The Route 66 renaissance that has transformed communities,

The first European Route 66 Festival in Ofterdingen Germany. Photo Jim Hinckley

led to a rise in unprecedented international promotional opportunities, and provided economic opportunity in rural and blighted areas is at a crossroads. A key component in the renaissance along the highway corridor is international interest in Route 66 fueled in part by the perception that it provides the traveler with a unique authentic American experience. About twenty months ago a trend began to surface but at the time it was barely discernible. Now, it is almost impossible to ignore. 

For a multitude of reasons ranging from the strength of the dollar and dramatic increases in the rates for motorcycle rentals to worries created from the wave of mass shootings and highly publicized incidents associated with customs issues at airports, international tourism to the states is in decline. This is not a politically motivated statement nor is it a knee jerk reaction. It is a fact, and it is a fact that needs to be honestly discussed as well as addressed. There are solutions. There could even be a silver lining. First, let’s address the evidence.

Recently I discussed this issue with a Scandinavian tour company owner that specializes in Route 66 tours.  He has been providing this service since 1999 and never canceled a tour. This year out of more than 20 guided tours scheduled, five have been canceled. In discussions with the owners of two Australian based tour companies, they have either canceled tours or scaled back the size, and are having trouble getting clients for U.S. tours. A Dutch company noted that of nine tours scheduled, at least four will be canceled. So, what are the solutions? Where is the silver lining?

photo Jim Hinckley

First, lets discuss solutions. Communities can start by tapping into a key aspect of the renaissance – personalize the invitation. Every community needs a Bob Russell in Pontiac or Angel Delgadillo in Seligman; a face, some one who can make the visitor feel like an old friend, even through advertisement. Next, put the Route 66 network to use. Community leaders need to reach out to tour groups, to Route 66 associations. Get the community involved. We need our international visitors, and we need to make sure that they know we need them and want them to visit.

As an example, last May in Kingman when a Dutch tour stopped for the evening, the Route 66 Association of Kingman, working with the grassroots Promote Kingman initiative, organized a reception. They partnered with local car clubs to provide transportation from the hotel to the historic business district. Arrangements were facilitated with a local restaurant for a special dinner and entertainment.

Where is the silver lining in all of this? International interest in Route 66 was, to a large degree, taken for granted. It was low hanging fruit. There were often discussions about domestic markets but were seldom made a focus. The downturn in international tourism should provide incentive to foster development of domestic interest in Route 66. This begins with an understanding of how the domestic perception of Route 66 differs from the international perception. Next, market Route 66 as a gateway, not a destination. Picture the linear community of Route 66 in this manner, a series of links, of overlapping circles.

As an example, with Kingman at the center draw a circle with a circumference of 400 miles. That is the communities primary domestic market target. Now draw a circle with a circumference of 100 miles. Within that circle are the attributes you market. Do this with every community along the Route 66 corridor. The overlapping circles are where primary marketing partnerships are developed.

Route 66 has always been in a state of evolution, that is one consistent theme in the highways history. If we are going to keep the renaissance alive, if we are going to ensure Route 66 remains a vital part of the American narrative into the centennial and beyond, we need to be aware, we need to be involved, and we need to build partnerships. Route 66 is the crossroads of the past and future, so let’s approach problems with an eye on the future and an awareness of the past.