This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Dylan Thuras: Thank you for that. Yeah, so, first off, I want to say thanks for having me here. I was really excited to come and be at this conference. I feel like for me Atlas Obscura has a special relationship with archivists, librarians, preservationists. They’re often the people who hold the keys to some of the greatest spaces in a country in the world, so I’m really excited to be here with you guys. Also, I live in a media world, an internet world, and like many of you know how to actually repair a fiberglass dinosaur or do other kinds of actual work, real preservation work, which is really exciting to talk to you guys about, so, thank you for having me. I’m a fan of what all of you do.
So, like I said, my talk is going be a little bit outside of the standard set of talks you’re hearing. It’s going go a little broader. It’s going talk more about kind of the general travel trends that I see going on and the way this will affect preservation work. I’ll tell you a little bit about myself and how Atlas Obscura came to exist and then at the end I’m going talk a little bit about maybe some methods or frameworks that you might use for getting people interested in a preservation project, since that’s sort of my area of expertise, is media, communication, that kind of stuff. So, hopefully there will be some interesting parts in there.
So, if you want to get the… If you want to send that up, I can … Yes? It should show up momentarily. Yeah, hi. Okay, so, first a little bit about myself and what Atlas Obscura is. So, I grew up in the Midwest. I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it was a great town to grow up in. As a kid, my family would take me on these enormous Midwestern style road trips which were like … It’s like six hours between each stop.
When I was about 12 we went on a particular trip that left a really lasting impression on me. So, we went to a place … On these trips we’d go to sort of these classic roadside stops. We’d go to the Corn Palace or Wall Drug, but the place that affected me most was a place called The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin. I saw a couple of … Okay, yeah, so if you are familiar with this, especially if you’ve been there, you may sort of understand what I’m talking about.
It’s hard to explain to people, but to give you a sampling of what this place is, it’s built around this kind of mythology, almost definitely all false. The guy who created the mythology, Fred Smith, who’s also an outsider artist, won the world’s champion lying competition, so it comes from questionable sources anyway, but the mythology is that this was built as a rebuke to Frank Lloyd Wright. The architect wanted to work for him, Alex Jordan Junior, and he went out there and Frank Lloyd Wright said, “I wouldn’t hire you to build a cheese crate or a chicken coop,” and he went home and he said, “I’m going build my own Frank Lloyd Wright house.”
So he built this, and you can see this coming a mile away, a sort of Frank Lloyd Wrong, if you will. So, there’s this house, but then this other thing starts happening. He starts gathering collections, buying things, actually working with a bunch of local artists. They didn’t think of themselves as a collective of artists but it’s effectively what they were. They started to build these other parts of the house. It takes about six hours to walk through and inside contains the world’s largest carousel, the world’s most diverse collection of carousel animals, a giant hallway that looks like it goes on forever and is actually like a huge unsupported point over the forest and a sculpture of a squid fighting a whale that’s the size of the statue of liberty.
These are just a few things that are in this house, and as a 12 year old, my mind sort of slowly melted out of my ears and I thought, “How is this possible?” I think that is the moment that I sort of set on this direction. So, I co-founded Atlas Obscura with my partner, Josh Foer, in 2009 and we consider our sort of reason to exist to help people experience a sense of wonder and curiosity. That same sort of magical feeling that I had when I visited the House on the Rock.
We do that in a few different ways now and it started out entirely as a passion project. We didn’t have a business plan. We just figured that … I was going go live in Eastern Europe and there wasn’t a good travel resource for the kind of stuff that we both cared about seeing, so we thought let’s make a place, a repository where we could put the things we knew about and other people could submit the things that they knew about, that it would be open for everyone to help build this.
So, today we do a number of things. We run … Let’s see … If I want to make a video play, what do I do? Well, it actually isn’t necessary to make this play. Anyway, okay. So, we run events. We have event chapters all over the country, and they do various types of things. This is an event we had at the Explorer’s Club. It was a sleepover and we were able to take out the collection and look at different things.
Actually, do you know how I can make these little videos play? They should auto-play.
Speaker 2: I’m not sure [inaudible 00:05:49].
Dylan Thuras: No, there’s no audio, but … Okay, that’s all right. So, anyway, the other thing to do, you can’t really see this, but up there at the very top of this, we also take people on international trips. This is a trip we took to Bulgaria to a place called Buzludzha, which is actually a place in desperate need of preservation. It might be the world’s greatest abandoned communist monument. It is this gigantic saucer-shaped concrete building that was abandoned in the ’90s and has slowly been falling into disrepair so we took a group of about 15 people there. We wrote this book and, as was stated, we have a kid’s book coming out at the end of this year that I’m really excited about. It’s sort of eight to 12 and hopefully it gets a young generation excited about exploring.
The thing that sort of is at the core of this is that each month people come to the site and they … Some people just come. They’re planning a trip. They’re interested. They come, and some of them say, “Oh, you know what? There’s this place that I grew up and it was like a mile away from my house and this belongs in the Atlas Obscura.” The people who sort of recognize what this is about help build the site, so that’s at the core of what we do and it creates this database of places.
