Transcript 110: The Power of Conversation, Falling Rock, and Ice Cream, with Fred Bonn

Back to Episode

Nicole Mahoney: 00:21 Hello listeners. This is Nicole Mahoney, host of destination. On the left. I am passionate about travel and tourism and love learning from the experiences of professionals in the industry, and that is why I am so excited to introduce today’s guest, Fred bond appointed regional director for the Finger Lakes region of New York state parks. In July 2013, Fred and his management team oversee 29 facilities across 10 counties so far in 2018 finger lakes. Parks has welcomed over three point 8 million patrons who enjoyed hiking, swimming, boating, golf, and camping. In these facilities, the region includes legacy state parks like Watkins Glen to Ganache falls and Robert h treatment and hidden gems like Lodi point and fill more. Glen, prior to joining New York state parks, Fred served as the director of the Ithaca Tompkins County Convention and visitors bureau. Currently, he serves on the board of the finger lakes tourism alliance. And the state theater of Ithaca, he also represents New York state parks on the Erie Canal national heritage corridor. Fred lives in the village of Trumansburg with his wife Sarah Hayes. He has two sons, Logan, a senior at Trumansburg highschool and Mason a sophomore at Suny esf in Syracuse. Ironically, his first real job, quote unquote, was as a lifeguard, organic falls state park. Thank you for joining me Fred.

Fred Bonn: 01:42 Well, good morning. How are you? Nicole?

Nicole Mahoney: 01:44 I’m fabulous. And uh, I, I love, um, I love it when my guests actually put the, you know, where you live and in the wife and the kids and you know, kind of really paint that whole human picture of who you are and not just the professional side. Um, and I also love how you put your first real job was actually at a state park because, um, my very first question for you is going to be to ask you to tell us about your journey in your own words and to kind of give us a glimpse of who you are and how you’ve gotten to where you are today. And I’m going to think that it might have actually started with that first job as a lifeguard,

Fred Bonn: 02:22 you know, you’re, you’re, you’re pretty right on with that. So I was a 16 year old kid in high school and I got my first paycheck from New York state parks and, uh, as a wife’s garden. And what I really quickly learned was that this part of New York state was, I’m a big destination and I began to meet people from all over the country, all around the world who were coming to Amek falls state park to enjoy the hike up to the base of the waterfall, uh, enjoy swimming in the lake. And I began to understand that in this role, uh, I also needed to be very familiar with what our area had to offer so people would come to life guards, they still come to life guards and we give our life guards training this now, uh, equip them with the right information and people come to the live when they’re asking for a rainy day today. What can I do? Do you have a recommendation? What’s your favorite restaurant? Uh, we’re camping here. Uh, other, other campsite in the campgrounds in the area that we should, we should go and check out what are some other scenic areas. And so it was very early on that I began to understand that this was a pretty vibrant destination.

Nicole Mahoney: 03:42 Yeah. And that’s a great lesson for, you know, a 16 year old kid because I think, you know, a lot of times even as adults we do this, we don’t realize what we have in our backyard and, and, and how attractive it is, right to outsiders because you kind of sometimes can take it for granted. So I think that’s fabulous. And, and I got to ask you, did you, did I hear you say, so you do some basically like frontline training for your life guards?

Fred Bonn: 04:06 We do, we actually do that for all of our parks staff will, uh, in some cases we’ve partnered with the Convention and visitors bureau, uh, but our office staff or equipped with a local and regional travel guides, uh, our life guards are, are trained in customer service assist people who are traveling through the area. I make it a point when I’m meeting with my staff at the seasonal orientation to highlight that and really encourage people to become familiar with where their areas and engage in conversations with travelers.

Nicole Mahoney: 04:43 That’s really awesome. So, Fred, can you share with us a little bit about how you became the director at the Tompkins County cvb and a little bit about that part of your journey?

