Episode 65: Coming Together to Create a Unified Voice, with Leigh Melander
In this episode, you will learn about how to work with businesses in your area to create a unified voice that can be used to create great events and market your destination to the world from Leigh Melander.
Leigh Melander, Ph.D. has an eclectic background in the arts as well as consulting in strategic planning, outreach and marketing, and event planning for over 20 years. She has performed and taught internationally as a speaker, actor, dancer, singer, and harpist.
Her undergraduate degree is in performance, literature, and history from Penn State, and she studied writing by invitation with Nobel Poet Laureate Derek Walcott at Boston University. She has a doctorate in cultural mythology and psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and wrote her dissertation on frivolity as an entry into imagination. She hosts a weekly radio show on an NPR affiliate and podcast: Myth America, an exploration into how story and metaphor shape our sense of identity, and has been featured on various media outlets, including the History Channel, as a mythology expert.
In 2013, Leigh and her husband opened Spillian, a Catskills NY historic lodge and retreat center offering world-class workshops and events, working with creatives from around the world to dream forward programs that inspire imagination. Spillian has a deep commitment to community.
Leigh also works as a coach and facilitator for individuals and groups, helping them to imagine and leap into their most creative ideas for work and life. Her book, “Just That Side of Crazy: Soul Rules to Guide Your Wild Idea to Life,” is scheduled for release in 2019. She sits on several national boards, including the Joseph Campbell Foundation.
More on Leigh’s Background
Thank you so much for joining me, Leigh.
I am thrilled to be here, Nicole. Thank you.
I love your bio, and I love that it started with “Leigh has an eclectic background” because after reading that bio, I would tend to agree. But what I really noticed throughout the whole thing is this creative spirit that you have throughout everything that you’ve done, so I’m really looking forward to our conversation. Before we get started on the questions, I would like to have you tell our listeners about your story and your journey in your own words.
Well, as my eclectic and somewhat schizophrenic background suggests, I’m a perennial toddler. I’m excited by shiny things, I love learning things, and I love trying new things. I have spent a lifetime really pursuing that, and it took me a while to figure out that the through-line in all of that was creativity and imagination. Whatever I was interested in, that was the thing that was driving me forward. So my life has been, in a lot of ways, just this ongoing exploration of trying different things on to see how that feels in a creative way and how I can imagine the world forward and how other people can imagine the world forward. Sometimes it’s been very practical, and that’s kind of the strategic planning kinds of worlds that I’ve lived in, sometimes it’s intellectual, and sometimes it’s just kind of off the wall, oh, why not, let’s try this. I think if there’s one thing that drives me, it’s that sense and that sense of the horizon.
I joke with my husband all the time. We own this business, Spillian, together, and he’s also creative. He’s a designer. He’s a theatrical designer by trade and by training. He’s kind of the grounded one, and I’m always about three or four mountain ridges off in the distance thinking about the next really cool thing I want to do. He’s my … I hesitate to say ballast in some ways because that suggests that he’s staid and he’s not … but he’s my reminder of reality, I think. That’s probably my biggest challenge, is to just remember to put my feet back on the ground.
That’s great. Well, that’s a great metaphor. I like that. Three or four mountain ridges away. I think almost any husband and wife probably have situations where they’re three or four mountain ridges away.
Yeah, and somebody’s sort of always looking out, and somebody else is going, “That’s great, and about paying the bills today? Could we think about that part?” Oh, right, that part.
Yeah, the practical one. That’s awesome.
Well, that’s terrific.
Catskills Trout Tales
Well, I’m looking forward to this conversation. For our listeners’ background, you and I just connected recently as we were introduced to each other about a project that you’re working on in the Catskills. So, rather than dive right into these questions, I think we should start with you sharing with our listeners this journey that you’re on with the Catskills Trout Tales project.
Yeah. I’m so excited about this. As we opened Spillian, we’re just starting our fifth year, so we’re still a new business. The mission is around possibility and imagination and trying to help either people or individuals push past where their membranes are, where they feel like they’re stuck, and Catskills Trout Tales really emerged out of that. It started as an afternoon, actually, of bringing together some of the great old storytellers and fly fishermen from this part of the world. The Catskills were the birthplace of American fly-fishing, and so there’s an incredible cultural layer here and historical layer of the people that have been here who have thought about fly-fishing and what they’ve done with that as a sport and as a pastime and as a source of inspiration but also as a place to be activated as stewards for the landscape.