If you’re unfamiliar with Atlas, what are these places? Going give a few examples that gives a good set of what we do. So, like, the Eiffel Tower, obviously, not a good match, but the tiny secret apartment that is at the top of the Eiffel Tower where Gustave Eiffel would take luminaries like Thomas Edison and they would have tea and look out over Paris. That’s a good example. Sometimes these places are kind of hiding in plain sight.
This is a place called Q’Eswachaka … I’m going try and make this play one more time. Anyway, so, this is a giant suspension bridge in Peru and it’s called the Q’Eswachaka Bridge or sometimes it’s called the last Incan bridge. The reason it’s called this is because it is basically a functional piece of the Incan highway system. It was a giant suspension bridge that is woven out of grass each year. Every year they have to take it down because it slowly rots in the elements and the four villages come together and they cut down all of this grass. It’s basically like hay, and they pound it with a rock and you wet it down, turn it into kind of a twine. Then you weave that into larger ropes and ultimately they create this unbelievable suspension bridge.
Besides just being an engineering marvel, the other thing that’s really incredible about it is it’s been remade this way for hundreds and hundreds of years. It is, today, made and cared for exactly as it was during the Incan empire. It is still a functional piece of essentially Incan infrastructure. So, this is an incredible place that’s very special to me. I wish we could see it. It’s quite terrifying, but you’ll have to imagine it. It’s sort of really swaying over a gorge.
This is a place called The Gates of Hell in Derweze, Turkmenistan. It looks a little bit like a natural phenomenon, like perhaps a volcanic crater. This is actually the result of an industrial accident. So, the 1970s, a Russian petroleum mining company was searching across Turkmenistan for places to drill for natural gas and they found it. There’s huge pockets of it under the desert. So, they set up their rig here. They punched through the crust and the entire rig fell in, creating this gigantic hole. They had sort of a secondary problem, which is that, leaking from this hole was deadly natural gas, explosive natural gas.
So they did the thing that I think they thought was sensible. They lit the hole on fire. They thought it would burn probably for a few weeks or a few months. It has been on fire for 45 years. You can see it on Google Maps. It’s like a little red dot in the middle of the desert, and so this is a good example of an Atlas Obscura location. This is another one that I like because it’s actually in a very touristed area. Very few people realize that it’s there. This is around the corner. This is in Florence, Italy. It’s around the corner from the Uffizi Museum where there’s always a four hour long line of bedraggled tourists sweating in the summer heat, waiting to get in, but if they went around the block, they’d find the Museum of the History of Science in Florence.
In this museum, among the armillary spheres and these giant telescopes, there’s a tiny human fragment. This is Galileo’s middle finger, and it was taken, snapped off of his body about a hundred years after he died by an admirer, by someone who wanted to venerate him the same way you might venerate a saint, and it kind of floated around for a while. Eventually the History of Science Museum gathered it. It sits in this little glass egg. The question you sort of have to ask yourself is Galileo was a believer. He believed in …
As far as his heresy, he actually believed in God and he saw the beauty of God in mathematics and science, so maybe this is pointing up to the heavens. On the other hand, he was put on house arrest for 20 years by the church, so maybe it’s pointing to some other part of Italy. It’s hard to say. That’s for the viewer to decide.
This is an example of a place that got submitted within the first couple of months of Atlas Obscura starting, and I think was a real crystallizing moment for me about what this could be and its sort of possibilities. This is a place in Cherrapunji, India, which is one of the wettest regions in the world. They get more rainfall than almost anywhere else, and it made a real challenge, which is that you couldn’t really build infrastructure. Stuff built out of wood would just wash away, so this was the kind of incredible engineering solution that was devised hundreds of years ago.
These are the living root bridges of Cherrapunji, India. So, what the solution was, was to take the roots of two, basically, rubber trees, graph them together over a period of about 15 years and they slowly grow together. They intertwine, and at the end of that time, they become strong enough for foot traffic and over the years, they only get stronger and stronger. When this was submitted to the site in 2009 there was almost nothing about these on the internet. We actually had a lot of trouble finding supporting material on these, because some wrote in and basically said, “I run a small bed and breakfast here. There are these incredible living bridges. No one knows they’re here and they’re falling into disrepair. They’re basically being replaced by quick to put up steel cable bridges. More of these are going disappear.
I’m really happy to say that since this time, they’ve become much more well known. They were featured on BBC Planet Earth and now they have a really sustainable tourism industry built up around them and in fact they are undertaking building a new root bridge, a new double decker root bridge like this that should be ready in about 15 years. One of the interesting things to note about this is the reason that this is a double decker, the reason for that second level is because that is where the river goes during the rainy season, so the whole bottom level just gets completely submerged, and is fine for it. It’s an incredible place.
That’s what Atlas Obscura does, but how does this affect the work of preservationists focused on American locations? Let me sort of walk through why I think this matters. In doing this work, I’ve sort of gotten a sense of what’s going on in the larger tourism landscape, and tourism is changing and it’s changing very quickly. The motivating factor for most tourists these days is about having sort of unique, meaningful experiences. That’s becoming a more and more important part of travel, and travelers have … Everyone has their phone in their pocket. You have a thousand different sites you can go to. It can be honestly overwhelming, but there’s just a glut of information out there, and people are seeking these sort of unique experiences wherever they go.
