Our distinct heritage

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Historic Hotels of America 2015 Annual Conference hosted at the French Lick and West Baden Resorts in southern Indiana. If you’ve never been to these historic properties, the best way I can describe them is to say they’re Indiana’s version of the Greenbrier Resort. It was my first visit, but I hope it won’t be my last.

The HHA’s Annual Conference is always valuable because of the caliber of presenters and this year was no exception. My favorite presenter was Bradford Hudson, associate professor of marketing at Boston College. He spoke on the importance of balancing heritage and innovation in marketing heritage. This topic is relevant, both to my business, as well as our community.

Hudson spoke about the way heritage works on a person’s sense of “connectedness.” For companies, organizations and places, Hudson said the success of connectedness can determine an organization’s future. As he gave examples from his clients, such as Coca-Cola, Lionel Trains and Mercedes-Benz, he emphasized how they differed in their use of heritage and innovation to attract the next generation of consumers.

It’s often difficult for consumers to distinguish between old and historic. In the historic hotel business, we joke that the biggest difference between the two is $100 per night. But kidding aside, the most significant contrast is the story that can only be told by the heritage of the past. Our entire community has a similar heritage, and as current stewards, we must combine that heritage with a story of innovation aimed at the next generation.

Heritage doesn’t just tell us where we’ve been; it tells us who we are. And when we embrace innovation, we can have a connected future. If we think that millennials don’t care about the past, we need to think again. Millennials connect to the past as much as any other generation, but they connect differently, and we should be prepared to meet that connection in new methods. They love nostalgia as much as Boomers and Gen-Xer’s, but they communicate differently, and their conversations are on Twitter and Instagram. But they are still conversations. Our community may need high-speed access and craft beers, but the love of belonging and having a sense of place are still just as real.

We must realize that a historic community can be very attractive, especially when it embraces technology and innovation. When we introduce the next generation to their heritage by communicating with them in the way they communicate, we connect them to the intergenerational relationship that creates their sense of connectedness.

The next generation needs to feel distinctive. Hudson says we cannot escape our heritage, nor should we. Heritage is our best differentiation. When we do this, the next generation feels they belong. And that’s good for everyone.

Cecil Childress is the former chairman of Downtown PKB, a member of the Area Roundtable, chairman of the Blennerhassett Island Foundation and has served on numerous local boards of directors.