These guys came in. It was very hard to get to talk them into doing this. We’d had these wonderful round table discussions, and it was really a salon, so they would come and tell stories, and then we would break bread together and do a big soup thing around this big table that we have at Spillian. So the first time it was kind of tough because they weren’t really sure they wanted to do this. Then they got there, and we almost had to have stage hooks to pull them off stage because it was really fun. Out of that, we started thinking there’s something here, and there’s this simmering history of this connection into what the Catskills have been in the past that is still there. People still come up to fly-fish here, but it’s gone kind of quiet and it’s gone kind of dormant. So, as I was thinking about how we might move that forward and how we might move the story of that forward, because I love story, I was also thinking that that was a way to connect into the story and the history of what’s been magical about these mountains for a really long time. So it felt like a way for Spillian to move that forward in some kind of cool ways.
Then, as we thought about it, we thought, you know, this is bigger than what we’re doing. This is really about the region. So it became this second part of our commitment, which is a commitment to community. We landed this business very specifically where we did in part because it’s gorgeous here and we loved it and we loved the sense of energy and magic in these mountains but also because this is an area where the fortunes and favors of the Catskills go up and down over time. It’s an area that needs energy, ideas, and possibilities. So rather than taking this business and saying we’re going to go to somewhere that’s already defined and really successful and we’re going to find a space and be the ninth flavor in a row, we thought no, no, it makes more sense to do this in a place that actually will feed us but also be fed by what we’re doing.
So this Catskills Trout Tales project is a regional grassroots tourism development campaign, and we are working to expand the summer season back into the spring. March, April, May is one of our big shoulder seasons here in the Catskills, as I think many rural areas or mountainous areas are. The skiing has ended, the gorgeous green of the summer hasn’t started yet, and it’s a hard time of year for this part of the world because many of the businesses here are driven in one way or another by tourism, whether they’re directly in the tourism industry, in lodging or in hospitality of one sort or another, or if they’re retail or they’re all of the other ancillary businesses that support these industries. Spring particularly is tough because people are coming off, generally, long winters here. We do winters for real usually in the Catskills. The bills have been high, the utility bills are high. Our first winter at Spillian, we spent $35,000 on propane heating our mansion.
“Catskills Trout Tales project is a regional grassroots tourism development campaign, and we are working to expand the summer season back into the spring.” - Leigh Melander #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet
Oh my goodness.
Yeah, I still twitch over that, which is partly our fault. As newbies, we didn’t position ourselves very well. But it was an awakening for me to realize that even as people are trying to gear up for the summer and they’re trying to get their marketing going and get their energy going and get everything spruced up and, if they’re retailers, get product in for the summer, they’re doing it at a time where they haven’t had a lot of revenue for a while. So, as I thought about, “Gee, can we bring something into a shoulder season here? Is there a way to invite people to these mountains that have a very particular beauty as spring is unfolding?” How could we do that in such a way that would invite people who are willing to be adventurers because, one day, it can be 70, and the next day, it can be snowing here in the spring. It’s part of the charm. We choose to call it charm of the Catskills as opposed to a challenge. And really explore an idea of finding folks that are looking for an adventure, that are looking for something that is a little bit different, that are looking for something that will allow them to come and discover the mountains and fall in love with them in a particular way, kind of in an off-the-beaten-path way.
So, for me and for my husband and for a colleague of ours that’s working with us, this felt like a really good place to start this idea. What we’re trying to do with it is not replace what the local tourism agencies are doing because they do really good work, but they’re also very specifically defined by the counties that they live in, the way that the monies work in New York State. So instead of saying, “You’re doing it wrong,” what we’re trying to say is, “Wow, you’re doing it right, and how can the business community and the environmentalist community and all of the folks that are intersecting with visitors who are looking at outdoor recreation experiences … How can we start to take ownership of that in a more collaborative joint way and in a creative way?”
So this idea emerged about creating this campaign that’s about lots of different things. It’s about inviting people to come and try fly-fishing for the first time if they’ve never done it. It’s about if you’re not up to standing in a creek in your hip waders in the spring to trying a trout dinner or having an art experience that has a fish theme. We’re using trout kind of as the portal, as the doorway to invite people in to find the streams and the forest and the culture of this place and see if we can’t entice them to just fall head over heels in love with it.
That’s really cool. You just shared a whole bunch of really good pearls of wisdom that I want to make sure our listeners caught onto. There are so many facets to what you just described, so I want to try to break this down a little bit. But, to start, that this Catskills Trout Tales project actually came from an event that you held at your business, which is Spillian, which is located in the Catskills. I think that it’s really interesting how something like that can suddenly evolve when you bring a lot of passionate folks together like that into something much, much bigger than what you might’ve originally had in mind.
Just along those lines, I think that’s really true, and I think it’s been key to us being able to do this because there was enough of a “there” there. People knew about the event that we had done, so we had something to jump from, so when we started talking about this big pie in the sky idea, there was something underneath it and so it felt like, “Okay, I know where this started.” I think that was important to get people to buy into it.
Mm-hmm. And you’ve had that event more than once, right?