But interestingly, and I would say this is sort of becoming the fundamental unit of travel. These kinds of experiences and kind of stories that people can bring back. This is one of the reasons that sort of travel agencies have suffered is because people aren’t happy to get given the same trip that 20 other people had, for the most part. One of the interesting things is that most people aren’t actually traveling the world. Domestic travel still makes up 85 percent of US vacations, and road trips have been increasing over the last couple of years.
It creates this kind of interesting paradox. You have these hyper-informed travelers who are wanting unique, sharable experiences, and I don’t actually think … Sometimes this gets laid at the feet of millennials only. I actually don’t think that’s quite right. Judging from what I can see via Atlas Obscura and other travel sites, a change is happening across sort of demographic range. So yeah, so you have these hyper-informed travelers who want unique experiences but are taking road trips, are traveling in the US, and I think that makes a sweet spot and that sweet spot is the backyard wonder, which the US is rife in incredible places that are going overlooked. All of us. Every single place, every single town has some incredible place, incredible story that is being ignored or not celebrated in the way that it probably should be.
I grabbed a few along Route 66 because this was such a big part of this conference. These are the guardian lions of Route 66. These are not in the same category as some of the other stuff because they only showed up, it’s hard to say, it’s all very mysterious, but sometime around 2011, these giant, multi-ton marble lions appeared, one after the other, along Route 66. To this day, how they got there, who put them there, why they put them there, is a total mystery, but they’ve sort of started to gain their own little culture.
People show up and there are these log books and they copy them down and then people will take pictures of the log books so that if one of the log books disappeared, they will recreate the log book so that the next person has this kind of unbroken experience of these crazy guardian lions. It’s a very small example but it’s sort of one little, magical place in Amboy, California.
This is the Glenrio Ghost Town that straddles the border of New Mexico and Texas. Even though Glenrio’s population never was more than a dozen, because it was on Route 66, it spawned all of these motels and diners and it had this whole beautiful little town, but once Interstate 40 showed up, basically it slowly faded into nothing and now it sits here, completely abandoned and sort of in this state of disrepair, but it’s a beautiful example of this kind of glorious past of Route 66 that a lot of people here want to preserve and celebrate, as do I.
Another quick example is the Twin Arrows Trading Post. These giant arrows are all that remain, basically, of what was a campground and a larger site, but … What happened is these were built in the 1940s as the Canyon Padre Trading Post. The store changed its name to Twin Arrows inspired by the town of Two Guns kind of trying to compete. The arrows were built, but again, Interstate 40 sort of left these behind, and so this is all that remains and in their sort of derelict state. There are some particular complications with preserving these. I don’t know if there’s someone here who’s super familiar with this site, but the ownership is complicated.
Then near here, sort of just next door, this is Ella’s Frontier Trading Post, which is this abandoned trading post made from old telephone poles. Speaking to kind of the unusual construction methods along Route 66, this is a good example of that. It was owned by a former circus clown, taxidermist, sometimes poet, Frederick “San Diego” Rawson. It was built in 1927 and eventually sold to a Hawaiian bandleader and his wife, Ella Blackwell. They divorced. Ella got this, which is why it’s Ella’s Trading Post.
She was a former Julliard student. She would play piano for travelers and then in later years sort of for mysterious non-corporeal travelers. She would go and play for imaginary people and animals and then since here death in 1984, it’s been basically sitting here and slowly rotting away. There is so much story in this building, like a former circus clown sold to a Hawaiian bandleader. It may not be the most … It’s not like you see this and you go, “Oh my God, this place is amazing,” but once you understand its background, it sort of transforms and becomes a site that you would really want to go and experience.
I think that’s true of a lot of places along Route 66 and a lot of the places that I’m talking about. It takes kind of providing that context to really create the experience of travel, and that is sort of what all of this is about. So, I’m going give you an example of a surprising success story. This is a place in Tonopah, Nevada. It’s been around since the ’90s and for a very long time it was basically just a small hotel in the sort of last stop before you’re in the desert town of Tonapah, which is a cool town. It has a bunch of interesting stuff in it, but no one really is like … Yeah, it was just there. The people who knew about it were truckers and bikers.
The graveyard is actually really, in some ways, more interesting than the Clown Motel, but people kind of started to lose their mind. Suddenly it was like, “Oh my God, there’s a clown motel,” and so an interesting thing happened. It wasn’t just that the internet got excited. People started to make a pilgrimage to the Clown Motel. There’s a whole video of people making a pilgrimage to Clown Motel, but suffice to say, tons of people made a special trip. It’s four hours outside of Las Vegas, but people would drive the whole way, they would stay in Tonapah, they would stay at the Clown Motel or they would just take a selfie there and stay at the other … The Mizpah which is like the nicer but still haunted hotel.
It made a huge difference. In sort of talking about the difference that a small amount of tourism can make to a town, Tonopah is only 2,500 people, so that amount of tourism, people coming in to see, say they’ve been to the Clown Motel, it makes a huge difference to all the other local businesses. The only reason it happened is because this story got told, and it got told in a way that people could really get excited about. It had obviously a good hook, and I think the thing is not that the Clown Motel is so special, but that we can get better at telling stories that make people excited about the places that deserve to be saved and celebrated.
