This past summer, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's 2012 Greenway Sojourn along the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal towpath was a great opportunity to talk with local business owners about just how much the trail traffic helps their business, and things they have been able to do to attract more bikers and hikers off the trail and into their stores.
Some of the things they said surprised me; others were common-sense business principles of accessibility and exposure. Here're a few tips on how to make trail traffic work for your business:
Without a doubt, signage on or near the trail directing trail users to nearby businesses was the biggest discussion point among business owners. Those who had good signage credited it for their success. Those who didn't, lamented it. Your diner might be within 100 feet of the trail, but if passing traffic can't see you or don't know you're there, you may as well be miles away.
Of course, it's not as simple as going out there and staking your own sign like a candidate in election season. Regulations on signage will depend on who owns and manages the trail corridor. The C&O Canal, for example, is managed by the National Park Service, so there are tight restrictions on commercial signage. But on the North Central State Trail in Michigan, on the other hand, you will see regular signage to nearby food and lodging establishments, and as a result the trail is a consistent source of tourism revenue for the communities along its route all year long.
If you are keen to explore the signage options on your local trail, the first thing you need to do is find out who manages it. If you're not sure, Google the name of the trail, find a 'friends group,' or ask your local parks department. You can also reach out to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy for help in determining which agency or organization is responsible for managing a particular trail. What I can tell you is that the businesses I spoke with near a trail reported a significant increase in customers after the installation of appropriate trail signage.
Another option is to talk with your local chamber of commerce or main street group about a trailside map or information board. Cyclists and hikers love those large, wooden boards or kiosks near the trailhead or entrance to the town as a quick and easy way to find out what's available to eat, and how to get there. Forming a partnership of local businesses, and if possible including the local governing body, is a great way to raise the money and get a sign made. If you got some basic computer skills, talk to your local trail group about an online map which highlights where the closest places are to get food, a bed, or any trail-related services.
Be a part of the trail community
Sure, it's a generalization, but it's pretty accurate to say that most cyclists, hikers and runners prefer to support the businesses that support them and their trail—the stores that are part of "the team." There are a few—mostly fun—ways to show this support for your local pathway. You can sponsor a section of the trail through regular clean-ups and maintenance events. Some trail managers run official "sponsorship" programs, but if you're trail doesn't offer this program don't let it stop you from getting out there with some shears and a broom (and in t-shirts with your business logo on them) with your own working bee. Post community notices inviting people to join you. Throw a free bike wash at the trailhead one busy weekend morning, or perhaps grill a few sausages one lovely autumn afternoon. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Trails are, after all, community spaces, and anywhere people gather there are opportunities to entertain and engage them.
You can bet that anywhere there is a well-used trail, there will be a 'friends group,' a bike or jogging blog, a Facebook page for volunteers, or a Google group for organizing rides and walks. Get online and get involved—join the friends group, start posting interesting tidbits to the bike blog, and show the trail community that you're one of them. If there's a fun-run or race, sponsor a prize. Host a bike-repair workshop in your store or screen the latest mountain-bike movie. This kind of community outreach may take a few years to pay dividends, but being an integral part of the local trail community will eventually be worth far more to your store than any one-day sale.
Hikers and runners don't need much in the way of facilities to allow them to visit your store (though a water fountain is always a good idea). But cyclists do. The first thing you'll need is a bike rack—somewhere safe and convenient where riders can leave their bikes. (The same is true of having a hitching post for equestrians if your trail sees regular horse use.) Your local chamber of commerce or trail group may have a discount or grant program for businesses to buy bike racks—many communities do. Otherwise, check in with your neighborhood bike shop. In Cumberland, Md., for example, the local bike shop offers an at-cost discount to all other local businesses on products, such as bike racks, that help promote trails tourism.
Many of the restaurateurs and café owners I spoke with said they had found cyclists and long-distance hikers had a specific preference of food—simple, hearty and healthy. Being that many trail users will be visiting from out of town, locally sourced produce is always a good selling point, too. Oh, and cyclists in particular are CRAZY for ice cream, particularly during summer rides. And good beer. Guest houses reported a similar philosophy—no frills, just the basic comforts, and a nice breakfast.
If you're in a remote town, think what a tired and sweaty trail traveler would love to see when he or she shows up in your town. Own a bar or restaurant? How about a washer and dryer out the back so riders can do a load of washing? It's a great way to keep them in your business, eating, drinking or browsing, while their clothes dry. So is making outlets available for charging phones, GPS units and other devices. Wireless Internet is an obvious bonus for trail users coming in from the wild, and one bike store owner I met with said riders really appreciate the 24-hour local weather channel he has on in the store. And how about a hose so riders can clean their bikes? Inexpensive, simple, but much appreciated.
Sounds obvious, right? But when the 2012 Sojourn bought 250 riders through Maryland and Pennsylvania, in a number of towns we passed through our hungry and thirsty riders found ice cream parlors and diners closed, sticking to their regular hours but missing an enormous influx of business. Other businesses made sure they were open, changed their hours and put on extra staff for our arrival, and they did a roaring trade as a result. Part of this preparation is the responsibility of the ride organizers to sent plenty of advance notice, and then the chambers of commerce and city staff to make sure their main streets know when large tours and events are coming to town. But many businesses are more proactive. In Hancock, Md., the owner of C&O Bicycle says he scours the Web for news about upcoming trail tours. And on the day of the Sojourn, he sent his young son up the trail to offer information and directions to the cyclists. Simple, inexpensive and very effective.
Being open at the right time is not just important for businesses near remote, destination-type trails. My bike commute into downtown Washington, D.C., takes me right past a bike store that has a juice bar and café. On weekend morning I run along the trail, along with hundreds of other people. Problem is, the store doesn't open until 11 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends, too late for the large morning commute crowd or the weekend exercisers. If your store is by a popular commuting route, figure out a way to make a fast, and convenient, reason for people traveling to work to stop in.
When a long-maligned water fountain along the Capital Crescent Trail was shut off this summer, the owners of a local café saw an opportunity. They put up a sandwich board sign near the disabled bubbler that read: "Trail users—I don't know why they shut off this water fountain! But if you're thirsty you can get bottles of water at my café, just up the road at…" You get the idea. Particularly along new or developing trails, there are often opportunities to connect your business to these fantastic community amenities. In New York, a neighborhood bakery offers discounts to people who arrive by bike—a great way to endear yourself to the local bike community.
There is not much an established business can do about securing a trailside location (short of building a new trail in front of their shop!), but existing trails still present a great opportunity for savvy entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners. When the Greenway Sojourn passed through Cumberland in 2007, two friends were surprised to see there wasn't a bike shop near where the canal towpath arrived into the city. So they started one, and five years later that store is going strong—and also employing a number of local residents.
Similarly, if your community is considering a trail project, be aware of the tremendous boost such a facility will provide your business. The storefront occupancy rate in downtown Dunedin, Fla., increased from 30 percent to 95 percent following the establishment of the nearby Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail. Local businesspeople can play a powerful role in encouraging the construction of trail and bike/ped infrastructure. And so they should—a regular and active stream of people (who don't have to stop and look for parking) is obviously worth real dollars to America's main streets.