Yeah, yeah. Yep. And it’s grown every year. There’s a whole expo with it. We have a trout dinner that we do and a storytelling contest as part of it as well, as in the tradition of the tall tales and fishermen always have a good story about the one that got away. But, yeah, I think having something that we owned that we were willing to invest in and start in first, to be able to then say, “Hey, let’s grow this outwards,” that, I think, has been a key piece of us being able to do this larger vision.
Coming Together to Create a Unified Voice
So, somewhere in that journey, you saw the opportunity of the Trout Tales or this trout as a central theme as a way to connect multiple businesses and attractions and experiences throughout the region.
How did you go about starting to do that outreach and engage with others?
Well, we started a little bit of this last year, and it happened that we were talking with some of the business owners in Margaretville, which is the town right down the street from where Spillian is located. There’s a really creative, innovative group of small business owners there that are always open to ideas like this. Since I was in HomeGoods of Margaretville, which is this wonderful kitchen and dining ware store, and the gal that owns it grew up here, went away to school, came back, and has just sparks coming off of her head. I said, “So we’re doing this thing on trout.” She said, “Well, maybe I should sell dishes. I just was looking at a catalog, and they were dishes that had flies, the tied flies of angling, on the edges, and maybe we could do a tie-in.” I thought, “Yeah.” Then I was talking to another business owner who is a confectioner. She’s a chocolate maker. I said, “We’re doing this thing, and Jessica’s maybe going to have some trout dishes, and we were thinking do you guys want to get tied into this?”
Even as we sort of talk about it, we had little what were essentially coupons that we called trout bucks that we were giving out to retailers, which is what prompted these conversations, saying, “Here’s two bucks off to come to this event at Spillian. Here’s something you can give your clientele that we’re not asking you to pay into to be a part of, that we’re seeing this as a marketing tool for us, and it’s a free thing of value that you can give to your customers that there’s no skin off your nose to do it.” Because one of the challenges … and I’m guessing a lot of your listeners will know this feeling … that when you are a small business and you’re trying to make it work, there are lots of opportunities and most of them cost money and it’s hard to tell which ones to invest in. There are the community-based ones that you feel a sense of loyalty to, but we all have really limited marketing budgets, and so part of our MO in giving out these trout bucks was to say, “Here’s a way to play, and here’s a way to help share in the information on this, but we’re not asking anything other than just you handing that out.”
So what that prompted was these conversations with these business owners. So the chocolatier said, “Oh, I could make trout-shaped chocolates,” and I thought, “Yes.” As we started to play with this, we thought, you know, there’s something here in that people are excited about finding a way to connect the dots, finding within the lodging community and the hospitality community but also in this larger sense of community of businesses that are hoping people show up on their doorstep and that they were willing to play in a really creative way with what it meant to be connected to this. That’s really what started the whole thought process: How do we make this bigger?
Yeah, that’s really great. You mentioned the tourism offices in the county where you are and in your neighboring county. How have you engaged with them so far?
Well, we’re working on that. Again, our central philosophy on this is every time we ask anyone to be engaged, we want to do it in such a way that they’re moving their own agendas and mission and business forward as much as they’re plugging into something else. Even as we’re talking with the tourism agencies, we’re leaning on them to help get the word out and to help invite the community. In Delaware County, where I’m located, our tourism agency actually is a part of the countywide Chamber of Commerce, so they’ve got a reach out into the business community in a very particular way. So we’re tapping them to help us figure out how to make sure we’re reaching everybody that we need to reach. Then we’re providing them with events to put in their calendar so they’ve got materials that they can be talking about, which they’re always looking for, and they spend an enormous amount of time trying to track people down to get that information, so we’re trying to be helpful by saying, “Look, here it all is, and it’s in decent shape, and it’s got all of the pieces that you need, and you can add this to what you’re already doing.”
So that’s kind of the baseline, and we’re really now at this point, then, starting to play with what else can we do and how can we be some glue between Delaware County and Ulster County. They all know each other, they’re colleagues, they have great relationships, but they all have very particular mandates where the businesses that they need to focus on are the businesses in their own counties. One of the things that’s hard for them as a result of that is how to sell the Catskills in a way that feels both clear to the mandate but also cohesive because when people come to the Catskills, they don’t care what county they’re in. We care because we live here, but the rest of the world wants to come to the Catskills. So part of what we’re trying to do with these two tourism agencies and then the larger overreaching collection of agencies throughout the Catskills is to say, “How can the business community be the glue to help think regionally, so we’re not always looking to you guys to do that and we’re not always saying to you guys you’re not doing enough or you’re not doing it right or why isn’t this happening or why aren’t there people on my doorstep but really start to see ourselves as partners in this?”
So we’re moving it all forward and so we’re empowering them to do what they do really well by taking a piece of this and saying, “Okay, we’ll step up to the plate.” It’s a grand experiment. They’ve been really gracious and I think a little surprised, but I think they’re open to lots of things.