The larger context of this is that this is happening in huge ways across travel. This is Dark Hedges in Ireland. Ireland is seeing its travel, its tourism explode in an insane way, largely because of Game Of Thrones. You might notice that there’s a Game Of Thrones type person in this photo. This is a traveler. It’s a subset of tourism. It’s like a kind of cosplay tourism, so people are going. They bring their outfits or you can even meet up with people who will give you outfits, and they go to the Dark Hedges. So, this has actually been a huge boon to Ireland’s tourism. Game Of Thrones obviously is about the biggest platform you can get short of Star Wars, which is also in Ireland, so now they’re sort of figuring out how to deal with the mass of people who want to go to Skellig Michael. They’re doing actually a pretty good job of managing this.
Point being is that media, and obviously this is at the largest scale, but at a smaller scale, like the Clown Motel, can have a real impact on actual travel, on the choices people make, on the economies of these places. Even things that you might not thing would have an effect have an effect, like In Bruges increased the foot traffic to Bruges. People saw the movie and they were like, “Yeah, Bruges.” Like, “Okay, let’s go up there …” So, even stuff that you might not think would have an effect does, because the way people make their choices about travel is not … It’s about the stories. It’s about the things that sort of fill them with that sense of wonder and longing and excitement, and those are both the things that … what people plan their travel around and what they want to take away from their travel as well. I just think these are worthwhile things to keep in mind.
For a second I actually want to talk about … Obviously media can have both a good and bad effect. There is a dark side to the way that media and travel can kind of intersect. So, this is in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia, and very popular site. Beautiful Barcelona. This is lovely Dubrovnik, Croatia, another incredible place. This is Venice. All beautiful, wonderful places, exotic locations, except that they are terrible, terrible destinations to go to, for the most part. Depends a little bit on when you go there, but Venice has 60,000 visitors come to Venice every day. Venice is tiny. That is more than the number of people who live in Venice, so the effect on the town has been largely, truly destructive.
This is sort of one of the negative effects of the media travel loop can get stuck in these cycles where people are like, “Oh, yeah, Venice, it’s going be … How could I not go to Venice?” Then they go and actually they have a terrible experience. It’s bad for the place. It’s bad for preservation because it’s very hard on the … Venice is sinking into the water in part just because of all of this constant traffic. Barcelona gets 750 cruise ships disembark on Barcelona. People are getting upset. The interaction between travelers and the locals is getting pretty acrimonious, and for fair reason.
Some of these are failures of policy and failures in other ways, but this is sort of … When media and travel gets broken, this is what it looks like. This is Debrovnik where a walk through the old town center can take 40 minutes. That’s like worse even than Times Square. It’s unbelievable, sort of the negative effects that can have this kind of feedback can create. You can see the reactions here. I particularly like this sign.
So, you know, overcrowding and over-tourism are a genuine problem. They’re an increasing problem that needs to be dealt with. They are a problem for residents and they create a particularly terrible experience for travelers. The estimate is that 2 billion people are expected to travel internationally by 2030, and with significantly more people traveling domestically. That’s just an incredible movement of people, and I think what I’m trying to get at is that this can go well or it can go poorly depending on the ways in which we engage people and the kinds of stories we tell and the kind of places we choose to talk about.
One last thing. It’s slightly off topic but I think it’s worth noting, is that there’s another consequence of all this international travel and it’s one that I think people don’t love to think about, but obviously flights have a real impact on emissions and so, like, last year there was a huge improvement in coal emissions but a lot of those gains were canceled out by international flights. I think it’s something people are sort of waking up to and people don’t want to grapple with it, but I will say, if you take an efficient car, especially if you fill that car with people, that is four to five times more efficient than taking a flight. So, road trips are actually not just a great American pastime. They are the environmental choice. So, cram everyone into one car and hit the road. You can feel good about yourself.
If you’ve got a hybrid, you’re like better than a Greyhound bus, which, you know … I mean, a lot of things are better than a Greyhound bus, but, you know. This is to sort of come back around … This is why the Blue Whale of Catoosa and the Clown Museum and other sites like this on Route 66 can save the world, and why they’re such an important part of the travel landscape. Sending people to these kinds of locations … The irony is while Venice is being trampled into the ocean, there are incredible locations all over the world that are slowly disappearing, because there is not enough support. There’s not enough people who care about them. There isn’t the structure to help them maintain in the world.
So, by getting people out to places like the Blue Whale or other locations, you not only, especially if you’re road tripping, it’s environmental, but more than that, you’re helping with tourist dispersal. You’re helping spread that money around, and it’s a better experience for the traveler. They get to have this great, weird, amazing, interesting experiences. I genuinely believe that the kinds of places that everyone here is interested in saving are important, not just to be saved for themselves but are important to help create a diverse and interesting tourism landscape in the US and to help solve some of these other kinds of problems that are arising.