Fred Bonn: 04:55 Sure. So I had spent several years, about seven, eight years, uh, working on the Chamber of Commerce side of the house. Uh, I was the director of membership and public relations and in that role I worked very closely with small businesses, uh, began to see how our local economy was really fueled by the tourism industry and at that time the Chamber of Commerce and it still is today, a host, the convention and Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, Chamber of Commerce. And I began to, you know, it’s a small building, you’re having coffee. And I began to learn about, uh, the, uh, the destination marketing initiatives that then director of the bell was running. It was pretty exciting stuff. Um, and there was a transition and Bridgette took off to pursue other opportunities and she’d set up the stage for a really strong program, a great staff, a great reputation. And, um, when the opportunity arose, I was selected to be the next director of the Convention and visitors bureau and it was, it was a lot of fun working with visitor services. I’m working at the local level with our community organizations, uh, engaging, uh, the, uh, accommodations and attractions in the community and then really putting together a series of programs that, uh, I felt, uh, helps set us apart from our competitive set.

Nicole Mahoney: 06:34 That’s really awesome. So I’m really looking forward to this conversation because you do have kind of this destination marketing background as well as the work you’re doing and some of the largest attractions, you know, in the area, uh, and even in the states, uh, the work that you’re doing with those state parks in the finger lakes region. So I’m looking forward to diving right in and we’re going to start on the subject of creativity and really thinking about this whole idea of how competitive it is in the tourism and hospitality industry. And, and when I think about the competition, I don’t, I, I’m not just thinking about choices that travelers have of different destinations to go to, but also just competition for time and the amount of time that, that someone has, um, you know, to spend traveling and enjoying these attractions. And so when I’m, I’m wondering is, um, is what have you done to really stand out from the crowd?

Fred Bonn: 07:30 Excellent question. And I completely agree with you that the time is the most precious commodity. I think that we as a society have here in the United States. Being able to, uh, find experiences that the advantage that, uh, the best is, is, is always a challenge. But, you know, the, the, the good fortune that we here at New York state parks here in the finger lakes region have, is we are able to be

Fred Bonn: 08:02 no key motivators for travel. Uh, people will make a decision on where they want to go based on an experience and with the help of our tpa partners and with the, I love New York Finger Lakes state parks often pop up on the radar as a key motivator for travel to the finger lakes region along with the food and the wine and the culinary and the craft beverage. Having the ability to hide these incredibly scenic areas, uh, having the human history that we have as a region both in state parks and other historic sites in the area, you know, it’s a really multilayered, a destination. So, uh, you know, it’s, um, I think we’ve been able to do a great job of packaging collaboratively, uh, these assets and people are happy to cross promote. And uh, it’s been a, it’s been an awful lot of fun to see the strength of the girls in the finger lakes region.

Nicole Mahoney: 09:04 Can I ask you to talk a little bit about some of the investments that have been made into the parks in your region? Because I know there have been some incredible investments made and they’ve really made a difference in terms of the visitor experience.

Fred Bonn: 09:18 Yeah. The two that I’m most proud of most recently, uh, we opened up 10 lake front cottages at Sampson State Park and this was based on a challenge that the parks commissioner Rose Harvey put out two regional directors across New York State and research was showing that people were looking for cottages a little bit deeper amenity than you might find in a state park. So equipped with kitchen, bath and bedroom. And we took a look at it and my team and I came up with a pretty innovative approach for Santa. We took a look at the park because we have an awful lot of lakefront, very scenic lake front. Then we began to take a look at what we could design to wink that park, uh, and make it, tie it closer to the wine trails and the food and culinary, uh, experiences in the finger lakes. And we built a 10 very contemporary lakefront cottages.

Fred Bonn: 10:22 They have fire bowls out, door seating, very contemporary feel for kitchens, a one and two bedroom units, full bath. And uh, it really is. I’ve had associates and friends I spent time in them and uh, take a look at them. People are saying that it really delivers the finger lakes experience, you know, they’re nice adirondack chairs. You could go out for your day on the, on the wine trail and then come home, cook a meal or bring a meal in with you and sit on the deck, watch the sunset and, and really, um, dive deep into the finger lakes experience. Okay. The other one was, uh, the word super proud of was the six and a half million dollar renovation of Walkins Glen State Park and we opened that up a memorial day of this year, 2018, and we needed to work very closely with the community. Watkins Glen State Park is the anchor to the south end to Franklin street in the village of Watkins Glen and the major generator of traffic just under a million visitors a year to the park.