Yeah, I think that’s all a really great perspective that you have, that you’re saying, “Here, we’re the business community. We understand that you have goals and an agenda, so to speak, people that you’re accountable to, and how can we help moving forward?”
Because I imagine that you’re really getting the bigger picture, that by everyone working together, you’re going to be able to do so much more, right?
Big time. Big time. I think that’s true for each individual business. As we’ve been talking to folks that are getting involved, part of what we’ve been saying is I’m very aware of, as a small business, how hard it is to make enough noise to get noticed. I don’t have a big marketing and PR budget, and I’ve got an advantage in that I’ve got a background in marketing, and so I come hitting the ground farther ahead than a lot of small business owners do, at least in that realm. There are a lot of other realms where people have outpaced me and then some. It’s been very clear to me that, particularly, we’re all trying to talk mostly to New York City, certainly to the rest of upstate New York and to the world if it’ll listen. But most of the business that comes to the Catskills is from the city, and that’s a pretty impenetrable wall to try to break that open to make enough noise.
So one of the goals of this is to say let’s gather our voices and rather than each of us howling alone in the wilderness, how do we start this choir that’s loud enough that we actually can make enough noise that we get heard? I think that’s of interest to the tourism agencies because that is helpful because they’re in the middle place, right? They’re trying to manage countywide interests. They’re talking to I Love New York, who is doing this global reach, and what they do is so powerful. But unless you happen to get laser-focused by what they’re doing, as an individual business, we can tell when, for example, I Love New York has done a Catskills push because suddenly there’s momentum around it. That may or may not directly impact my business, so part of what we’re trying to do is fill in those cracks and take ownership as the community of saying we are partners in this with you. We are not passively waiting for you to figure it out for us, but instead we’re going to work together to try to build things that will help everybody do what they do better.
“One of our goals is to gather our voices and rather than each of us howling alone in the wilderness, starting a choir that's loud enough that we actually can make enough noise that we get heard.” - Leigh Melander #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet
I think that’s just really fantastic, and I love that you’re approaching it from that perspective of being partner and without the expectation that you need to be served, so to speak, right? I think that that’s just fantastic.
Repurpose What You Have Instead of Inventing Something New
So, Leigh, I know this project is evolving, and as I mentioned earlier, you and I just connected a few weeks ago. But you started to talk about the events and providing those events to your tourism office. I’d like you to talk a little bit about that because I think what’s really interesting about what you’re doing and what your business community is doing is that you are actually packaging up not just the businesses under this theme but also these events, right? So you’re curating a whole list of events. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah. This is one of the core places where the partnership is working, I think. From the beginning of April to the end of May, launching with the event that we do at Spillian on the 7th of April through Memorial Day weekend, we have a series of events, some big in scale, some smaller in scale. What we’re trying to do is build an arc that connects the dots not only for a bunch of different kinds of organizations. We’ve got nonprofits that are doing events, we have business organizations, we have lodging facilities, we’ve got retailers, we’ve got community organizations. So we’re trying to get a wide range of those flavors with an idea of that being able to reach a wide range of people who are interested in the idea of coming and playing in the woods in the spring who may or may not have a deep understanding or longtime relationship with fly-fishing.
They’re ranging from our event we talked about a little bit. It’s kind of an afternoon expo. We’ll have lots of different folks there doing casting demonstrations and fly-tying. The Trout Unlimited local chapter is a deep partner with us in this, and they always laugh at me because I always flip that. They’re going to be a big part of the expert fly-fishing world. But also how do you go hiking? How do you hike into a stream? How do you roast a trout over a campfire? What kind of boating might you do to get to where the fish are? We’re trying to take this whole lens.
Then we’ve got the silly stuff, which I love, which is we make these sugar cookies that are shaped like trouts and invite the little kids to paint them. We have icing. So we’re trying to do this fun, full-on family day to introduce people to the sport, to the activity, to the idea of being in the woods, with, again, this sense of stewardship. We have a hashtag campaign that we’re playing with as part of this, and it’s #LoveItToLife rather than coming to a place and loving it to death, which can happen when you’re talking about outdoor recreation. It’s a big part of the conversation actually, here, is how do we get more people up here without destroying the places that are special? So that’s one layer.
Then the Catskills Center for Conservation and Development, which runs the Catskill Interpretive Center is going to do a big outdoor expo, to kick off the season. That’s happening in early May. There are International Fly Fishing Film Festival events that are happening. There are special dinners that are happening. There are other family days. We’ve got Margaretville, which is this wonderful community I was talking about earlier, which has all of these great business owners. What we’re trying to do is say to people, “Don’t invent something, but to look to purpose or repurpose something.” So the Margaretville Business Association, which is actually the Business Alliance of Margaretville, they do quarterly events.
