The 21st Century Catskills

July 23, 2012

The Catskills region in upstate New York is poised for a rebrand. How does a famed historical destination build a brand that evolves its rich heritage into a contemporary profile?

The Catskills are a very personal place for me. I’ve spent many a family dinner listening to stories being told and retold and retold again about my family connections to the “Borscht Belt.” From my Uncle Abe, who was the emcee at the Raleigh Hotel through the 1950s and 60s, to my father who worked as a waiter at Kutsher’s and my mother who attended Camp Kennybrook in Monticello.

As I was growing up, the Catskills torch was passed to my generation, as well. We took several vacations to Kutsher’s and the Concord. It was before Dirty Dancing made its debut so the kitsch was lost on me, but the family experience was not. A non-stop flow of activities for parents and children alike accompanied the daily dining room event, stunning mountain vistas and even for this shy child, regular interaction with families and children just like us. As a young girl, I thought it was the ultimate family vacation. As a grown adult, I still recall the trips fondly.

The Catskills and its myriad of hotels defined the family vacation for many generations. Yet today, Kutsher’s remains the last operational resort and the Catskills region stands stagnant and undefined. According to a recent New York Times article, “Seeking to Lure the Crowds Again. But Hold the Borscht,” the region has been struggling with developing an identity to attract a new group of tourists.

With the Borscht Belt personality long gone, the newly formed Catskill Park Resource Foundation is hoping to raise $5 million to rebrand the Catskills. The question remains, how does the region integrate its palpable heritage with today’s modern characteristics and broader appeal to capture a new brand that speaks to a wide audience? In essence, how does the Catskills build a brand that once again makes it a destination?

Capture nostalgic emotions
Brands like Volkswagen and Coach have captured the nostalgia that plays at customers’ heartstrings, while bringing the 1960s Bug and legacy saddle-leather bags into the 21st century. The nostalgia of the Catskills is its wholesome, no-frills family environment, an anomaly in today’s vacation destinations.

Modernize historical attributes
Old-school, retro design, kitschy entertainment, heavy food and my uncle’s bad jokes are just a few of the adjectives and ideas that come to mind when I hear the word Catskills. Clearly these ideas are deeply rooted in yesterday and somewhat outdated. However, today the ideas of old-school, retro and kitschy engender positive feelings among many. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg is anything but stagnant and outdated, yet these three attributes clearly define that area as well. The national bowling chain Lucky Strike, the AMC Dine-in Theaters and even Target embrace these ideas as well. They’ve each found distinctive ways to modernize the attributes to speak to a broad audience.

Find the common denominator
Today’s Catskills brings a wide array of promise for visitors — “trout fishing, artisanal cheese and Zen retreats” (New York Times) meet bed and breakfasts, rock climbing, acres of parks and the promise of modern family resorts. The idea is to find a commonality in purpose, experience or personality to help define the region and integrate its differences. For example, companies like IBM and GE have fused diverse product and service offerings behind distinct emotional positions. For IBM, “Smarter Planet” brings the promise of innovation and tomorrow. For GE, “Imagination at work” offers the fusion of creativity across all businesses from healthcare to finance and appliances to electronics.

If you ask me how to brand the Catskills, the answer lies in capturing the region’s heritage through today’s diversity of activities. The Catskills are about celebrating the moment in time when family experiences involved wholesome and simple time together.

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Can you modernize a brand without losing track of its heritage?

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