Fred Bonn: 11:37 Okay. And there was a significant amount of traffic congestion, the experience was dated and we took a, a pretty comprehensive look and based on the challenge that the Commissioner Harvey put up to us, we were able to acquire property and relocate all the parking and then take the existing parking lot and convert it to green space and really enrich the experience. The old park used to driving through a parking lot, get out of your car, walk up some fault and enter the gorge. And now we have a really beautiful series of gardens and planting that helped you transition from your automobile, uh, into the park setting. Um, we have some great interpretation, the tracks natural history in human history and we have a new information center that, uh, both by park staff, Watkins Glen, Chamber of Commerce staff to provide travelers is a key information. It’s been a great addition to the community. We’ve improved the traffic flow, we’re leveraging the park as an economic development engine for the county and the region. Um, it’s been a really, really strong, strong partnership.

Nicole Mahoney: 13:02 Terrific. And I, and thank you for walking us through both of those examples. Um, and what strikes me about both of them really is that you not only went in, you know, as state parks and in answering the, you know, the challenge of, of the Commissioner, um, but you also took into account how the parks are part of the greater product, if you will, the greater experience of the finger lakes region where they’re located. And so that kind of the example that you gave with the Lakefront cottages and, and how you thought about tying it into the wine trails in the culinary experiences and, and what was it that the visitor would really want and how could you really be part of that experience. I think is, is just really awesome. And, and, uh, I don’t know if it’s unique to state parks in general, but it sure sounds like, you know, this whole idea of not being just siloed into one area. You know, we’re parks, you’ve got tourism that might live somewhere else. You’ve got, you know, economic development that might live somewhere else. And so even with that Walkins Glen State Park example, how you’re really kind of bringing all of those things together and, and, uh, I just think that’s awesome.

Fred Bonn: 14:16 We’re, we’re in an area where collaboration is just not possible. It’s expected.

Nicole Mahoney: 14:25 Absolutely. And we’re going to talk about that more. We already are, which I, it’s hard not to talk about collaboration, I think when we start talking about creativity for, for the tourism industry, but, um, we’ll dive a little bit deeper into that. And so I, I just want to kind of, um, bring this around to a bit of a different perspective. I love this next question because I think we learned so much when we are faced with some sort of adversity or a challenge and kind of the creative problem solving that happens because of that. And so I’m wondering if there is a challenge that you’ve faced as an organization, and this could certainly be in the current role or even from your dmo role, um, and kind of the solution or the creative solution that came from that. Could you share an example with our listeners?

Fred Bonn: 15:13 Yeah, there’s actually kind of an interesting one and it was not super public, but we were forced to close white before Memorial Day weekend in the gorge trail here at the ganache falls state park. I’m one of the things that we monitor is the condition of a, the gorge wall. Okay. And we take regular measurements and we realize that there was a very large chunk of rock that was beginning to move. It was about the size of three houses. It was huge and we had been taking measurements on this rock for several years because we knew it was moving. Uh, we were obligated to, uh, to take action. So here we are at the beginning of the summer season and we have this huge piece of rock that we’ve got to deal with and we’ve got to figure out a way to bring it down and we’re taking a look at all of the different methods to do that, no blasting and the impact of the blasting and what that would know, the repercussions to the rest of the gorge.

Fred Bonn: 16:27 And what would that create? We came up with a solution using hydraulic jacks to push away from the gorge wall. And the other big challenge was that we did not want this to become a public event, a pretty dangerous situation, both for the workers who are going to be engaged with the hydraulic jacks. Uh, and then this rock was falling from 350 400 feet to the bottom of the gorge. So the last thing we needed was a bunch of sites here is on this. So we had to close the gorge trail and we kept it under wraps as best we could. Uh, we began and it took about a week to. We brought in some special hydraulic jacks and then we began to push this large pieces of rock away in order to stabilize the gorge wall and again, think about a week’s worth of work. And then with all of that material, we had to keep the gourd stroke closed and remove that debris. Uh, we did a little bypass trail for a summer months, but it was this huge bouncing act of uh, keeping the public safe, taking care of a, a, a really critical asset for the community. And I’ve got to hand it to my people who came up with a solution, implemented it, plan for it, it worked out just fine. Uh, there was no incidence of the public being in danger and worked really closely with Park police.