“Don't invent something. Look to purpose or repurpose something.” - Leigh Melander #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet
One they’ve done is called Spring on Main, and they’ve been feeling like it’s been sort of flat the last couple of years. They’ve lost their spark with it. So they’re rebranding it. They’re recasting it, if you don’t mind the pun, as Something Fishy on Main, and they’re going to do a whole community art project that day, and the business will all be celebrating fish in various ways. So it’s a thing that’s bringing the community together. These are wonderful, delightful, kind of homespun community-based events that people yearn for, that old Americana, sort of “I want to go and walk the streets of the street fair,” and that’s what they do. So they’ve taken this thing, and they’re reinventing it so it fits into this larger theme and this umbrella. What is really exciting to me about it is that they’ve gotten all excited and they’re running off in all sorts of cool, creative directions with it.
So there are those, and then there are some wonderful things coming from the Emerson Resort and Spa. Actually, the Esopus Creek runs right behind them, so they’re doing some wonderful guided fishing packages. They’ve got a spa special that they’re doing that’s a Catskills Trout Tales spa special. We’ve got Union Grove Distillery, which is a fairly young but already award-winning distillery that makes an incredible local vodka out of local apples that are actually pressed in an apple press that’s been owned by the same family for 150 years. We’ve invented a cocktail using that vodka and a local maple syrup and mint, and we’re calling it the Catskills Trout Tale. There are so many different pieces and flavors, and our hope is that different people will see different pieces of this and say, “Oh, that looks like fun. I want to try that.”
Yeah. There are just so many different opportunities with this. I love that Trout Tales cocktail, just when you really let your mind go, how you went from some of the typical things, when you were talking about casting demos and how do you cook trout on a campfire, but then you took that all the way to this distillery getting involved and the local vodka with the local maple syrup and you have this Trout Tales cocktail. I just think that that’s really exciting. Just the whole concept of Main Street, too. I don’t think that’s uncommon, what you just described about the spring event for that Main Street, and to give them the opportunity and this platform to reinvent what they’re doing with this new event called Something Fishy on Main, I just think that’s just really cool.
Yeah, I think it is, too. I think it is, too. To me, that’s a great example of how this is working, is that it’s moving their stuff forward. So it’s not pulling them off task, but instead it’s giving them something to leap from and play with and get excited about.
Yeah, that’s fantastic.
Give Before You Take
So all of this activity is really, really great. It just speaks to creativity all over it, creativity and collaboration, which are two of the themes of this show, so what a perfect project to use on the show as a case study. So, from that, though, you also need to do some outreach. We talked about some of the outreach you’re doing with the Chambers of Commerce and things, but I know there’s more to that story. Can you share with our listeners some of your thoughts and plans for getting the word out?
Yeah. Well, we’re going to be leaning on you, which is exciting. Backing up just a little bit, one of the ways that we’ve made this possible is that I got a handful of early I’ve chosen to call them investors. We’re calling them the founding partners, where for 500 bucks I was inviting them in, trying to get enough money to leverage to get some local funding, which we got some from the county and then some from a county foundation. That allowed us to leverage an application to Market New York, and so suddenly we’ve got not a huge budget, but we’ve got a $65-67,000 budget to play with, which up here feels like it’s ground-shaking in its enormity. And we recognize that that isn’t necessarily true for the rest of the world, but in our little corner of the world this is pretty exciting.
So one of the things that we’ve been able to do is to reach out to professionals to say, “We’ve got a bunch of ideas, and can you help us break that membrane? Can you help us push us into another layer?” We’ve been working several tools. One of them is a passport based on the National Parks passport, where you go and if you have landed at the park, you get a stamp. This was an idea, actually, that worked in me because my husband loves his National Parks passport. He’s like a 12-year-old. He’s like a little kid in a scouting uniform, and he knows where it is at all times, and if we go to a national park, he’s got that puppy out and ready to get stamped the moment we go through the gate. There was something that was kind of wonderfully retro to me about that that I loved and sort of, again, speaking back to this era when trout fishing was a huge deal in the Catskills and on opening day on April 1st when nobody caught anything because it’s still cold, there were 200 people that would line the creeks on the Esopus just to be there, to be a part of it.
So part of that, to me, kind of captured a little bit of that essence. It also felt like it was a marketing tool that we could use that would have a different kind of shelf life than a rack card or a postcard, that somebody might see and think, “Oh, that’s a cool graphic. What are they doing? Oh, that’s interesting.” Then it goes almost directly into the circular file, at least that happens at my household, and I think it happens in most. So we thought, well, if we did something that actually became a part of their experience and it tracks their experience. It does a couple things, and one is it something in their hand that isn’t just a throwaway but something that invites them to engage with the partners in a particular way, and we’re defining exactly how to make it work because I looked at this list of partners and events and thought, “We’re going to have a 50-page book.” So I’m thinking, okay, categories is probably a good idea rather than every single last moving piece.
