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Common Currency: 'Customer experience' is city's 'killer app'

Alan Zemek

As a newly married couple in school together in Glendale, Ariz. we decided to drive across the desert in a '76 Plymouth Duster with no air conditioning and a questionable transmission on a weekend break to go see Disneyland in Anaheim Calif.

My new bride loved it. But after 30 years, I have a confession to make. The drive through the Mojave was the best part of the trip. The whole Disneyland thing? I just didn't get it. Why would so many people travel from their homes to visit a fake town, with fake streets, to ride on fake railroads to look at fake natural scenery?

Later that semester we studied the "Disneyland Rule" of business execution, and it has always been one of my most memorable case studies from business school.

The Disneyland Rule was taught in a marketing class, but was actually a lesson in execution of basic operations. I used it many times in my career to get struggling managers to focus on the core elements of their business model. Any time someone would complain about the economy being soft, or new competition or make excuses about poor financial performance, I would invoke the Disneyland Rule.

The question: "Why is Disneyland so successful?" As a case study problem we evaluated everything from the relative strength of the Mickey Mouse brand to the attractiveness of California weather. But our professor at the time was looking for a one sentence answer: because the bathrooms are always clean. Disneyland is successful because the bathrooms are always clean.

The lesson: if you can't execute something as elemental as basic sanitation in an entertainment world based on fantasy and illusion, the entire customer experience falls apart, along with any perception of value and investment in your brand.

What prompted me to recall the "Disneyland Rule" was a conversation I had with a downtown business owner, who related to me something they had observed recently. A young couple came into the store and snapped a picture of the bar code on the item they were interested in purchasing and uploaded it to which gave them the online price for the same item. It's what my son would call a "killer-app."

I had two thoughts. "How cool is that!" and "It's worse than I thought." Not only do we have to contend with the big box retailers, Amazon is now getting regular people to do their price comparison research for them and offer a competitive response instantly.

Having spent all my summers as a kid in Park Rapids, there was nothing in "Main Street USA" I hadn't already seen in its genuine form. A fake idyllic town didn't resonate for me because I had already experienced everything a genuine small town could deliver.

To me, Disneyland was just an outdoor shopping mall, but I will concede, a very, very clean one.

So what is our competitive response to the Amazon "killer-app?" Park Rapids needs a "killer-app" killer. What can Park Rapids deliver that can't be found in a big box store or executed online? What's our Disneyland Rule?

Our "killer-app" is us. Last week about 40 of the most energetic business owners in Park Rapids gathered for the annual meeting of the Park Rapids Downtown Business Association, and if you missed it, shame on you. If you are not a member, you should be. It's the best fifty bucks you will ever spend to promote Park Rapids. (PO Box 142 Park Rapids MN 56470)

Our "killer-app" is why we need the farmer's market on Main Street; it's why we need our opera company, our art museum and M-State community college classes downtown. It's why we need a downtown loop off the Heartland Trail when it expands west through town. It's why we need to restore the old water tower, the Great Northern Railway Bridge, and preserve our historic buildings. It's why we need to encourage artistic and cultural expression with fairs, festivals and special events. We are the genuine article.

Come to think of it, Disneyland ain't got nothing on us.

Alan J. Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.genera