Steamboat Springs Ski Town U.S.A. is being pulled inexorably into a post-industrial age where experiences, not possessions, are the currency of the day. The challenge for Steamboat is to retain its sense of community while appealing to tourists from both sides of the MTV generational gap, Hal Rothman told a local audience Thursday night.
Rothman is a history professor from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who was speaking before more than 200 people during the opening session of Economic Summit 2001 at the Steamboat Grand Hotel.
"I think Steamboat has the assets to win this particular battle," Rothman said. But it may have to reconfigure those assets in order to prosper as a tourist destination over the next 30 years.
As the baby-boom generation enters retirement age, Steamboat must continue to find things for aging boomers to do beyond skiing, but not lose sight of the young people who came of age during the reign of MTV, Rothman said. Those two groups are from distinctly different cultures, he added.
Still, Steamboat doesn't have to forsake its tradition in order to attract members of the youth culture; they too will plug into the tradition of a real town that skis, he said.
Rothman is the author of the book, "Devil's Bargains" in which he details the transformation of a traditional western town by tourism.
He calls himself a "historian of things that haven't happened yet," and said he's carved out one of the best gigs in academia, researching resort towns first hand.
In his book, Rothman doesn't pull any punches concerning the ills tourism can bring to small towns across the west. But he also praises Steamboat as a community that won't give up its soul.
"Steamboat Springs is a real place with real issues," Rothman said. "It's special in that it has a very strong identity. There is a very, very strong sense of this place being home. Steamboat isn't a tame place. People here are pushing the envelope in a very 1960s and 1970s kind of way. It has a sense of its own permanence.
"If you could just get the tourists to mail in the checks, everything would be OK," he quipped.
In order to visualize Steamboat's future as a destination resort, Rothman said it's necessary to consider it within the context of technologically driven change that is transforming the culture. The economy today is all about moving information, Rothman said. People no longer define their status by the possessions they can afford, but rather by the experiences they accumulate.
That trend has powerful implications for tourism, he said. The two principal factors that come into play for tourism money and time are often the same factors butting heads. The people who have the most money also tend to have the least time, Rothman said. And those with the most available time have less money.
"If you have both, you were born to it. If you have neither, you're screwed," Rothman cracked. "The trick is to maximize the value of the one you have. And that's what vacationers coming to Steamboat will be seeking to do as they add experiences to their life's list."
There are two distinct cultures in society today, Rothman said those who came of age before MTV and those who came of age during the era of MTV.
The first group is on the verge of retiring as the wealthiest generation of Americans in history, and on the cusp of receiving the greatest transgenerational transfer of wealth the world has ever seen.
"Retirement is the most incredible bonanza, boondoggle, travail for tourism in the next 30 years," Rothman said.
They will come to Steamboat looking for something to do in a friendly and safe atmosphere. Steamboat has those qualities but finding a variety of activities for aging boomers may become a challenge.
"After a certain point, they're not careening down the hill," even with the advantage of shaped skis, Rothman said. "You're going to need bigger parking lots, because they're going to be coming in RVs. One of these years you're going to wake up and your main street will be lined with RVs."
The second subculture is made up of young people who grew up with MTV and have a different value system than their elders, Rothman said. They have been weaned on moving pictures and learn through linear visual experiences. The have not inherited their parents' and grandparents' notions of what constitutes authenticity.
Although they subscribe to going outside the boundaries, they are members of a spectator culture that achieves status through achieving without exerting they're just as happy to view the Grand Canyon by pushing the buttons on a remote as they are apt to hike the canyon.
Steamboat should continue to "brand itself to appeal to the younger generation," Rothman said.
What Steamboat really needs to do in the years ahead, Rothman said, is seize on the opportunity to market its remote location as an advantage.
"You need to reframe the local identity to make distance mean exclusivity," Rothman said. "The trip is worth taking," because once you get here, "the place is more special, and the people around you are more special."
"It's an enormous selling point," Rothman said. "Find niches that will respond" to what Steamboat has to offer "and go after those niches hard."