But the first page of it, the plan is to make that a “Have you joined Trout Unlimited,” again, working this idea of inviting people and learning about the stewardship of the place even as they come. Then we’re looking at, okay, can we, thanks to your suggestion, how do we do this digitally? How can we invite that community in and not insist that they find a printed copy of this before they show up? And how can we then use it as an incentivizer to come back, to come to more than one thing?
My partner in crime on this, Chris Hensley. He comes out of the music industry, did marketing and artist development for many years at all the major labels, so he knows the gear world, he knows the swag world, he knows that kind of relationship building. So he’s tried it out and found us these amazing relationships with Yeti, with Smith Optic, with Orvis, with Patagonia, with Cortland, and one other that I’m blanking on, they have very generously given us a whole lot of things to give away. They’ve been incredibly generous, which is astonishing to me, how gracious they’ve been.
We didn’t ask them for money, but we said, “You want to share your stuff?” They said, “Sure, all we need back from you is show us where you’re using it. We want photos of it in action so we can include us in your social media world.” So this passport, we’re hoping that part of the driver for that will be is, “We’ve got some really cool stuff to give away.” We’re still figuring it out. Is it the person who comes to the most events? Is it the person who comes to the hardest to get to events? We’re thinking about what are the creative ways that we can inspire people to be adventurers with this passport to adventure in their hand, in some sense.
I think of all of the tools that we’re using that’s one of the ones that’s most exciting to me because I think there are so many ways that we can play with it. It’s a tool that we can put down in the city and we can put out in the world, and it’s tangible, and it’s there. I think it’s going to be fun. It could thunk. It’s entirely possible. But if it works, I think it’ll be really cool.
Yeah, that’s great. You know, what’s interesting about what you were just sharing, talking about collaboration, is that you’ve now extended your collaborations to these national or even international brands that align with what you’re offering in the Catskills, which is the whole idea of adventure and fly-fishing and nature and how you can really extend that olive branch, if you will, even beyond your own regional borders. I just think that that’s a great example of how these types of things can build and how these collaborations can really extend your messaging well beyond what you’re able to do on your own. I think that’s just awesome.
Yeah, and I think, Nicole, it’s the same philosophy that sits at the center of that. I spent a lot of years working in the nonprofit world in one way or another and got really tired of the begging that happened there, you know, “We’re doing things that are noble, and you need to give us money for it.” I thought, “I’m just tired of this. It doesn’t feel like a mutually beneficial relationship.” So one of the baseline things that I’ve learned about partnering or collaborating is I always try to walk in the door giving something first, saying, “Here’s what I can bring to you. Here’s what this can bring to you. Here’s why I think it’s worth your being involved, not just help us out.” What that does, I think, is it helps everybody feel like they can really engage as a partner, they can really engage as a collaborator in something, because it isn’t pulling them out of what they need to be doing but instead becomes this sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship, which then doesn’t necessarily ever have a back end because you can always continue to work that idea.
“Always walk in the door giving something first. Let your potential partners know what you're giving them and why it's worth their while long before asking for something in return.” - Leigh Melander #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet
The times that I forget that and I get needy and I get my hand out, I’m reminded so quickly that, at least in how I experience this, it just doesn’t work. People will give, and then they say, “Well, I gave already. Bless you for trying to do what you’re doing, and I wish you well, but I got all of these other things that are clamoring for my time and attention.”
So part of it, to me, and really the vision for this project is we can make this fly this year. Our hope is that we can then pass it on. Whether it’s the coalition or the tourism agencies in the area or one of the nonprofit entities that’s doing community-building and community outreach and branding and marketing, we’d love to hand it over and say, “Here’s this infrastructure that we’ve built, and fly free.” I don’t need to be the queen of trout for the rest of my life in the Catskills. I’ve got other horizons. I’ve got other mountain ridges to climb.
Other fish to fry.
Other fish to fry. Thank you. Thank you. You went there.
Yeah, I did.
Part of what we’re trying to do is create a model that is sustainable enough that everybody feels enriched by it at the end. I think part of why Chris was so successful with these national partners was that that was his ask as well, was to say … For example, one of the first ones that he approached was Yeti, which was, I think, actually the business I was forgetting, and Yeti is looking to expand their presence in the Northeast. So when he said, “We don’t want your money, we want your stuff, and here are all of these events that we’re willing to show it off. We’ll raffle it, we’ll really try to do everything we can to make a buzz about this, such that when people come to these events they’re really seeing your product there and your business name there.” They said, no-brainer, “Okay, how much do you want? Here’s the truck.” So rather than saying, “Well, you know, please can’t you give us something?”
Well, I think what you just gave us, you just answered one of the questions that I ask all of my guests without being asked, this bit of advice about how to have a successful relationship or a successful collaboration. What I love about what you just described is this whole idea of a mutually beneficial relationship. You said, metaphorically, you walk in the door giving something first …
… and building from there, and I think that that’s just great advice and a great foundation for building.