Fred Bonn: 18:10 That was a pretty, a pretty creative way to have to manage a significant event.

Nicole Mahoney: 18:14 Absolutely. I mean, that’s the gorge trail is, you know, one of your key, one of the key attractions right for the park. And so to be able to come up with a solution in a way to still host your visitors for the season, um, in close one of your biggest attractions, that’s, that’s really amazing. I can just imagine that right before memorial day of 2017, that call coming in

Fred Bonn: 18:47 Cornell graduation weekend, we scrambled very quickly. So, but it all worked out. It worked out real well. And again, it was based on people feeling empowered to come up with solutions. Making suggestions, reviewing those suggestions, running them through our operations policies, involving our regional safety manager to make sure that our employees would be, say a, well, they performed this task. So yeah.

Nicole Mahoney: 19:19 That’s awesome. Well, so fred, now looking into the future, is there a project that’s coming up that you’re really excited about that you’d like to share?

Fred Bonn: 19:29 You know, unfortunately the way our projects work, those big major announcements are something that are, are held pretty close to the vest until they deemed appropriate to make that announcement. We do have some significant projects for the region. Um, uh, I don’t have the ability to, uh, to make those public notices, I’m afraid.

Nicole Mahoney: 19:53 Sure. Absolutely. I totally understand that. Um, and we did already talk about two of them to the larger projects that have happened most recently. So I think that’s really awesome.

Fred Bonn: 20:05 Yeah. And I think the park patrons can continue to expect to see the improvements to the trail systems that we’ve been making throughout the region, making sure that our swimming areas or quality quality swimming areas. So there’s an awful lot of work that’s going on, but in terms of the big, uh, sexy announcements that’s really at the commissioner and the governor’s office to schedule those announcements.

Nicole Mahoney: 20:31 Absolutely. Well good. Well we will look forward to hearing those as soon as soon as they’re ready to. That’d be awesome. All right. So let’s switch gears a little bit and talk a little bit more about collaboration. And, um, I know you and I are on the same page here when we talk about this whole concept of coopertition and kind of how, you know, important it is, um, when could be perceived competitors really come together to create these, you know, big wins, things that they can’t do on their own. And so I’m wondering if you can describe a time when a collaboration between competitors is, has worked for you?

Fred Bonn: 21:12 Yeah, I think it’s the one that we worked on together, which was when I was a tpa for Ithaca and Tompkins County, and when the finger lakes tpa is a rally together and we were able to, to cure, uh, the services of a, of Quinn and company to handle a regional public relations efforts. No. Going into it, we realized that some of the challenges, some of the destinations of content, some of the destinations would, would struggle to come up with the volume, but I think we had a, um, uh, an agency that had the ability to understand that balance. I think everybody collectively, uh, accepted that know this is a great opportunity and that there was value in a rising tide lifting all the boats in the region. Um, and I just know that seems to have paid untold benefits for the region in terms of earned media. The places that we’ve been receiving the attention. I’m just a strong believer in, in public relations.

Nicole Mahoney: 22:22 I think that’s a really good example because any one of those partners that was in that program or that is still in that program still exists today. Could not afford to hire that pr firm, uh, at that level, um, on their own. Right. So they recognized the need to come together and pool their funds. But in addition to that, um, you mentioned it’s a rising tide lifts all boats and when you’re selling the finger lakes or pitching the finger lakes, it’s not just one thing in the region. Right? It’s got to be all of it. Um, yeah. Yeah. So I think that’s a really, really great example. And I do like that you pointed out, you know, you went into it knowing and the group went into it knowing that um, you know, some, uh, counties that were contributing financially might have more to talk about in terms of pr because they have more assets to promote and some didn’t have as much. But the idea was really by coming together, you were creating that mass and I think that’s a really great point.

