First Impressions program was first developed by Andrew Lewis, University of Wisconsin, Cooperative Extension, and James Schneider in the early 1990s. Since then the program has been evaluated extensively at the community level and adapted for use by Extension programs across the United States and Canada. The program draws from goals and processes of both traditional needs assessments and asset‐based community economic development strategies to construct an inventory of a location’s assets and challenges that can be used to raise local awareness and guide public action from within.
Meeting the Needs of Michigan Communities
In order to meet the needs of Michigan communities that are interested in community revitalization via tourism and recreation, the Michigan State University Extension tourism team adapted the First Impressions model from West Virginia University Extension's Community, Resources, and Economic Development team. After adapting it to meet Michigan's needs, the MSU Extension tourism team coined the program First Impressions: Assessing Your Community for Tourism or FIT.
The same format is followed as in the traditional model except that the group of first-time visitors are typically representatives of MSU Extension and/or partnering organizations. They visit as unannounced tourists using a manual of established guidelines to record and assess their first impression of the host community. That data is aggregated and provides the basis for future, planned interaction with the host community. Outcomes of the unannounced visit are shared in a public forum hosted by the community, which always include leaders, residents, and the general public. A final written report outlining outcomes and results is provided to the leaders responsible for constructing the program application. The FIT program provides a rapid assessment of a destination’s strengths and weaknesses in categories including transportation, hospitality, aesthetics, environment, bikeability, walkability, visitor information, community knowledge and interaction and tourism assets (agriculture, nature, food, water) that contribute to the overall attraction of a community.
Importance of Tourism
Many Michigan communities rely on tourism as a way to diversify their economy, or they are seeking to reap the benefits of a strong tourism industry by identifying assets to strengthen their communities as a place to visit. Tourism can provide much-needed income and economic diversification to rural communities across Michigan. However, communities rarely, if ever, have the benefit of receiving constructive feedback from first‐time visitors as to how their community appears from a fresh set of eyes. Understanding how the community is viewed by visitors can increase awareness and opportunities to leverage assets previously overlooked or neglected when developing and planning for tourism. After all, planning maximizes the advantages and minimizes the disadvantages of developing tourism. The results of FIT can motivate action from local leadership, strengthen current community development initiatives, encourage self‐evaluation, build new networks, foster engagement with youth or minority residents, and/or spawn regional collaboration.
MSU Extension tourism educators adapted and modified the First Impressions program to ensure that it not only fosters solutions to strengthening Michigan communities’ tourism and recreation industries, but also provides solutions for creating places where people want to live, work, play, learn, and return.