Yeah, from Atlas Obscura’s perspective, you might think … I think sometimes people are like, “But aren’t you just going create this problem at the Blue Whale? Isn’t it going be filled with so many people that it gets destroyed?” It’s like, yes. You have to be thoughtful about how you go about managing tourism, but 99 out of 100 … I might even say 999 out of 1,000, the problem is that places are under-loved, not loved to death, and when things are being loved to death, there are things you can do. There are ways to manage it, but if something … If no one is there to save a place, then it just quietly slips away and that’s sort of one of the great shames of the world.
I would say that I think there’s an opportunity here because, as I said, although international travel is sort of sexy and interesting, most people are still traveling domestically and millennial families in particular are making their decisions around locations, around … They’re sort of going to theme parks less and less and planning more around art museums and interesting … What do I have in here? Museums and art.
Yeah, yeah, so just different kinds of destinations and particularly destinations that have that sort of unique and amazing appeal, which a lot of the stuff that everyone here is interested … You know, roadside architecture is that thing, so I think there’s a real opportunity to communicate the value of traveling to these places and to tell these stories in a way that is going excite people and get them to go there instead of Dubrovnik.
Now I’m going sort of get into the other part of this presentation and quickly … Look, probably everyone here is well versed in all of this, but this is the sort of … Newsletters, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Patreon, Kickstarter, YouTube, influencers. It’s sort of the part of this that I think a lot of people who get into preservation … It’s like not the part people got in to be excited about, you know? Like the media part is kind of like, “Oh, do I have to do a Facebook? Is that like a part of this?” Yes, I think it is a part of it, and I think the reason is because attention is nearly as precious as money, because attention is what can help transform a place. It’s what can help keep it in the world.
I believe that every preservation campaign should also be a media campaign. It should include a real plan of what story you want to tell, how you want to tell it, what platforms you’re going use. This is a place just outside of Detroit called Hamtramick Disneyland. It’s an outsider art project roadside architecture, but it was saved by a great media campaign and a local arts organization that was able to come together, raise 100,000 dollars and basically buy the house, and so now they run this incredible place. It would’ve been just as easy for it to be torn down and replaced with something else.
The other kind of piece of this is it’s not about being a social media expert. Sometimes I think this stuff comes across of, like, it’s all about knowing every in and out of Facebook, and I think that’s the wrong approach. The approach is that it’s about finding your community. This is Bats Day at Disneyland, so it’s like the goth day at Disneyland. As a former goth, I identify. You know, it’s about finding the people who are going care and help you maintain the thing that you are there to maintain, and figuring out who those people are and how you can best communicate with them.
So, in terms of real, practical advice, I’ve already said this, but a great simple story, and I think it’s … Especially if you really know and really love a place, can be a little bit hard because you’re kind of like, “Well, there’s this, and in 1942, this thing happened and then 1970 …” You know, and that’s great to know but I think it’s important to figure out how you kind of make the elevator pitch version of your project, and it can feel reductive, but I think it is important to be able to communicate why a place is important.
Sometimes what that means is just figuring out what the simple narrative is. It has to be a little more than this place just should be saved. It’s helpful, I think, if it has a character. The character might be you and your sort of process of discovery and awakening to the value of the location. It might be a historical character. It might be the circus clown who owned Ella’s Frontier, but to tell that story in a way that makes someone want to tell someone else that story is a really powerful tool. So, figuring out how to kind of craft a simple story is important and it’s what you can galvanize a community around.
Make a media spreadsheet. This seems like it’s very basic, boring advice. I’m sure everyone is already on top of this, but I do feel like figuring out who you want to communicate with, whether it’s a list of Instagrammers or local newspapers or radio … Whatever it is, sort of really building out that and starting small and kind of going out, I think you can work your way up to national media, but, like, just figuring out who am I trying to talk to is a really important first step, So, like, building a great media spreadsheet is a nice way to begin.
Then a landing page. Once you’ve built your medias, you’ve got your story, you’ve got your media spreadsheet, you’re able to get on the local news, sending people to a simple landing page with one major actionable item is really helpful. Making it simple for people to get on board to help you, whether that’s a petition to save a place or having people write letters to a local politician or whatever that action is, it’s going depend on your particular campaign, but I think driving people to a simple landing page with an actionable item is really essential because it’s so easy to lose people somewhere along that process, and the more direct you make it, the better.
I’m a very firm believer in this. It is better to have a hundred true believers than 10,000 casual supporters. A hundred true believers can move mountains. They can save a place. They’re the people who will show up at the crack of dawn and raise their fist to the sky and help you save the location or do the work, the actual, physical work that needs to be done. Whatever, a hundred true believers is the most valuable thing, you know? 10,000 people who are kind of like, “Cool,” doesn’t get you anything ultimately when it comes down to it. It’s not as valuable, so I think it’s really about focusing, when you think about your story and you think about your media campaign, how do I reach the people who are going care the most and then how do I galvanize them to really get involved?
Again, I know a lot of people have already … This is old news, but I’m always shocked when I’m dealing with some of these places. It can be … I so desperately want these kinds of places to stay in the world and sometimes it’s surprising. These are not things that are sort of natural for people, so, this is a kind of whole quick list of things.
