First Impressions Tourism assessment assists communities in understanding assets and unique qualities through first time visitor experiences and perspectives

Three communities find outside visitors’ perspectives beneficial to strengthening their rural tourism economies and development efforts.

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Michigan State University Extension forged another two-year partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) in early 2023 to offer the award-winning First Impressions Tourism (FIT) assessment program to select Redevelopment Ready Certified (RRC) communities. The partnership made available FIT assessments for the Cities of Lapeer and Grand Blanc.

In the Upper Peninsula, Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC) participated in FIT on their own to drive new ideas and tourism development. This was the first FIT assessment in partnership with a Tribal Community and incorporated new questions based on United Nations World Tourism Organization guidelines for indigenous tourism.

As part of the FIT program process, each community is responsible for hosting a community report forum (CRF). The forums are approximately three-hour events open to anyone interested in learning what first-time visitors experienced in their respective community. CRFs are organized and hosted by FIT Community Leadership Teams (CLT), which are almost always comprised of a combination of public, private, and/or nonprofit sector leaders from the host community. FIT communities host CRFs approximately three-to-five months after receiving a team of first-time visitors from MSU Extension.

A total of 157 people participated across three CRFs in 2023. Of 157 participants, 39 voluntarily took all or components of MSU Extension’s short-term survey designed to evaluate learning and awareness, as well as gauge potential foreseeable actions and limitations to acting on their FIT results.

Survey questions posed to participants included:

  • My awareness of community assets increased as a result of participating in this program: 87% Strongly Agreed/Agreed
  • My knowledge of how to maximize assets increased as a result of participating in this program: 89% Strongly Agreed/Agreed
  • The program information shared will help strengthen collaboration within the community: 89% Strongly Agreed/Agreed
  • I envision myself or community using the information shared to advance tourism in my community: 87% Strongly Agreed/Agreed

Participants were asked a series of qualitative questions after participating in their community forum. Qualitative responses garnered from all three forums demonstrate the value of first-time visitor perspectives captured through FIT assessments.

Participants were asked “How FIT helped increase your awareness of assets in your community.” Responses are direct quotes from participants:

  • I didn't think of external assets as our community assets. For example- the scenic byway west of the Reservation and the USFS stop off points.
  • It came in with a new set of eyes and no preset opinions.
  • Pointed out a few things like parking and traffic issues.
  • We take for granted what are assets as just being part of the community we live in.
  • Documenting most all the shortcomings in the area.
  • Never would have considered a hospital or national cemetery an asset to the community
  • “It certainly generated lots of ideas to enhance our assets.
  • Business owners and park parks will communicate more effectively
  • I think it opened some eyes and ears
  • A new way of looking at town
  • As an adult educator I can use this to grow our student body
  • It showed me some easy steps to take to improve my business awareness.
  • New businesses that I didn’t know about.
  • I thought we did better than I expected
  • I saw things I’d not seen before
  • Amazing results

Participants were then asked to specify any short-term (1-6 months) actions they intend to take as a result of participating in the FIT program, with the following feedback provided:

  • Once we receive the final report, I envision working with Executive Council to implement a plan to tackle the "low hanging fruit" recommendations in the near term.
  • More long-term actions.
  • Try to get the speed limit lowered on Saginaw Street. Your FIT program reinforced something residents have known for some time.
  • Work on Saginaw St. solutions. Work on electric charging hub downtown for vehicles.
  • Will push for more upgrades to park entrances and signage. Also on-line resources.
  • Increase our signage around our parks.
  • As a city council rep and DPW member, I'll work to increase signage, which was a critical need. Also, I know our website needs an overhaul. This will help to garner more support there to revise. I've also been vocal about reducing the speed limit on Saginaw St. And will try to push this through the council.
  • Meetings with key stakeholders to develop a plan of attack.
  • I’ll check more of websites.
  • Incorporate info on community assets in business directory.
  • Press the city to install historical signage
  • Talk with and understand better what my community organizers are doing and not doing.
  • Promote kayak launch at Rotary Park
  • Better advertising, more community partnerships.
  • Get involved locally
  • Raise money to address issues

The final question prompted participants to list any barriers that may prevent them from taking actions in their respective community after receiving their FIT results. Themes developed and some specific responses include:

  • Cost and staff will be barriers.
  • Community approval.
  • Funding and/staff time
  • Money/time/people willing to take action
  • City Hall currently! That could change.
  • Money
  • $$$, having to convince others that this needs to be a priority, especially with the influx of first-time visitors due to the new athletic complex.
  • Poor and biased leadership.

Overall, 92% of respondents stated “yes” when asked if FIT can help Michigan communities interested in developing tourism.

Moving forward into 2024, MSU Extension and the MEDC are continuing this partnership for another two years for two communities. MSU Extension’s FIT program is also available to Michigan communities outside of the current partnership with MEDC.

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