– By Ben Cober, Director of Business Development and Research
Time and again through our Destinology research, we learn how travelers are always seeking something “authentic:” places where something real happened in history, natural places untouched by human hands, or unique things that couldn’t be done elsewhere. In fact, 80% of travelers cite this as a key motivator for their destination adventures: finding unique, real, human, non-commercial, and social/emotional events at authentic locations.
As the recent green glow of the Northern Lights faded from my pupils, and I felt my breath instantly freeze on my warm, tightly-wound scarf as I listened to the distant pack howling and barking, I was granted a rare Access to Authenticity.
As an enthusiastic researcher of the traveler journey and guest experience, my 2019 PGAV GO! funds often help me explore the world to witness unique sects of tourists in distant destinations. These experiences help spark exciting behavioral and psychological questions, and give invaluable views of tourists and travelers in their natural habitats. These experiences really help fuel my research and writing with practical observations, bolstering Destinology, project market research, social media, or even just fun storytelling in PGAV’s Café.
On this journey, I took my first journey to Anchorage, Alaska to finally experience two lifelong “bucket list” items:
As a National Park, Denali was not dreamed up by a brilliant architect at a drafting board. Sculpted over millennia from violent tectonic shifts, impressive and imposing glacial glides, and hammering wind and precipitation, the park is an ever-transforming masterpiece of beauty. The Aurora Borealis undulates greens and purples beneath the Milky Way at night, while lenticular clouds crown the very peak of the 20,000’+ hulking mountain for which the park gets its name. Glacially-fed rivers rush through crevasses and tundra to fuel an uprising of flowered meadows, reed-lined lakes, and pines, birch, and willows. Beneath these trees are herds of caribou and elk, with lone moose, snowshoe hare, and lynx making their own ways throughout the wonderland. All are then pursued by soaring eagles, packs of wolves, and hungry bears as they wake from hibernation among the melting snow. It is an awe-inspiring, peaceful, humbling experience, and reminds me of my small, yet fortunate place in the world.
It is as authentically natural as one can get – and it’s all monitored by teams of sled dogs (you read that right!).
At 938 miles, the Iditarod is “The Last Great Race,” with over 50 teams of 14 sled dogs running the historic trail from Seward to Nome, critical to the settlement of Alaska by delivering supplies, people, and diphtheria antitoxin to address a serious outbreak in the 1920s. Today’s heroic mushers, men and women, young and old, were not crafted in Auto CAD. The dogs were not first molded in Rhino, then exported for 3D printing. The trail is largely wild – the teams at the whim and danger of nature. The thrill and inspiration of watching these teams prepare for a nearly 1,000-mile journey as the clock counted down from 10 seconds was an immense adrenaline rush, and seeing them charge out of downtown Anchorage to the roar of thousands of spectators from around the world was sincerely moving (thoughts of, “I hope they’ll be ok,” “No winter storms for two weeks, please,” and, “Wow, I wish MY dog listened that well!” flooded my mind). The kick of the snow powder, the excited barking of the dogs, and thunder of applause: they are spontaneous, authentic experiences.
But a designer’s job in these natural and cultural spaces is not to design the authenticity, it is to design the seamless Access to Authenticity. Denali is full of natural wonder, but the unobtrusive hand of planners and designers is pervasive:
- It first needed to be protected by manmade law in 1917 – inspired by brave frontier conservationists.
- Limitless information is provided before arrival online or in friendly phone calls placed to professionally-trained Park Rangers.
- A beautifully-paved (and plowed) highway winds its way around and throughout the park, with clear trailhead signage.
- One can stop at either the winter or summer visitors’ centers, and get hands-on education about the park’s wildlife, plants, fossils, plan hikes, and rent snowshoes.
- Miles deep on the trails, intersections are clearly but unobtrusively marked with wayfinding, and beautiful and unique bridges cross glacially-fed streams rushing beneath.
Similarly, the same strategic touch can be found throughout the Iditarod:
- A banner drapes across 4th and D streets in downtown Anchorage, denoting the starting line of the Iditarod, with a bronze statue of Balto watching over it.
- As the Anchorage streets are diligently plowed, snow is trucked in the night before to line the streets, so that the runners of the mushers’ sleds don’t erode and snap as they race out of town.
- Over a loud speaker, a local television host reads the bios and drama of each musher, deepening our appreciation and commitment to their safe and healthy success nearly 1,000 miles away.
- When more than 700 dogs have left the city, we all return to our nearby warm hotels, change clothes, and enjoy an afternoon of snow sculptures, warming beverages, musicians, and even a Pampalona-inspired “Running of the Reindeer.”
There are limitless garish opportunities to ruin the immersion with these authentic experiences – to obscure the dramatic views of the speckled moraine leading to Denali’s foothills, or for short-sighted signage to distract from the true stars of the day: hundreds of wagging tails and lolling tongues. All of us can recognize the opportunity, peace, or thrill that can come with the world’s existing authenticity; but it often takes an empathetic designer and their team to grant us unobstructed access to it.