Global trends feed Jackson’s appeal
By Jonathan Schechter, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
September 5, 2012
Jackson Hole’s economic future will be shaped by two forces just starting to emerge: “extreme entrepreneurship” and ecotourism. In my July 25 column, I focused on extreme entrepreneurship. On Aug. 22, I focused on ecotourism. Today I’ll discuss how the two can complement one another.
That these two forces are affecting Jackson Hole is, in turn, the result of two basic facts shaping the future of Jackson Hole’s nontourism economy. Both are local manifestations of global trends that will continue to accelerate and, in so doing, continue to affect Jackson Hole, regardless of whether we want them to. These trends include rapid advancements in the power of technology, the globalization of the economy, improved access to transportation and the increasingly casual and virtual nature of personal and professional relationships.
Fact No. 1 is that it’s becoming easier and easier to do more and different types of jobs from wherever a worker chooses. The local consequence? Jackson Hole will continue to attract increasing numbers of people who can live anywhere they want, either because they are independently wealthy or because they have location-independent jobs.
Fact No. 2 is what I call the rise of Jackson Hole’s “extrapreneurs.”
Let’s stipulate that Jackson Hole is and has always been a community of entrepreneurs. Ranchers were the valley’s original entrepreneurs. Today, entrepreneurship has a different face but is still a powerful force. Putting numbers on that face: No more than 4 percent of us work for the valley’s largest employer, and fully one-third of us are self-employed. As a result, among the nation’s 1,823 larger counties (i.e., those with populations greater than 20,000), Teton County ranks fourth in the per capita number of people self-employed in nonfarm jobs.
Over the last several years, however, a significant shift has started taking place in Jackson Hole’s entrepreneurial economy. In particular, from the time tourism exploded in the 1960s until the past few years, the community’s entrepreneurs have focused on servicing locally based customers, be they residents or tourists. Call this focus “intrapreneurship.”
In contrast, the past few years have seen the rise of Jackson Hole’s extrapreneurs — businesses whose primary customer base lies outside the valley.
These extrapreneurs are extreme in a couple of ways. One is that they not only have a tremendous passion for starting new businesses but also a vision for those businesses that extends far beyond northwest Wyoming. This vision not only embraces a regional, national or even global customer base but also taps into regional, national and even global resources for starting and growing businesses.
Similarly, the connections these businesses have to Jackson have little to do with the things we traditionally relate to local businesses, concepts such as buying and hiring local, servicing tourists, generating sales taxes or many of the other ways we think about Jackson Hole’s “intrapreneurial” businesses. Instead, these businesses are here because of Fact No 1: They can be. Jackson Hole’s new extrapreneurial businesses could be based anywhere but are here because this is where their owners want to live. And as long as they enjoy living here, this is where those businesses are going to remain.
Which leads into the importance of ecotourism.
The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” In other words, it’s tourism that helps conserve the fundamental character of a place.
Why is this important? Because of Fact No. 2.
Fact No. 2 is that, for the same reasons it’s becoming easier and easier to do any type of work anywhere in the world, the world is becoming an increasingly homogenous place. When you can ski in Dubai or surf in Phoenix or get a spa treatment in at least 18 Wyoming cities — when, for that matter, you can travel one hour outside of Beijing to a resort development called Jackson Hole, China — it means there are increasingly fewer meaningful differences between the world’s places. With increasing ease, man-made amenities can be replicated without regard to terrain, climate or geography.
As a result, only three qualities of place are essentially copy-proof: landscape, animals and community character. These are the qualities that will provide destinations with a meaningful competitive advantage. Critically, these are exactly the qualities ecotourism seeks to conserve and enhance.
In this context, ecotourism’s importance to Jackson Hole becomes threefold.
First, because ecotourism is clearly the wave of tourism’s future, by embracing ecotourism we have the potential to position ourselves very well in an increasingly homogenous, increasingly global tourism market.
Second, by aligning tourism’s economic power with ecotourism’s focus on sustaining the qualities that truly distinguish us, we will create a powerful incentive to conserve and enhance those critical qualities. This will create a virtuous circle, for the more we sustain those unique qualities, the more desirable we will become as a tourism destination.
Third, embracing ecotourism will sustain the qualities that make us attractive to extreme entrepreneurs. This is critical because it is these people and their businesses who will drive Jackson Hole’s next great wave of economic growth.
Tourism won’t. It will remain a foundational industry for us, but never again will it serve as the engine of our growth. But if tourism can complement the qualities that attract extreme entrepreneurs, not only will it ensure our economic vibrancy, it will give us a shot at replacing the good-paying middle-class jobs we’ve lost with the collapse of the construction bubble.
Because of its economic structure, tourism of any sort simply isn’t capable of supporting a middle class in Jackson Hole. But entrepreneurial start-ups are, and by getting ecotourism right, we’ll not only see our tourism industry continue to thrive but also — as the ecotourism definition suggests — improve the well-being of local people.
As a community, we are in the earliest stages of pursuing ecotourism. While some individual tourism-related businesses are very aggressive in their ecotourism efforts, most do little more than pay lip service to the concept. From a glass is half-full perspective, this is great news, for it means that we have huge growth potential. Better still, the more successful we are in pursuing that potential, the more successful we’ll be in attracting extreme entrepreneurs and in so doing developing an entrepreneurial economy that complements our ecotourism foundation. The opportunity is clearly there. I hope we have the courage, vision and wisdom to embrace it.
Jonathan Schechter, whose column appears every other week in this spot, is the executive director of the Charture Institute, a Jackson-based think tank. Complete versions of his columns, including graphics, are available at charture.org. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.