Fred Bonn: 23:30 The product that is being featured, you know, can link back to some sort of a path or a trail. So it is moving people from community to community. But, you know, in all honesty, as we all know, the customer, the traveler doesn’t, where one county line starts in the next part of any of their consideration of why they’re going, where they’re going. Uh, and so, you know, I really have to applaud the group for saying, you know, let’s, let’s take our blinders off and look well beyond our, our specific boundaries and look at the greater good that can be had here.

Nicole Mahoney: 24:10 So Fred or, or several other experiences because you’ve already described to us, you know, the collaboration that took place with the Watkins Glen State Park. A little bit about how you looked outside Samson state park to create those cottages. And I’m just wondering if you have some best practices or some thoughts on how to really have a successful partnership. Um, and you know, and what has really worked for you

Fred Bonn: 24:43 real successful partnerships that we’ve been able to formulate since I’ve been the regional director here with the tourism industry. I mentioned the one with the Chamber of Commerce. But before that information center at Watkins Glen State Park, we also partnered with the convention and visitors bureau. And we set up an information center at the overlook here at the Ganache falls state park. They staff that annually and uh, it’s our highest visited information center and uh, so far, let’s see, in 2018 they saw over 36,000 travelers through that, the center. And so that means that these people are engaging with somebody, they’re having a conversation, they’re not doing their travel planning on a smart phone and getting content that way, they’re actually having a conversation. And I truly believe and I’m hoping that we can put together a research project that, that sort of experience, that sort of touch point increases length of stay increases, spend a in a community.

Fred Bonn: 25:49 And so when we did it over at Watkins Glen State Park, uh, we were able to apply some of what we knew from the overlook to, uh, to, to Watkins Glen, uh, that center where it’s located. They saw over 90,000 travelers, uh, in 20, 2018. So big big numbers. And these are people who can influence the decision making process and really help people understand what there is to do and see a. so, uh, those are, those are two powerful, powerful connections because, you know, it’s, it’s difficult to compete with smart phones and you have to take the information, the travel information and take it to where people are going and the days of having a information center as part of a chamber of commerce, building a and expecting people to come to that site. Uh, those numbers, I think we’ll continue to slide. You’ve got to be able to come up with ways to take the travel information to where the people are naturally going.

Nicole Mahoney: 26:57 I just love that. I think you’re right about that and I love that you’d like to look into this a little bit more and see if there’s some research out there that could support how that face to face interaction influences, um, you know, the, the length of stay and the visitor spend. I think that’s, that can be really powerful.

Fred Bonn: 27:21 We certainly have tried as we were putting these programs together, uh, there’s some pretty dated stuff out there and nothing super current that I was able to identify. But I think a couple of intercept surveys and you could, you could set up something that would really show an increased and increased length of stay

Speaker 4: 27:41 when people talk to people looking at their smartphone. Yeah.

Nicole Mahoney: 27:50 And I have one last question and that is actually a new question to this show that I just started in the last few interviews asking my guests and it’s this kind of idea about tourism marketing or destination marketers really being more like community managers. And when I think about that, it’s more of this kind of holistic approach. It’s not just about a marketing to the visitors and getting the visitors into the community, but it’s this connection that we have in the community and the responsibility that we have to engaging with the locals at the same time. And I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that if you’re seeing examples of this kind of evolution. I’m out there in the industry

Fred Bonn: 28:44 convention and visitors bureau. I really saw our office of the public relations arm for Zika in Tompkins County. Uh, the government offices for the city and Tompkins County government. They had public affairs officers and they were able to get information that were critical to the residents and the constituencies, but uh, it was really our opportunity to take the stories that were coming out of our community and pitch them and try to get attention for our community, be they related to a music events and festivals. Uh, probably one of the most fun, uh, projects we had was the ice cream Sundae wars being the home of the ice cream Sundae and all the media attention we got to that history, that culinary history. So there is an opportunity for people to look and Deimos to look and take the assets that they have and figure out ways to get that promoted through new and emerging social media vehicles and the traditional print and news of vehicles.

