Tourism

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Last week, my family went on a New England road trip and I brought along my laptop and iPhone to stay connected with the office and clients. It is the norm for many businesspersons these days (and not much different from typical weekends). The downside of technology is that you are always connected. Fortunately for me last week was quiet and the digital side was a huge help in managing projects in progress.

I mention all this because my family’s trip was a wonderful educational trip mostly along the coast of New England. It underscored for me how much life, especially working life, in America has changed over our relatively short history. It was humbling on many levels.

The Morgan docked in Mystic, CT is under major restoration but still tourable.

The Morgan docked in Mystic, CT is under major restoration but still tourable.

In Mystic, we had a chance to tour the Morgan, the only remaining wooden whaling boat left and currently under major restoration. On a hot AC-less day, its cramped quarters underscored that a long time at sea was a very long time. Especially at a time deodorant wasn’t invented yet.

The Breakers, the Vanderbilt mansion in Newport, RI, is a glimpse back to the Gilded Age.

The Breakers, the Vanderbilt mansion in Newport, RI, is a glimpse back to the Gilded Age.

With class warfare in full political mode, a visit to Newport, RI and the summer homes of the Vanderbilts and others underscored that at times the gulf between the haves and have-nots was much greater. The American middle-class didn’t exist yet. It is a testament to capitalism and free-enterprise that a middle ground evolved and thrived in the last century. Even if it feels like we are at another tipping point.

The whaling museum in New Bedford, MA tells the amazing story of whales and the men who hunted them.

The whaling museum in New Bedford, MA tells the amazing story of whales and the men who hunted them.

The whaling museum in New Bedford, MA is a treasure chest of knowledge and exhibits about what was New England’s principal livelihood for many years. I learned why every whale hunted was such a vital collection of valuable resources, principally oil used as a fuel for lights, which extended American’s day on average by an extra hour after sunset. However, the hard work and danger to successfully hunt, kill, and bring back a whale was beyond daunting. It must have taken a certain kind of bravado or crazy to sign on for this duty. Ironically, it was the discovery of oil in the ground in Titusville, PA that signaled the beginning of the end for whale-hunting as an industry in New England.

Up close and personal with a humpback whale from the deck of the Seven Seas tour boat.

Up close and personal with a humpback whale from the deck of the Seven Seas tour boat.

Happily, the whaling industry is thriving in a new way now — tourism. Whale sightseeing boats out of Gloucester are doing an amazing job of introducing landlubbers like me to these amazing creatures. On the Seven Seas, we saw a dozen humpbacks during an afternoon voyage off Cape Ann. And as these awesome natural wonders put on a show on the surface of the Atlantic, they are unaware they are helping to support all the shops, restaurants, and motels in the area that depend on summer vacationers. There were close to 150 on our ship, times twice daily, times many other similar tour boats. Talk about an unlikely ecosystem.

A Lowell textile mill reimagined dollhouse size.

A Lowell textile mill reimagined dollhouse size.

On the way home, we headed inland to Lowell, MA for a different take on the New England economy of yesteryear. The once thriving textile mills there are now a working museum run by the National Park Service. They have done a terrific job of presenting the relevant-today story of cheap labor in service of manufactured goods. The Lowell mills were populated by a steady stream of ever-cheaper-to-compete labor pools. Ironically, most were women. First, farm girls from New England. Then, immigrants were brought in, from one nationality or country at a time, always in search of remaining competitive. Lowell went from being one of America’s brightest stories during the Industrial Revolution to finding itself fighting for its economic life, first against other cities in New England, then in the southern US, and finally, in countries around the world. The work in the mill was hard, loud, monotonous, long, and often dangerous. In those early days, there was no OSHA and there were no unions, although both would come later.

The Lowell lesson is an instructive one — if America wants to compete in today’s global markets, we face tremendous challenges in terms of costs, regulations, worker/union expectations, technology, and governmental cooperation with the private sector. With Lowell’s mills closed in the early 90s, the city is now retooling in another direction — tourism. I encourage you to avail yourself of this instructive link to our past (and hopefully, future).

The late great Ron Rotelli (center) helping to manage a Time and Parking Controls seminar at the National Constitution Center.

The late great Ron Rotelli (center) helping to manage a Time and Parking Controls seminar at the National Constitution Center.

My vacation ended on a very sad note with an email from Kevin Elsesser, GM of Time and Parking Controls — his longtime associate Ron Rotelli passed away in his sleep during a family vacation. Ron was a man of many talents, he made friends instantly with everyone he met, and he balanced work with a love of family and a long list of personal interests, especially music. He was one of the least likely people to have his life cut short in such abrupt fashion, which just underscores the age-old Carpe Diem message for the rest of us. That he will be sorely missed by so many was brought home by the endless line of friends, family, and co-workers inside and outside the Donoghue Funeral Home Thursday evening.

