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Marketing Hartford

February 14, 2006
Commentary By Gina Greenlee

I'd like to report that the incremental improvements I've noted in Hartford's quality of life since I moved here in 1993 are echoed in observations by visitors and new residents.

I can't.

This from a San Francisco resident as we drove from Parkville to the South End on a Saturday night last October: "Where are all the people?"

I recently asked a native of Hawaii now studying in Pennsylvania to summarize her impression of Hartford after her brief tour. She said: "It seems like a place that shuts down at 5 o'clock after everyone goes home."

From a Long Island native one year into relocation with his family (and upon hearing about my shell shock when I arrived here 13 years ago): "I'm so glad to meet you and learn about your experiences in Hartford. I feel like an ex-pat."

An organizer of a Hartford Convention Center event that I attended was touting plans for fun. This piqued my interest. Where would we be going? "I hired a bus to take us down to Foxwoods," he said.

I said, "The event is in Hartford. Why are you busing visitors out of the city?" His answer: Foxwoods is where conference-goers said they wanted to go.

I subscribe to the laws of physics. The pendulum swings just so far in one direction and then it must succumb to immutable laws of movement and swing back. I noticed the pendulum in Hartford beginning to move toward liveliness in 1997. If we maintain this trend, I believe the day will come when outsiders will not reflexively link Hartford with "insurance city" or Hartford with casinos. But based on turnarounds I've experienced in other cities, I believe that day is two decades away.

In the meantime, we have this to sell: the richness of the experience associated with the people and commerce in our 17 neighborhoods and our architectural assets - Hartford's many beautiful and still affordable homes.

The lifestyle-friendly neighborhood of Parkville, for example - where residents can perform many tasks of daily living on foot with plenty of protective sidewalk - is a well-kept secret to anyone outside the immediate area, let alone nationwide. So is its burgeoning design district with planned street-level showrooms.

Similarly, why isn't someone leveraging the work already done by Karen O'Maxfield at http://hartford.omaxfield.com/neighborhoods.html (other than a link to her site from www.hartford.com)? Karen is a local graphic designer and photographer who does the best job online, thus far, of introducing outsiders to our neighborhoods. Full disclosure: Karen is a new friend and neighbor of mine. However, I discovered her website during a Google search in 2001 and thought, "Why don't we do more of this?"

The Web world is one I lived when I was the project manager for the development and launch of www.ctnow.com in 1999, when I worked full time for The Courant. It's a world I've lived daily since 2003 in my current job as managing editor of a company Intranet. We website developers don't create or market products in a vacuum. Knowing what our audience wants and needs is key to a successful website that people access frequently. Key to attracting new residents and visitors to our city is understanding what they want and need from it, which is functionality and community. But why guess when we can ask them directly?

Anecdotally, I know Hartford's target market (which is anyone who doesn't already live, work or play here) does not associate the word "play" with our capital city, despite how badly Hartford boosters would like to believe otherwise. That's a key - and missing - element from a city that aches to be a destination. We could begin to capture more formally what our target market wants. And the easiest, most cost-effective way would be through the Web. We could reach any former or would-be Hartford resident anywhere in the world.

The websites www.hartford.com or even www.courant.com could have links that ask, "Did you used to live in Hartford? Why did you leave?" And "Are you considering moving to the Hartford area? What information do you need to help make your decision?" The answers to these questions should be played back to the folks working to move this city along. Those answers would be more valuable to revitalization and marketing efforts than trying to position the city based on myopia.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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