Nicole Mahoney: 29:58 I completely agree. And because you mentioned it, I had actually I’m surprised I forgotten to ask you about this, but this is important. This ice cream Sundae wars because not only was that fun, but it was a, it was a really terrific public relations, you know, initiative that you were part of. And I think our listeners would benefit from knowing a little bit more about that. So can we divert a little bit and have you share the story of the ice cream Sundae wars and, and what that did for, you know, for the Ithaca Cvb at that time? Yeah,

Fred Bonn: 30:32 yeah. It was a, it was a fun project. So, uh, there were two communities that lay claim to being the home of the, of uh, or being the home of an ice, the ice cream Sundae, sort of American culinary history, Ithaca and then two rivers, Wisconsin. And uh, I forget which year it was. I got to believe it was like 2012, 20, 13, somewhere around there. Oh, boost off. And I were trying to come up with and uh, what is, uh, what is something that we could start to try and pitch. And what we realized as we took a look at, uh, uh, the media market was that controversies are really sticky, know people get a lot of attention, uh, when you can create controversy. So we actually called up the city manager of two rivers. And, uh, I had a couple of conference calls with them and said, look, we’ve got this idea and if you start to say you are, and we start to say we are, um, maybe just, maybe we’ll get some national media attention and lo and behold, it caught fire.

Fred Bonn: 31:43 And uh, we were going back and forth. And the funny thing was this was being bandied about and national print media, uh, each community’s being featured. Um, but what we were doing behind the scenes, no, we were talking to two rivers, Wisconsin, as soon as we hung up with an interview with say the Chicago Tribune and saying, okay, we said this, this and this, it’ll add to the controversy and we’re queuing each other up and the media didn’t know this. And we just developed a really strong, strong, fun controversy about the ice cream Sundae. Um, I personally think we won the ice cream Sundae war when, when Google creates a doodle for you honoring your anniversary, you know, I think that’s a good definitive.

Nicole Mahoney: 32:38 So

Fred Bonn: 32:42 it was about collaboration, the face of what seemed to be, you know, high, high competition.

Nicole Mahoney: 32:49 Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great example of collaboration and really thinking outside of the box and it’s not just, you know, collaborating within your own region as we’ve been talking a lot about so far on this show, but also this idea of collaborating with another community and it was a win for both communities. Right?

Fred Bonn: 33:10 Yeah. CBS evening news came out and did a feature story on it. It was there Friday. Happy story wrapped for the week. It was good.

Nicole Mahoney: 33:20 Yeah. That’s awesome. Thanks. Thanks for sharing that and I think that’s a, that’s a great example of kind of this more kind of holistic approach to destination marketing and it’s not just about, you know, the big attractions that you have, but it’s also about those stories and that and that history and getting that out there. So thank you for that. Do you have any final words that you’d like to share with our listeners? Anything I didn’t ask you about or anything that you’d have?

Fred Bonn: 33:50 The one thing I, I haven’t had an opportunity to do is to give tanks here at state parks. We do a great job of managing and maintaining our facilities, making them available to the public. So are a real partnership, is, is with our local tourism offices and our tpa who really help us tell our story so we have beautiful spaces and it’s really the tpa and the tourism offices that help us to make those spaces known to people through your publications and websites and such. We’ve got a strong website and a strong social media presence. But um, you know, that’s managed out of our public affairs office in Albany, uh, but here in the finger lakes, you know, all of the tpa in the finger lakes are a really good about making sure that events that are taking place in the park or the scenic shots that can be found in the parks are, are core to their, uh, their promotional efforts. So thanks for that.

Nicole Mahoney: 34:55 Well that’s a really awesome and I’m sure are gmo and tpa listeners will, will appreciate that. And I, and I think it’s a really good point to make because you are a huge attraction in the area, but those partnerships and those collaborations are or what’s really needed to truly be successful for everyone. So a great way to end. Thank you so much fred, for spending some time with us today and we’ll look forward to catching up with you again.

Fred Bonn: 35:24 I’ll look forward to crossing paths and hope to see in a park real soon. We’re open year round. Parks are open year round. Everybody get your empire path.Nicole Mahoney: 35:32 Absolutely.