The focus group, organized by Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and regional chambers of commerce, was part of an economic development and marketing initiative paid for by a $472,000 flood recovery grant from the federal Economic Development Agency. According to BDCC director Laura Sibilia, the goal is to create a “Southern Vermont Sustainable Marketing Program” that will include the creation of a Southern Vermont brand that will make tourism marketing and employee recruitment more successful.
Guillermo Mazier, a marketing specialist with Atlas Advertising, of Denver, CO, kicked off the discussion by asking members of the group why they live in southern Vermont.
Several people talked about the personal connections that they have been able to make in the small town atmosphere of southern Vermont. “One of the things I really like about living here is that you see people you know, they say hello to you, and you have a feeling that you’re connected to people,” said one woman, noting that she was originally from New Jersey.
“This is where you can drive to work and see turkeys and foxes along the road,” said another group member. “I came here from the city, kicking and screaming, and now I couldn’t imagine living in a city again.”
Martin Langveld said there was a “sense of place” in southern Vermont. “There’s a sense of place that you don’t get when you’re in the middle of the strip mall environment. A sense of who you are and what you’re connected to.”
Mazier asked why people like living and working in southern Vermont. “I also came here kicking and screaming, about 42 years ago,” said Rep. Ann Manwaring, of Wilmington. “One of the things I was able to do here is start and run my own business. You can do things like that here – your entrepreneurial spirit has room to roam here.”
A Bennington businessman said he started five companies since he moved to the area as a “corporate refugee” many years ago, and had as many as 165 employees at a time. He said one of the area’s assets is a population that’s capable of achieving beyond their educational qualifications. “I had 165 employees and I was the only one with a college degree,” he said. “I had non-college grads running five of my companies. They weren’t always trying to go somewhere else. The last 25 years I spent winters in Arizona because I totally trusted the people who worked for me.”
Mazier asked what group members would tell potential employees about living and working in southern Vermont. Phillip Gilpin, owner of Green Mountain Marketing, said he came to Vermont from Los Angeles because he had a family connection here, and stayed because of the outdoor lifestyle. But he said one of the unique aspects of the place is that anyone can make their own way. “If you have what you need here, you can do things here at any stage of your life, whether you’re just out of college or over 60. You can build it here if you want to do it, and that’s different than any place I’ve ever been. It’s a place that wants you to succeed – if you have a good idea, and you’re generally nice to the other people around you, people want you to succeed.”
Bartleby’s Books owner Lisa Sullivan said she and her husband also moved from the West Coast to Wilmington. “We wanted the outdoor recreation and the small town feel,” she said. “And we wanted to get away from traffic congestion, which we were always fighting, and the strip mall after strip mall. This is the opposite.”
But Mount Snow General Manager Kelly Pawlak said there were also challenges to relocating here that must be addressed. “I came here as a ski instructor, and also worked as a waitress. I lived for free as a house parent, so I had no rent. I saved my money for three years to buy a house. A lot of people who work here have the same challenges. I see people who are young and struggling, and there’s not a lot of year-round jobs with benefits.”
Others cited the area’s close proximity to major metropolitan areas, variety of local cultural opportunities, scenic beauty, and its welcoming residents. “I couldn’t believe the welcoming community I came to,” said one group member. “And you get to know the entire state. It’s so small everything is accessible, and the people are accessible.”
Getting to the point of the “branding” activity, Mazier asked people how they explain where they live to strangers or old friends. “We joke about that,” Sullivan said. “There are a number of ways, usually we say ‘southern Vermont,’ or ‘Mount Snow,’ and keep trying until they recognize something.”
“It also depends how far away from Vermont they are,” added Manwaring. “For some you have to start with ‘New England.’”
When Mazier asked about tourism, and ideas for drawing more tourists, Gilpin said the issue was one of reaching the right customers. “We’re not an area that needs to create a product to sell, we already have it. There’s as much, or more, here in the summer as there is in winter. The problem is a lack of resources and a lack of connection to what we have available. The problem is communication. We need to figure out how to reach people.”
Manwaring said the people are a draw, both for tourists and for potential businesses. “We’re authentic here, and that’s one of the biggest assets we may have,” she said. “We know what we’re about, who we are, and how we live here. My sense is that younger people are more interested in authenticity than flamboyance, and that may be the way to find a connection to younger people.”
The discussion also turned to the challenges of a unified marketing campaign for a region with diverse attractions. Some group members expressed doubt that they, other businesses, or local marketing groups could be convinced to put their limited marketing resources into a larger and unproven marketing effort. “If a business has a marketing budget of $2,000, asking them to spend it on this, that’s a risk,” said Gilpin. “Things are tight.”
But Michael Cobb, vice president of marketing at Stratton Mountain, said that southern Vermont businesses could keep doing the same thing they’ve been doing – if they’re happy with the results they’ve been getting.
“We’re gathered here under the context that we could be doing better, and there’s a changing market and a changing demographic,” he said. “Our market is moving on and we need to replace them.”
Bill Colvin, director of the Bennington County Regional Commission’s sustainable community development program, said the point wasn’t to create a marketing campaign but to create a brand that could be used by any southern Vermont business or group in their marketing to provide instant recognition among potential customers.
The meeting was one of several stops in a daylong exploration of the area by Atlas representatives. Sibilia says the Colorado company was chosen from among a number of bidders, in part for their reputation for connecting economic development and marketing. One of the challenges of working with a firm from outside the area has been getting them up to speed on local issues and circumstances. And some have questioned whether the money would have been better spent locally. “A lot of this is about economic development, and if you’re not engaging with local companies, it’s a little disappointing,” Sibilia says. “But Atlas has created a niche specializing in pulling together economic development and marketing, and branding around economic development goals. That was exactly what we were looking for, and their proposal was head and shoulders above the rest.”