Colorado Consultant Focuses on Reinventing Independent Businesses and Downtowns

12 Apr

Jon Schallert is an internationally-recognized speaker and business expert specializing in teaching businesses and communities how to turn themselves into Consumer Destinations.  Schallert will be featured as a Keynote Speaker at the 2012 DCI Annual Conference, Design Develop and Deliver: Partnerships for Creating Vital Downtowns.

Small businesses no longer compete simply with their neighbor’s  on Main Street or across the mall.  They now must learn to distinguish themselves and  become destinations for customers around the world and in cyberspace.

“Most businesses are location-dependent, whether it’s a grocery store, a restaurant, a service-business, or a professional office,” says John Schallert, who started in the field with Hallmark Cards over 25 years ago and whose consulting firm now  leads Destination Business BootCamp in Longmont, Colorado.

“Traditionally, people market to their local area, within 15 minutes. The problem is in today’s economy, you need more.”

When he first started his consulting firm almost two decades ago, his work often involved helping local businesses in small communities and Main Street districts learn to compete with encroaching big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart– but now the landscape has shifted.

“Wal-Mart’s not the problem anymore,” Schallert says. “If owners are still thinking that ‘my differentiation starts in my marketplace, in my shopping center, in my small town,’ they’re competing against the wrong competitors and their strategy is short-sighted.

“It’s not how you’re different in your marketplace, how you get people to stay in your town, shop in your downtown, or not go to the big city.  That’s still a challenge, but the main goal now is how do we keep thos dollars from going to an Internet business that pops up every 3 seconds, or the billions of direct-mail catalogs that are mailed out each year?”

The answer, he says, is differentiation – identifying precisely those qualities that set your business apart from others in the field.  The strategy attracts customers from both near and far, and for some businesses, pulling customers from hundreds of miles away.

“Becoming a Destination comes about by using a proprietary business differentiation process that I teach,” says Schallert, who conducted his first Destination BootCamp in 2002.

“What businesses learn is you don’t have to beat your competitor in every category. You have to beat them in two or three key categories. You’re targeting consumer hot buttons, and we know the buttons to push that consumers immediately respond to.”

For example, he once met an older seamstress in a small Florida city who was deeply discounting her work to attract business – working long hours and making little money.

Schallert learned that she was once the lead seamstress for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, where she traveled the world to repair ripped ringmaster jackets. That set the business apart and allowed it to grow by attracting more customers’ interest.

Schallert says such encounters with small business owners, side trips from his travels to seminars– around 80 small, often blighted towns, downtowns, and cities a year, led him to develop his fourteen step destination-differentiation strategy.

“My first clients were small, struggling downtowns. I’d finish my 90-minute workshop and the downtown director would take me into 10 to 15 businesses in a day,” he says. “I’d inevitably meet somebody that would say ‘I’m doing these things differently from everybody else and my business is doing fine.’

“I was meeting these brilliant entrepreneurs in these out-of-the-way places that no one else was connecting with. I would ask these owners ‘How did you make this business so successful?’ They almost never knew the process.”

He kept notes on 3 x 5 cards, accumulating thousands of stories and photographs until he could trace patterns that evolved into a 14-step BootCamp presentation – eight strategic changes to establish differences and six tactical steps to get the story out.

Then, Schallert started encouraging communities to bring groups of business owners to his 2½ day Destination BootCamp, where the owners could learn his Destination strategy as a group.

“People who have never attended our Destination BootCamp wonder why it works, but it’s not magic.  When owners attend the BootCamp from the same city or town, they only focus on improving their businesses, for three straight days, with no distractions,” Schallert says. “They learn best-practice examples from other small businesses that have made themselves profitable destinations, despite their demographics.  Then, they learn a new strategy that their competitors aren’t using, and we show them what to do first when they get back home.”

The bonding process that owners describe from the BootCamp experience happens naturally, Schallert says.

“Even though these owners work right down the street from each other, they never get together and focus on growing their businesses, except here.”

The biggest mistake owners make? Too often they jump to tactics – looking for cheap advertising and free publicity with social networking sites or website search engine optimization before they have sharpened the distinguishing message about their products, service, employees, business model, history, community connections, or customers.

“Owners learn that all the marketing tactics in the world can’t be employed successfully if you haven’t convinced the consumer that your business is really different and one-of-a-kind. If a consumer doesn’t think a business is unique, then the whole retail marketplace suffers. In the case of today’s downtown districts, without uniqueness, consumers go elsewhere.”

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