Obviously there’s a whole side of this, of like your local politicians, who controls the ability to save this place. That is a side of this that I’m not going speak to because I know less about it, but I think even from a media perspective, you can use your platforms to give the person who sort of holds the power over this place a chance to kind of, like, you know, “Yeah, I saved that wonderful building.” There’s ways to kind of use those platforms to nudge your local elected official into helping you. Honey works better at first, but then, later, vinegar works too.
This is my perspective. Newsletters. They’re slow to build, so it’s kind of a slog. You’re just getting emails. It can kind of feel like, “Okay, I added 12 more people,” but over time I think they’re one of the most valuable channels because newsletters … You don’t have to keep acquiring those people. On Facebook or on other platforms, every time you try and communicate, you, in a lot of ways, have to reacquire your audience. Newsletters, that’s not true. People open their email 12 days later, you know? Whereas if they didn’t see the tweet, it’s gone, so I think newsletters are just one of the best media tools there is. Twitter can be super noisy. It’s difficult to break through. I mean, I’m sure people are using it effectively, but I am less … I’m more skeptical of Twitter in this particular environment.
I think Instagram is a huge boon to preservationists because it’s such a visual medium, and influencers are, even though it’s kind of like an eye rolling term, I think they can be a huge asset, because often times influencers, especially on Instagram, are like 24 year olds who just want to go do cool stuff, and if you’re like, “Hey, do you want to go see this cool place and I’ll tell you about the history of it,” I think you’d be surprised at how easy it is to work with influencers on Instagram. I would skip Snapchat. It’s a lot of work and hard to gain audience.
You have to make daily time. That’s just a piece of it. Don’t worry about banning people. Ban away. If they’re jerks twice, it’s fine. Try and do this stuff in this … In your media projects, try and do stuff that you enjoy. So, if you enjoy taking great photos on Instagram, make that part of your focus, because if it’s a real slog and you hate it, it’s going be hard to do. It’s not free. Even though the platforms are kind of … They’re free, it takes time, it takes expertise and often times you really want to gain audience, you have to spend, especially on Facebook. It’s a place where it’s particularly pay to play, so it’s worth thinking about if you have a budget and how you want to spend.
It doesn’t have to be huge. The difference of 20 dollars on a Facebook post can make a big impact. Measure your results. Figure out what’s working. Figure out where you’re gaining traction and then double down on those things. All this is sort of intuitive. This is my favorite. Throw a party. It’s like one of the things that Atlas does that galvanizes our community most completely and it’s just creating a chance for people to … Once you’ve got your hundred true believers, get them in a place, get them drinks. Hang out, talk about it. That will be the thing that knits everyone together and creates that core group that’s going do the work that you need to do, so throwing a party is one of the best possible things. This is Salvation Mountain in California.
Ultimately all of this stuff is just tools. They’re all just … None of them are necessary. You could run an incredible media preservation campaign and not use any of these things. It’s more about what your needs are, how you’re going build that core community and that’s what’s going determine what you should do. So, basically the major takeaways from this that I want people to think about are sort of creating that community and creating those stories and, you know, the reason I sort of harp on this core community thing so much is that this is entirely what made Atlas Obscura possible. It would not exist without that group of people coming together and daily, still, sort of saying, “We’re going help build this. This is what we want this to be in the world,” and yeah, I think that figuring out how to tell your simple story and finding the community to amplify that is the core of all this.
So, I’m going end with a final story, and it’s a story that I’d like to tell just because I feel like it encapsulates an idea that I think is important to me. A few years ago I was traveling in South America. It’s when I went to the Q’Esewchaka in Peru. This was also in Peru. It’s a place called Gocta Falls. It’s in the Amazonas region of Peru and at the base of this large waterfall, there’s this tiny town, Gocta, and for the longest time … This had only just changed when we were there. For the longest time, Gocta didn’t have roads, like good roads, to it. It didn’t have electricity. It was desperately in need of tourism and support from the government.
Then in 2005, it just so happened that a German hiker was going through the area and he looked at this waterfall and he was like, “Huh, that is a very tall waterfall. I wonder how tall that is,” so he went and asked. No one had measured it. They said, “We actually don’t know how tall the waterfall is,” so he came back next year, 2006, and he brought surveying equipment and he measured this waterfall. Also, that’s the most German thing I can possibly imagine. He was like, “I will come back and measure and then we will know.”
So, it turns out, by depending on how you define it, but this is the third tallest waterfall in the world, and it this was discovered in 2006. I went there in 2010 and part of the question that I wanted to answer was why hadn’t this town sort of celebrated this thing that was right there, literally in their backyard? The locals said basically, “We knew it was amazing. We knew it was interesting and beautiful, but, you know, against all the other wonders in the world, how amazing was it? Eventually we just stopped noticing it.”
I think that, for me, the lesson is that all of us, wherever we are, live at the base of Gocta Falls. There is something in our own backyard that is wondrous and amazing, and maybe it’s not so obviously wondrous and amazing. Maybe it’s Ella’s Trading Post, but there’s something incredible that deserves to be celebrated, deserves to have its story told and deserved to be saved, preserved and made possible for generations to come and do the same. So, that’s my presentation. Thank you so much for having me and I’m happy to answer some questions.
