community with a trailside “gateway” conveying the message that “You have arrived!” A gateway could include:
Once you have successfully captured cyclists’ attention, the next stage is to make it as easy and comfortable as possible for them to leave the trail, find needed services, explore your community, and, later, return to the trail. The emphasis given to this stage will depend, in part, on the size of your community and its proximity to the trail. Here are some steps to consider:
Establish a clear, safe connection to your community.
In most cases this will be a road or series of roads, but if an off-road option exists, or could in the future, that is ideal. This connection should:
Make your roads bicycle-friendly.
Integrate bicycle use into your community.
Delighting Cyclists During their Visit
Once you have convinced Canalway Trail bicyclists to spend time in your community and facilitated their travel from the trail into and through it, your next task is to send them on their way with positive feelings about their visit. In doing so, you will be helping to generate future visits to the trail and your community through the word-of-mouth information that bicycle tourists rely on so significantly. Try these steps:
Provide convenient bicyclist facilities and amenities. Sound familiar? In particular, have secure bike racks at convenient locations in your shopping district(s) and at parks, bus stops, public rest rooms, and other popular places.
Look good! Bicyclists are not likely to linger in a community without evident pride in its presentation. Keep streets and public areas clean; beautify the downtown; plant flowers and landscape parks; keep the grass mowed where appropriate; maintain signs, benches, restrooms, and sidewalks; have trash receptacles in the main business area and parks.
Fashion an identity or theme for your community or region and reinforce it throughout town on signs, banners, and promotional materials. Such a theme need not limit your offerings or image, but it will help people remember their visit. For example, the Village of Brockport capitalizes on its stature as the “Victorian Village on the Erie Canal.” Rochester is known as “Flower City;” Lyons was the peppermint oil capital of the U.S., and Lockport is renowned for its “Flight of Five” locks.
Assess your community’s unique canal-related assets and use them in marketing and promotion. Showcasing a genuine, authentic theme or asset, rather than adopting gimmicks or overlaying inauthentic styles (e.g., Bavarian architectural overlays), also promotes the local and national significance of the Erie Canalway. Collaborate with adjacent communities as appropriate.
Develop additional opportunities for bicycle tourists to explore and learn about your town or the surrounding countryside. Possibilities include walking tours of historic buildings/sites, museums, antique or craft shops, or other community features, side trips to nearby parks, connections to other existing trails, and themed bike loops that lead from your community to historic sites, natural areas, farms, wineries, or artisans. Be sure to have brochures or simple print-outs describing these options readily available throughout your community and that any bike routes are well-marked and on bicycle-friendly roads or trails.
Set up a “trail ambassadors” program in which volunteers knowledgeable about your community are on the trail whenever possible to answer questions, give directions, assist with mechanical problems, and serve as a friendly face of your community. Make everyone in your community a “bicycle ambassador.”
Educate residents about the potential value of bicycle tourists to the local economy and ways in which they can contribute to positive word-of-mouth marketing by offering assistance when needed, keeping the community clean, reporting missing signs or road hazards, and generally being courteous drivers when encountering bicyclists. Organize local bike rides for residents to acquaint them with the trail.
Create a sense of security. Post a local emergency phone number at the gateway (dialing “911” from a cell phone connects to the state police). Meet with local police to consider the feasibility of patrolling the trail, access routes, and public facilities and parks used by cyclists.
Expanding the Pie — Reaching Out to Bicyclists
So bicycle tourists are coming and they are spending money— perhaps more than you realized— in pursuit of their chosen vacation mode. And you can take steps locally to increase your slice of this bicycle-tourism business pie by enticing more of these pedaling tourists to explore your community and patronize your business. As a result, awareness of all that the Erie Canalway Trail has to offer will spread through word-of-mouth buzz. As it does, more bicyclists will arrive to ride the trail, further increasing the economic benefit of the trail.