 

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The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia Must-See.

The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia Must-See.

If the question is “May I take photography inside of all your marvelous medical oddities, curiosities, and maladies?”, the answer is a definite no. But actually, my question is “Can I blog about Philadelphia’s infamous Mütter Museum?”, and I’m just going to plunge ahead, not waiting for an answer, and beg forgiveness later.

If you are a Philadelphia area resident and you have never ventured to 22nd Street between Market and Chestnut, to the College of Physicians’ amazing, disturbing, and eye-opening (and in some cases, oozing) Mütter Museum, you owe it to yourself to put it on your New Year’s Resolution list. A visit will cure you of thinking hypochondriacs are crazy, it will give you new respect for the medical pioneers who have helped us achieve the healthcare available to us in the 20th Century, and it will create empathy for some remarkable people who have had to endure some physical handicaps, indignities, and challenges that underscore the strength of the human spirit.

If you are from outside of Philadelphia, I have good news for you — the Mütter is now available to you every Monday via its very own YouTube channel with a video minute starring its current curator. I would like to salute the Museum’s marketing team for its social media inventiveness (you can also connect with the Mütter via Facebook and Twitter). They are leveraging digital and social to connect in an educational and entertaining way with a wide audience of museum members, followers, and potential new converts. Marketing creativity has long been a strength of the Mütter, however. A good many years ago, a former curator was a semi-regular guest on David Letterman’s show. Earlier this fall, the Mütter premiered an art film by identical twins, the Quay Brothers, who were likely drawn to the collection by the saga of conjoined twins Yang and Eng. The museum really understands that its halls are filled with exhibits that are offbeat at best, off-putting at worst, and that it needs to play to its strengths, but with 365-days-a-year unconventional outreach.

As great as the new YouTube channel is (deep, too, with around 100 videos), you need to visit in person to get the full Mütter experience. The Soap Lady needs to be seen in the flesh (or in all her saponified glory). There are several preserved ovarian cysts that are (I’m not exaggerating here) larger than our Butterball Thanksgiving turkey for 12. Then, there is the mega-colon (also preserved and on display) from a man whose bowels’ nerves were contributing to the worst constipation problem anyone could ever possibly conceive of (until you see it on display). Perhaps the most amazing thing I learned was that the Hahneman of yesteryear found nothing they could do, so they discharged the poor man (not the hospital’s finest hour).

The Mütter is a tourism treasure of the City of Brotherly Love and needs all the love it can get. Here is a holiday card in the form of a very entertaining Gamestop commercial from Christmas season 2010 that has nothing to do with the Mütter, but as you’ll see, everything to do with the Mütter:

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The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

Every New Year, the Mummers return to amaze, entertain, and ultimately mystify. They are the greatest show on earth that most outside of Philadelphia (and sadly many in the Delaware Valley) seem to pay little attention to.  The parade is thousands of Elton Johns and Lady Gagas in full feathery regalia. An American Idol competition for marching bands and street choreographers. A city-wide spectacle unfolding block by block up Broad Street.

So why aren’t the Mummers front and center in selling Philadelphia tourism? It’s complicated. The City seems to be annually challenged to make the Mummers Parade a profitable enterprise. Because it falls on the New Year’s holiday, the cost of services escalate (and that’s even when the weather is cooperative). Ironically, at a time when the City is packed with people, many businesses prefer to stay closed for the holiday to making money when the opportunity presents itself.

Separated from the parade, the Mummers seem to lose a lot. A single string band is festive, and “O, Dem Golden Slippers” is lively, but a small representation merely hints at the pageantry and year-long sweat and toil by volunteers and performers to pull off each annual parade.

Not surprisingly, the Mummers haven’t translated well to the web. Lots of sites (like this, this, and this), some selling and supporting the uniquely Philadelphian Mummers enterprise, but none capturing the Mummers experience. A somewhat better repository is YouTube with clips of individual club performances. However, that underscores how hard it is to distill the essence of Mummery.

For years, the local TV stations have taken turns providing Mummers parade coverage and playing hot potato. It is always a LONG day of endless commentary and a thankless job for anchors assigned. Only CNN with its 24/7 filling airtime model might be up to the challenge.