And it’s a great way to get people’s attention, too, because it so takes them by surprise. We’re so used to be asked. Even with the local businesses, we have a group of folks that have businesses at a scale where to invest 500 bucks in this is a doable thing. There are a lot of small businesses in this area where that would’ve been a huge barrier to entry. So part of the philosophy of this is to say, “We don’t want your money either. This is not a pay to play. The pay to play is in getting involved and bartering out your willingness to be excited about this and share this with your own communities and cross-post and try to build this social media buzz.” As my colleague, Chris, says, “The more you invest in this, the more you get out of it.”
Just that, just saying to this small business community who gets hit up all the time with great ideas and projects that need help. At least once a week, if not more, I’ve got somebody coming on my doorstep, saying, “Won’t you buy an ad,” or, “Won’t you donate,” or, “Won’t you…” I want to be supportive of all of this, but I look at the money that I have in my bank account, and I think, “There’s that propane bill. It’s pretty real.” My husband and I kind of jokingly call it street dues, that it’s like, “Oh, I’ve got to do some of this because I’m in the community.”
To me, this feels like a different way to define that, that, again, everybody is better off at the end. Our hard answer when people come to us right now is, “We’d love to be helpful, but we got to make sure we’re going to be in business next year first.” That was part of what we wanted to start, is to say whenever we’re asking of people, how do we do it in such a way that they’ve got a better likelihood of being in business next year than just coming for a one time hit?
Yeah, and what I also think is really good about the way you’re approaching this is I like that you said the more you invest, the more you’ll get out of it, but also that you did recognize that you did need some hard cash to get started. You found those founding partners, and the ask still wasn’t a huge ask but could be considered a large ask depending on the business that you approached at $500 each.
But then you leveraged that for some local funding, for some foundation funding, and now into a Market New York grant. I know you made a little bit light of $67,000 might not sound like a huge budget but for you guys it is. I actually think that a lot of folks in destination marketing or in regions, especially in New York State, would think $67,000 is a good amount of money. Now, when you say you want to use it to penetrate New York City, they might say, “Well, that’s a little bit”-
Yeah, dream on, dream on.
Yeah, I don’t think it’s dream on, but you definitely, I think, need to be creative to figure out how to maximize that. But I think that’s amazing and that’s an amazing accomplishment, and I can’t wait to see how this program plays out for you, for the region, and what happens with it after this first test, if you will, with this first season in 2018.
How Spillian Creates Imagination and Possibility
So, Leigh, before we close out. And I told you when we had our pre-interview chat that I probably wouldn’t ask you any of these questions directly, which I really didn’t need to, but we covered all of it just through our conversation. But I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit about Spillian and what you’re trying to do with that business and just kind of share with our listeners a little bit about that, too, because I know you’re not just about the Trout Tales.
Yeah, no. I am so in love with this place. The place itself is really special. We managed to luck into this remarkable estate that was built by the Fleischmann Yeast family, and it’s on, at this point, 33 acres, and there’s about an 8000 square foot late 19th century really Catskills lodge on it that is almost pristine. We’re in the process of getting it on the national register for historic places. There’s a kind of magic on that hillside. It’s a very special place. Its history is really interesting, and it’s been a gathering place for people for a lot of years.
Really, the vision for Spillian is a couple of things. I was really lucky as a kid, and I grew up in State College, where Penn State is, in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania and had these really creative parents and this really creative community that I lived in. I had these amazing adventures at land that my family owned out in the woods, at summer camp. It was a dance camp, a dance and arts camp that I went to every year. I realized, in some ways, what I’m trying to do at Spillian is just recreate that. I’m trying to go back to my childhood.
But what we’re trying to create there is a place where through lots of different lenses. For example, I’m offering a workshop March 9th through 11th called Breathing Fire: A Wild Power Workshop for Women, sort of working how do you navigate as a woman that has a lot of interior fire, how do you navigate that, how do you put that out there and not burn yourself and the people around you to pieces? It feels particularly cogent right now given what’s going on culturally around how women are finding voice. The metaphor that we’re using, of course, is the dragon.
Then we’re doing another workshop that’s actually part of Catskills Trout Tales in this sort of big, big bucket thinking about how do you invite people to explore place with some colleagues of mine that are fascinating workers in the design world in sustainability and permaculture and the next set of regenerative thinking around design. We’re going to look at Spillian as a place and how we’re imagining out as we’re continuing to try to tame these 33 acres. It was left basically abandoned for 20 years before we bought it, so we are slowly but surely claiming back the hillside.