Speaker 3: Thank you, Dylan. First question?
Speaker 4: So, I’m curious, podcast listenership has really risen in the past few years, so I was wondering if you had any theories or suggestions on how that could be used as a storytelling tool for a site maybe? Is there a podcast that covers some of the types of sites that are on Atlas Obscura or is there any merit in creating your own even if it’s just a mini-version or anything like that?
Dylan Thuras: I think there is merit in creating your own, because they’re relatively low lift, production-wise. You need some stuff, but it’s something that someone can do themselves. Yeah, and I think there are … I’m trying to think of what the best … Bizarre States, which is out of California and part of the Nerdist Network. It covers a lot of unusual sites, although not from a preservationist angle. They do a lot more haunted stuff, which is a whole other talk about …
Anyway, almost certainly, I think you could find … I mean, even something like All Things Considered is a potential outlet if you can kind of get access to the right producers and stuff, and that can be the challenge, but I totally agree. I didn’t have podcast on this list, but I think that’s a really great way to tell stories about places. I think that’s awesome, yeah.
Speaker 4: Just a brief followup, the trends that you’ve seen in travel, as you seeing any similar trends in how people really respond to receiving those stories? If you have a limited budget and you think, “Okay, so, I could create an audio tour or I could do an interpretive panel,” are you seeing any sort of trends or preferences?
Dylan Thuras: About where you’re going get the best bang for your buck?
Speaker 4: Right, yeah.
Dylan Thuras: I mean, the rise of Instagram is no joke. It is going eat the world. I think Facebook is receding for a bunch of complicated reasons. I mean, some of them are very active right now, but Facebook, as a tool, is losing some of its value. It’s gotten only harder and harder to get organic reach on Facebook, which used to be easier. You could be a relatively small organization and really … They’ve made it more and more difficult. You have to spend more and more against it to make it happen.
Instagram, some of that’s true, but I think there’s an easier path to building your community, communicating, and because Instagram is so visual, it feels to me … If I had a campaign to run tomorrow, I would probably focus on Instagram and newsletters. Those would be my tools that feel like they would provide the most return, and, like, again, influencers, as much as it kind of can … It’s slightly wince inducing, if you can get someone with 50,000 Instagram followers to come and do a tour of your location, that’s a huge opportunity and I think it’s worth investigating for these kinds of campaigns.
Speaker 4: Thanks.
Speaker 5: Kind of a followup to that, I was interested, have you seen a transition now with the advancement of augmented reality and virtual reality tours for either mass tour sites or these more obscure sites, how that’s affecting your readership to Atlas Obscura or just in general across tourism across the board of … A lot of the standpoint is, for Venice, is do a virtual tour and you don’t have to go, but there is a downside to that too.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah. So, I’m super excited about VR and AR and Atlas has a VR app that exists on the Gear VR headset. It’s such a weird fractured market and, like, mostly it’s still gamers. I think it’s hard to get it in front of people. It’s hard to do well. I think augmented reality has a huge, huge role to play, but, like, 10 years from now. Five years from now, maybe, depending. I think there are ways you could do really amazing things with historical information and other educational tools via augmented reality, but right now, I would say putting money into VR, it’s cool bit it’s going be really hard to get … It’s just hard to get in front of people. It is just hard to get. You’ve either got to have the headset and put it on or you’ve got to really be like, “Here’s the cardboard. Put your phone in.”
It’s just a steep hill to climb still. I think that’ll start to change over the next few years, but unless you have a specific reason for doing it … It’s fun, so if you want to … You could do it for that reason, but I think it’s a tough way to gain a large audience right now.
Speaker 5: Thank you.
Speaker 6: I was just going follow up on that. I just worked on a project with Pulaski Heights Middle School where they just did augmented reality on a plane crash that took out several neighborhoods in Little Rock, but it was free. They were the ones that worked on it. It’s getting history into the elementary school and had them sort of work on it in the background plus they gain excitement about it, so working through ESLAB and different programs like that, to be able to get that done, is another avenue to sort of approach that situation.
Dylan Thuras: I know Google has a VR education initiative where they’re getting cardboard into schools and providing educational content. It’s not that there’s no avenues, but I still … It does still feel … I would be interested to know what the viewership numbers on the AR app is. I’m not sure what the delivery method was, but yeah, it’s super cool. I think in a couple years it will become a much larger part of this conversation.
Speaker 7: There’s been so much written about the death of retail. Malls are dying and we need more Main Street communities and all of that. I’m kind of curious how you see that intersecting with the tourism trends. Are those happening at the same time or what … How do those connect?
Dylan Thuras: Yeah, I mean I think it’s part of the same shift in … I don’t even know what quite the framework to put on it, but I think the desire for the authentic, which sometimes you have to put in quotes because it’s kind of like, is it really authentic? Like a strip mall’s also authentic, but the desire for sort of individual places that feel a part of their location is increasing both in kind of like the local and international sense. Again, I think part of it’s just access to information. The rise of being able to sort of have a billion options and Yelp and Google.