Seeing the parade up close and personal, as it unfolds, is the only way to take in all things Mummers. Once, a friend invited my wife and I to watch the parade from the eagle eye view of the Union League. We were warm, had great food and drink, but it was antiseptic. The Mummers parades I remember best were all ground level, strolling along Broad and around City Hall, enjoying both the string bands and the crowds cheering them on. It wasn’t always family friendly thanks to public drunkenness, but it is hard to be judgemental when carrying your own hip flask to help ward off the all-day cold.

Maybe Philadelphia is holiday’d out, with so much devoted to the July 4th Freedom Week celebrations.  Maybe the Mummers are too much of a peoples’ parade of neighborhood clubs and volunteers to be managed cohesively by city officials. Maybe the competition of Mardi Gras (New Orleans has its own holiday), the pageantry of Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Brothers, and Disney theme park parades, and ever-more-elaborate music videos make the Mummers pale to a jaded public.

However, more and more people are attracted to Philadelphia for New Year’s Eve celebrations at great restaurants, bars, and music clubs, with city-sponsored fireworks, and by attractive hotel packages. In 2012, according to recent reports, the city might even be host to the NHL’s national audience tv event, the outdoor Winter Classic. Capping it all off with a full day of Mummery would seem to make Philadelphia a destination city for the entire New Year’s Holiday. The Mummers are a live event and a street event — the city should start planning for 2012 and how best to integrate the parade into making Philadelphia  and the Mummers synonymous with New Year’s memories for visitors from near and far.

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Duck Tours

Duck Tours

Some times it is fun to learn what is going on at home when you’re on vacation. That was not the case last week, while in Boston with my family. We were grabbing lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant when my oldest son looked up at the TV and noticed a scene from Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing waterfront area featured on CNN. The story was about the sinking of a Ride the Ducks tourist amphibious vehicle following a collision with a barge. Ironically, at that moment, my wife was on her cell calling the Boston version of this attraction to get information on departures later that day.
Needless to say, this story resonated with my family the rest of the week. We had all taken the Philadelphia tour the other year and enjoyed it a lot. Even though, we were familiar with all the on land sites, it was fun to see them from a new perspective and the 20 minutes or so in the Delaware River was a view of our city we’d never seen before. Throw in the plastic “quackers” and the fun Philly music favorites played on the Ducks’ speakers and you had a winning outing for all ages. We were more than interested in repeating the experience in Boston.
For awhile the story seemed to get better. Initially, it sounded as if all the passengers were rescued and that those who were had not been seriously injured. Then, news came that two passengers were unaccounted for. As time wore on, hope began to fade and eventually the bodies of 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old man from a Hungarian church group touring the states were recovered. A sad riverside memorial service on Saturday indicates that the thoughts and prayers of many in the city go out to the families of Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem.
Reading the detailed accounts in the Philadelphia Inquirer answered most of our questions as to how this tragedy could have happened. This tidal section of the Delaware River is a major shipping channel, and although the tourist boats stay close to shore, unforeseen circumstances such as this can bring them into harm’s way when motor trouble occurs. Making matters worse, the barge was being powered from the other side by a tugboat attached near the rear. There was evidently no visual recognition that the stranded duck tour vehicle was even in the barge’s path.
One surprising revelation came from Chris Edmonston, Director of Boating Safety at the Boat US Foundation. He noted that a Pennsylvania rule that requires children 12 and younger to wear life jackets applies only to recreational vessels. Commercial vessels must have enough life vests for everyone on board, but passengers are not required to wear them. This tragedy could spur a change in that regulation. From passenger accounts, it sounded as if things went from minor problem to full-blown chaos very quickly. Plus, if we should have learned one thing from the current BP rig disaster it’s that we must never forget Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” A corollary to that might be that “No matter how many contingencies we plan for, there will always be another one that we didn’t plan for.”

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

That might be why the very next day after Philadelphia’s tragedy, the streets of Boston were still active with so many of their own Ducks tours. The ones I saw were all filled with eager tourists. Either they hadn’t heard the sad news

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

from the Delaware River or they didn’t believe in lightning striking twice.
From a PR and marketing perspective, I guess this all makes sense. The Ride the Ducks tour company seemed to be taking appropriate steps. The President flew up from Atlanta to Philadelphia and made himself accessible to address questions promptly. Not sure that Boston’s duck tours are run by the same company, but regardless, all their livelihoods depend on making tourism fun. You just hope they will incorporate everything they learn from the Philadelphia tragedy into standard operating procedures going forward to also make tourism safe. Improvements that might prevent future tragedies are the least that should be done in memory of Dora and Szabolcs.

Historical Footnote: Peter Binzen writing for The Inquirer has an interesting bittersweet personal account about usage of the Ducks in WWII in Italy.

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