To me, again, it’s this imagination “Imagining past what you think is possible” is our tagline. So always trying to think about where we can go next. We’ve got a playwriting workshop that we’re doing this summer. We have a music thing that we do every summer in July, I think it’s the 14th this year, called SpillianFest, and it’s a backyard summer party with live music. But it also, again, in this mission, we are working with young musicians that are right on the verge of popping out nationally. So our idea is how do we help bring community together in a way that celebrates that but also helps move them forward. We recorded a live album there one year for SpillianFest.
“'Imagining past what you think is possible' is our tagline at Spillian. Imagination and possibility are really what we're all about.” - Leigh Melander #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet
Then we’re doing a lot of weddings, which I didn’t anticipate doing and wasn’t sure if I wanted to do when we got started because my vision was about all of these cool, in-depth workshops. But what I’ve discovered is that by framing our invitation to people to think about that place as a place to come and get married, by framing it with this sense of imagination and possibility, what we’re doing is attracting really interesting people who are very creative themselves and are helping them frame what they’re doing in a really rich way.
I had this moment of crisis the first summer we were doing these and we had had a group in that were swinging from the rafters and I’m looking at this historic house, thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going to be the one that it’s torn down around because people have been quaffing from the open bar for hours.” I thought, “I can’t do this. I just can’t do this.” Then I came home, and I thought, “Leigh, you’re an idiot.” Your whole academic work was in story and myth and ritual, and what you’re seeing is people who are looking for a way to create something that’s meaningful. They don’t necessarily want a religious ceremony in a church or a temple, but they want something that has meaning, and they’re not sure how to make it. So they go to this kind of boozefest as a big party because I’m not sure what else to do.
So what we found was that if we started to talk about this as this really special moment where you’re coming together in a very particular way that really was about your own story, really was about identity, and really was about ritual, not in a religious way necessarily, though some are, but in a sense of those moments that really deeply matter in our lives. Suddenly, we were talking about these experiences that were actually really in line with what we wanted to do. So we’re exploring. As I said, we’re still a fairly new business, and we’re growing really fast and trying to run as fast as our fat little legs can carry us to keep up and, at the same time, dream it forward.
Our goal is to be a very particular sort of place in the landscape of the personal development world and the community development world where people come. We have these amazing chefs that work on-site with us with a commercial kitchen. So we’re not doing the kind of dormitory experience. It’s a very … I’m a hedonist in some ways, and it’s trying to be an epicurean version of that. That house is gorgeous, so it doesn’t feel like you’re laying in a dorm room or spending your time in a dorm room. We’re trying to say, “Come and play with these ideas in a rich, engaging, delightful way.”
The word “Spillian” means to play or to revel or to jest. My mom’s maiden name is Spillers, which abspielen is the German for “play.” That’s the same root. But it also, in this silly dissertation that I wrote on being frivolous, that the word “frivol” comes from the same root as “revel” and also “rebel.” So, to me, it’s this cool intersection of playing, of reveling, of rebelling against the things that we feel like we can’t break open, that are keeping us smaller than we want to be, and goofing and being light a bit as we do it. So our goal is that everybody that walks into that space has some version of that experience. So it’s really fun. It’s never boring.
I’m sure it’s not, yeah. No, I just love that. Gosh, what’s really caught my attention is how you are rethinking this whole idea of having weddings. Now, weddings is big business. It actually could mean a lot of revenue.
It is the thing that’s driving us, no question.
Yeah, but for you, you wanted to make sure that it aligns with your business goals and your mission. I think that that perspective that you just shared, it’s deep, but it’s a really good one. I can see, as you put that message forward, that you’ll attract the right kind of audience that is looking for exactly what you’re putting out.
Yeah, very true. Thinking about that actually, when we first did our first website, we were kind of trying to figure out who we were and what we were offering. Then, as I got clearer on that, I thought, “You know what, I’m going to go for broke, and I’m going to put out a website that absolutely does not dance around what our mission is and who we are, and I’m going to frame it really clearly and see what happens.” Our business doubled within a month. It was amazing. So it was such a testament to me to know what your mission is, whatever that is, whatever it is that you believe in that you’re trying to put forward in the world, and trusting that enough to be really clear about it. It becomes an incredible attractor.
Yeah, I agree as a business owner myself. The same thing has happened to us in our journey. The clearer we got about who we are, who we serve, and how we serve, the stronger our business became and the more people we started attracting, which is just really awesome.
So, Leigh, I knew this would be a great conversation, and I really appreciate you spending time with us today. Do you have any final words that you would like to share before we say goodbye?
Thank you, first of all, and I don’t know, go forth and imagine. Every time I feel like I’ve gotten stuck and I’m not sure what to do next, the most audacious, imaginative thing that I can come up with has been the answer and the way out. So if there’s one thing that I can say to people if they’re thinking, “I don’t know how to make this work,” it’s go big and be audacious and do the thing you want to do. That works, in my experience of the world.
That’s awesome. Well, thank you very much. It’s been great having you today.