More Than an Interstate Exit

By Camille Leonard

More Than an Interstate Exit

Your community is so much more than what lies right off the ramp. Let travelers know your town is truly unique and worth taking the time to explore. Read time: under 3 minutes

The United States Interstate System has been called by some the "Greatest Public Works Project in History." From the day President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the Interstate System began to reshape Americans' daily lives and our culture. And the System has become a huge driver of economic development, improved highway safety and congestion relief.

Efficiency had its price—an unintended consequence of this improved system was the re-routing of travelers away from some roadside attractions, local lodging, and eateries as well as much of the most scenic parts of communities. However, as the system has been forever changing the landscape of land-based travel, many other communities have benefited from the steady tax revenue that is generated by providing easy access to roadside services including fuel, lodging and convenient dining options. And, during times when the travel industry is in recovery and road trips are increasingly popular, major highways bring visitors that might have previously chosen to fly. In this sense, the Interstate System is supporting local economic development in ways Eisenhower could have never imagined.

Travelers stop at exits to fill up with gas, get a meal or spend a night yet almost never have a sense of what lies beyond their immediate surroundings. Their journey to somewhere else continues—but they miss out on local experiences that entertain, engage and educate. All of this interstate "traffic" creates unique opportunities for relatively unknown communities that have either been directly intersected by an interstate or communities that are adjacent to interstate exits.

Communities benefit when transient travelers near a place once considered only “an exit with decent places to stay and eat” make the time to stay and visit. It is then that interest and affinity for a destination begin to form. For a DMO, fostering this conversion is a more finessed marketing strategy than attracting potential visitors already interested in the offerings found in their community. 

Our strategic planning process, Marketing Action Planning (MAP), places the transient traveler in the list of targets who have a role in the success of a place located adjacent to an interstate highway. During the ideation portion of a MAP, we work to lift up observations unique to each community we are serving—that will help each of these communities serve up their own uniqueness.

Your community is so much more than what lies right off the ramp. Let travelers know your town is truly unique and worth taking the time to explore. These efforts are often multi-channel and almost always involve harnessing the power of stakeholder partnerships.

Here are a few excerpts from our Insights that can help your DMO staff fully consider the possibilities. 

Understand how TripAdvisor can encourage exploration.

Getting people to journey into your community from the highway starts with helping them find the local attractions, restaurants and places to stay. TripAdvisor is a great planning tool for travelers. The review and ranking system helps draw new customers and makes it easier for them to confidently choose to go a little further off the beaten path to find a unique experience. As travel recovers, keeping business hours up to date and posting details to let potential visitors know you are ready to greet them is reassuring.

As the largest travel advisor online, TripAdvisor continues to rank as the #1 travel and tourism platform in the U.S. So keeping the information updated in real-time on TripAdvisor (and we cannot emphasize this enough: encouraging your stakeholders to do the same) will be crucial to educating and giving travelers the confidence they need to return to your destination. 

Consider geofencing strategies.

Simply put, geofencing allows you to establish a virtual fence around specific geographic locations—like restaurants, convention centers, whole sections of a town, or even an area (outside of your destination) that may contain likely travelers to your area. This consumer "access" can be used to encourage visitation to your community.

Employ a well-designed signage system. 

Welcome drivers with a gateway into your community created by monument signage, branded billboards, light pole banners, or urban art and sculpture. Let them know what to expect with a gateway monument that matches the experience of staying in your destination. Create a sense of place and carry that essence of your brand throughout your wayfinding system.

Since we’ve written our wayfinding series, we’ve noticed interstate overpasses remodeled to reflect the flavor of the community it serves—some containing its name or brand.

Review your brand and messaging—make sure it's memorable.

Differentiation is at the heart of good branding. Creating a truly defining brand is sometimes a challenge when positioning for destinations, particularly small to medium-sized communities. Regionally, they often share attractors and attributes that draw similar visitors. Setting one place apart from another in the minds of potential guests doubles in difficulty when many interstate adjacent communities are often one or two exits apart—it’s easy to miss roadside boundary signs moving at 70 mph.

Don’t let travelers pass you by because they’re unaware of your assets. Get the message out—tell your unique story and welcome visitors into the heart of your community.