People are just more savvy and they want to do stuff and experience stuff that feels real, you know? I think as retail, like as the sort of … all the changes, big box retail, that sort of starts to … The convenience of that starts to die because it’s just more convenient, you know? That you see the rise of indie bookshops again. Everyone talked about the death of the indie bookshop, but in fact it’s sort of the middle players. It’s the Barnes and Nobles who are struggling, and the indie shops are doing really well, so I think actually that kind of smaller local business is poised for a real rise. That’ll apply to both sort of Main Streets and international destinations.
Speaker 3: Next question?
Speaker 8: I’m kind of curious of how you decide on what sites to put on your website. I noticed one slide you had almost 400 sites of just in April, so I’m kind of curious just how you process … How many folks do you decide and that type of thing.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah, yeah. So, it’s a little bit like you know it when you see it kind of thing. It’s hard to define, exactly, but usually there’s a great story. Something surprising. Sometimes it’s more visually oriented, sometimes it’s more story oriented, but the way it works is basically we get this … People submit stuff and it varies wildly in kind of completeness and quality, so it can be two sentences and no photos or like a whole written up thing. Then we have an editorial team that just works on that part of the business, the places piece, so they fact check stuff, they make sure the photos are the right … Whether they’re … [inaudible 00:52:54] IF the person is actually saying, “Yes, I took these photos” or we find usable public domain or creative common share a link photos.
So, yeah. So, we publish about 400 … We’re just creeping up to about 15,000 for the total database and we’re publishing around 400 places a month. That’s about right. It varies slightly, but yeah, and the criteria are all over the place. It’s weird little museums. It’s outsider art. It’s roadside architecture. It’s a lot about telling stories. I mean, a lot of it just has to do … Is there a story to tell here that people are going be excited about?
Speaker 3: I have a question.
Dylan Thuras: Sure.
Speaker 3: Tell us a little more about your Atlas Obscura events, because I see that you have events that you post.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah, so we … There’s two things we do. The events pieces, we have nine chapters around the country right now, soon to be more, but New York, LA, DC, Philly, Chicago, Denver, Portland, Seattle and somewhere else. Anyway, and so, in these cities … It varies wildly, but in LA we run like 20 plus events a month. We put on a lot of events and there’s a full time person and a staff that just works on LA events. Those events are like the Atlas Obscura places. We go to a Santa Muerte shrine where sort of this new, emergent religious figure is being celebrated or we take a tour of a great dam failure, so it’s all kinds of different stuff in terms of the events, but in Philly it’s like we do like six events a month. It varies in kind of scale and scope, but the idea is to put our money where our mouth is and actually help people go experience these places.
And, if any of you have locations where you want to work with us on an event, we would love to do that. We’re always looking for new places to take people. The other part of it is we also now do these trips too, so we take these week or two week long trips to places all over the world.
Speaker 3: Other questions?
Speaker 9: Thanks. Great talk, very inspiring. Have you had any situations where the locals have said, “Please don’t discover me”?
Dylan Thuras: Once in a while. Yeah, there’s a …
Speaker 9: What do you do in that case?
Dylan Thuras: There’s like a few different levels. We have the option, and sometimes we do this on our own end to de-list it off the map. So, basically it exists as information but not geolocated and without any instructions on how to get there because the place is particularly fragile. Once in a while we’ve had … We had an interesting one. It was a little bit contentious. Some very, very wealthy people have a giant, four story, three story giant metal bear with a lamp and you can see it from a public road, and they wrote in saying, “De-list it because we don’t want people driving on the road,” and that inspired a lot of internal debate about what …
So, we ended up looking up the … It got settled because we looked up the designation of the road and actually the road is not theirs but it’s someone else’s. It’s private, so we were like, “Okay, we’ll take it off.” It’s case by case. It’s pretty rare, but yeah, if we think it’s a bad idea to send people there, we’ll just not add that information, and if someone writes in and has a real reason to take it off, we’ll absolutely do that. It’s just sort of do no … You know, we have a kind of, like, “do no harm” philosophy.
Speaker 9: So, following up, then, do you actually run metrics on what’s been happening to a place as a result of the listing?
Dylan Thuras: This is the thing that we haven’t done enough of. I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. I talk to various locations and I have sort of that, but what we don’t have yet is real, hard foot traffic numbers, so besides sort of saying, “How often do people come in and say Atlas Obscura, they got here because of Atlas Obscura,” which we know for a number of sites, we don’t have … It’s hard data to collect. It’s hard data to figure out did they see it on the site and then did they go there a year later? It’s a difficult problem to solve, but we’re working on it. We really want to figure out what the actual … Even if it’s just a handful of case studies, we really want to get real solid numbers around that, because it’s a good question.
Speaker 9: Yeah, thanks.
Speaker 3: Other questions?
Dylan Thuras: Thanks everybody, really nice talking to you.
Dylan Thuras is the co-founder of Atlas Obscura, a multimedia company and “Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders” visited by over 5 million monthly users, co-author of NY Times #1 best seller Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, and author of the forthcoming kids book “The Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid.”
Dylan has spoken at conferences including SXSW, DMAI, and TEDxVerona about discovery, wonder, and changing nature of travel. Dylan lives in Rosendale, NY with his wife Michelle, his three year old son Finn, and new addition to the household, daughter Jean.