But you don’t have to wait for this process to unfold! You can, instead, contribute to it by reaching out to bicyclists. Doing so involves two key elements:
Creating brand recognition is about using both publicity and direct rider experience to make a connection between certain words or symbols (e.g., logos) and positive images or expectations in the minds of potential customers. The concept is useful here for two reasons:
The Erie Canal has it! People have heard of it. Its name invokes certain pictures or associations in their minds: engineering marvel, westward expansion, nation building and patriotism, a simpler and slower-paced era, even a song (“Low bridge, everybody down”). This makes your task easier: associate your community and business with the canal and let the bicycle touring community know that the canal is still there and accessible to them via the Erie Canalway Trail.
It reinforces the idea that promotion of the Erie Canalway Trail and the success of individual businesses and canal communities are linked. Benefits both trickle down and bubble up. What’s good for you is good for the trail and vice versa.
Getting the word out. This includes many forms of publicity, from the word-of-mouth marketing discussed earlier to special events and paid advertising. Here are some suggestions to generate interest in your business and community among prospective bicycle tourists while supporting and benefiting from the “brand” of the Erie Canal and Canalway Trail:
Assess your business/community from the perspective of bicycling tourists.
Organize an event that will capitalize on your proximity to the trail and that will appeal to bicycle tourists, or build on an existing event to include these elements. A 2008 nationwide survey of bike event promoters conducted by Bikes Belong found that more than a million Americans participated in such events (mostly organized rides) and the average participant generated $535 in direct economic impact. Events also introduce your community to people who are not yet bicycle tourists but may return or stay longer because of your bicycling opportunities. For examples, check your community's calendar of events.
Collaborate with others: other businesses in your community or other communities with which you share a theme or opportunities such as a side destination or a bike loop connected to the trail. Cooperate in regional promotion efforts with Tourism Promotion Agencies, chambers of commerce and business groups (e.g., Empire State Bed & Breakfast Association and regional B&B associations.)
Welcome competition. Remember that what improves the trail and your community benefits your business. Particularly in smaller communities, it is important to develop a critical mass of services in order to entice more bicyclists off the trail. For example, more people will come into your town if there is a choice of restaurants rather than just one. This critical mass concept also applies to the trail as a whole. Along significant stretches of the trail, for instance, lodging options currently are limited. Increasing them will appeal to more bicyclists.
Advertise where the cyclists are, such as in Adventure Cyclist, the magazine of the Adventure Cycling Association, or American Bicyclist, published by the League of American Bicyclists. Pool resources with other businesses or canal communities to increase advertising. Mention bicycling in your other, general tourism advertising and promotion.
Talk to bicyclists. How did they learn about the trail? How did they find your business? What drew them to it and to your community? What could you do to enhance your image or improve their experience? Use the Canalway Trail logo in your advertising to reinforce your connection to the trail while also building the trail’s brand.
Support— and take advantage of— statewide efforts to promote the trail.
Making it Simple
The less work people have to do to visit you, the more likely they are to come. Whether you represent an individual business, a business group, a canal community, or a region, make it as easy as possible for potential customers/visitors to find the information they want and make arrangements.
Start with the basics.
Whether you run a business, a chamber of commerce, a tourism office, or a development agency, have knowledgeable people ready to answer bicycle tourists’ questions while conveying a welcoming feeling.
Down the Road ... or Trail
There is a “chicken or egg” element to the process of making the Canalway Trail a world-class bicycle tourism destination.Which comes first— customers or trail-related services and amenities?
The answer is that the two probably will grow together as one feeds the other: modest improvements in bicycle-friendliness and promotion will draw more people to the trail, which, in turn, enables businesses to start up or expand and communities to add further enhancements. What is important is a willingness to make some initial investments of time or money in the belief that a payoff will come, that you are headed in the right direction.
What will success look like? In moving forward, it can be helpful to have a mental picture of the goal.With that in mind, here are some possibilities:
By keeping this vision in mind while working on your own contributions to it, you can create an Erie Canalway Trail travel corridor for the twenty-first century, bringing new economic vitality to canal communities and supporting diverse businesses serving increasing numbers of bicycle tourists.
"Bicyclists Bring Business: A Guide for Attracting Bicycle Tourists To New York’s Canal Communities" is a joint publication of: