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Generating Foot Traffic in Your Downtown

It’s a constant concern of communities everywhere – how to keep their downtowns and mainstreets vibrant and busy with people.  Few goals are as important to a community’s economic development, and few successes have such a broad multiplying effect.  Increased foot traffic leads to more downtown purchases, which attract quality retailers who, in turn, generate more traffic.

To get this positive cycle of growth in motion and keep it going though, is a challenge on several levels.  First of all, whose responsibility is it?  Sometimes leadership rests with economic development officials and sometimes with a business improvement association.  But really, mainstreet success takes more than one group of people. It takes a village!

For a classic example, look at Fort Myers, Florida.  Its River District Alliance (RDA) is a not-for-profit association with membership from people in the downtown core of Fort Myers.  The alliance has established a strong brand for the River District and manages a series of events that keeps the district humming.

An admirer of the RDA’s work is Mitchell Austin, an urban planner from the neighboring city of Punta Gorda.  He pointed out through the Economic Development Leadership group on LinkedIn that: “Staying on message and having a meaningful brand is vital.  The River District of Fort Myers is on the beautiful Calusahatchee River.  So, River District describes the place and evokes a connection to a positive recognizable community asset.”

The River District revitalization has produced economic benefits, as a report from the Fort Myers News-Press in December 2011 showed.  For the first time since the onset of the 2008 recession, downtown Fort Myers had almost no vacant stores or restaurants.  Don Paight, Executive Director of the City’s Downtown Redevelopment Agency, said several businesses moved into larger spaces during 2011 and the newly vacant spots were snapped up immediately.

Paight credited the increased business to the completion of the City’s $60-million street renovation project, which replaced underground utilities downtown and added brick roads, new streetlights and new street signs.  Since the project was finished in January 2010, Paight estimated about 20 new businesses have moved in.

Many organizations have contributed funding and/or management to the transformation of downtown Fort Myers, including the State of Florida, Lee County, the Downtown Redevelopment Agency and Fort Myers Conference & Convention Council.  The comprehensive downtown plan originated in 2003 when it was adopted by Fort Myers Council.  More than 1,500 citizens participated in the planning process that resulted in that plan.

So, a village came together in Fort Myers.  But once such a village has developed its vision and carried out the complex work of reinventing a downtown, there is still continuous work to be done by skilled marketers and event managers to attract and maintain foot traffic.  That’s why an organization like the River District Alliance is needed.

The Role of Events in Downtown Marketing

To generate foot traffic for a mainstreet or downtown requires more than merely promoting its retail stores.  Mainstreets need motion.  A program of events keeps things in stir, excites curiosity and gives people ever-changing reasons to spend time downtown.

Success with events comes from a two-step process.  First, the entire community of stakeholders — the village — must agree on what kinds of events to support.  Then a strong, well-supported organization must coordinate the very considerable talent and resources that it takes to keep downtown events continuously on people’s minds.

It can be done.  Have a look at  In the Town of Oakville, Ontario, the Downtown Business Improvement Association organizes events every month from May through December, carefully targeting them to specific audiences such as food lovers, music lovers and parents.  It is, as one of the bloggers on the website says, “one of the most active downtowns I’ve ever been to.”

Oakville demonstrates that once an effective downtown marketing strategy is in place, the events can become reliable ways to generate foot traffic year after year.  The annual Midnight Madness event in July, for example, for 35 years has invited people to downtown Oakville to experience music, food and retailers’ sale offerings throughout the downtown area.  It draws 50,000 visitors!

The Role of Marketing Campaigns

Downtown marketing campaigns have to work hand in hand with events.  Although the marketing tools have become more complicated in recent years, the basic rule of thumb remains in place – if you build it they will come, if they care.

But what makes them care?  First, they need to know about the event.  Second, they need an incentive such as having fun, saving money, potentially winning a contest, or being entertained in some unique way.  And third, because it’s the “place to be” that everyone will be talking about. The last reason has become much more important in the social media age than ever before.

Mainstreet and downtown event marketing programs, then, should be built on some basic principles:

  • Reach as many people as possible by as many communication channels as possible.  That encompasses electronic media as well as traditional advertising, posters and brochures.  Make the event ubiquitous in the minds of the audience you want to draw.
  • Reach people personally.  Make sure that your downtown marketing campaign speaks to individuals wherever they are on their mobile devices.  Collect e-mails of people who have visited stores or participated in downtown contests and seek permission to include them on lists for broadcast e-mail purposes.
  • Offer incentives that make visitors feel they are privileged or special.  For instance, if your website offers a money-saving coupon that must be printed and brought downtown, those who do so will feel that they merit special treatment that others don’t receive.

Web technology adds another layer of opportunity to marketing campaigns and many channels can now help to drive traffic to the downtown website.  It acts as the virtual meeting place for the people you want to meet in person downtown.

There are many good examples of technology-focused mainstreet marketing campaigns designed to generate foot traffic and we will point out some of them later in this series.  One of the most recent examples can be found in the Canadian province of Alberta, in a northern town called Fort Saskatchewan.

Launched May 7, is a combined information service and loyalty program.  Visitors can register for a free Shop Fort First Loyalty Card and receive discounts from 32 Fort Saskatchewan businesses located throughout the community.

The website was designed specifically to counter a loss of foot traffic to stores in larger communities.  Tom Pearson, chair of the Shop Fort First Committee, said in a news release, “We want to see more Fort residents change their purchasing habits and start to focus on buying local first.”

This initiative follows the necessary two-stage development process for rebuilding mainstreet foot traffic: First get the whole village to collaborate on a vision, then establish an organization that can apply knowledgeable strategies and skills.

The Shop Fort First Committee is the creation of a cross-section of local people plus the Downtown Redevelopment Advisory Committee, Economic Development Board and the Fort Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce.  The website created by the committee incorporates advanced technologies such as mobile enablement, accessibility compliance and social media including YouTube profiles of local shopkeepers.

To generate mainstreet foot traffic does indeed take a village but it also takes creativity and dedicated work, day after day.


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