A Couple of Side Notes on Amelia Island’s Condé Nast Ranking

Spending a day on studying the Condé Nast Readers' Choice Survey Structure, leaves me with many more questions than answers about its value.

The First Essence of Most Island Vacations

While spending a short, but long overdue vacation on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s gulf coast last week, my inbox received 27 messages about Condé Nast’s Reader’s Choice Recognition for Amelia Island as a preferred global vacation destination. We score a shared nr. 24 out of 25, which at first may not seem that impressive, but for a beach destination that less than a decade ago was still considered “the best kept secret in Florida’ to be recognized in the top 25 globally is not a small feat. But as a lifelong marketeer it also leaves me with a lot of question marks about how these results are ultimately determined. And one of the reasons for that skepticism was that I was swimming in Caribbean clear water off a several miles long soft sandy beach, staying in a 2 bedroom villa for $175 a night, complete with all amenities and creature comforts, having taken in the island’s sights on a free air-conditioned trolley ride/ public transportation around the island, and if I could have voted right then, Anna Maria Island would be very high on my appreciation list in most categories that create the list.

We know that every publication operating in a consumer market, publishes at least once a year some type of “Best of the Best”, usually ad driven with minor changes over the years and always supported by “reader choices”. To give a little perspective to the numbers behind Condé Nast’s Readers’ Choice Awards, we need to know that their  print run is about 822,000 copies with a claimed total readership in the neighborhood of 3,5 million readers or slightly over 1% of the US population.

In addition it should be noted that even though Condé Nast is often portrayed as a leading Travel brand publication, it only ranks number 10 in a list of travel magazines dominated by National Geographic’s 6.1 million subscribers (total) and Triple A publications (7.6 million subscribers). Regardless of the relative value, the impact of such an honor over time can be encouraging for hospitality stakeholders, since Amelia Island consistently has made several top lists for about 8 years in a row now. We’re becoming a recognized brand-name in the process.

Still, my search for longterm validity of such a statement makes me want to determine a bit closer, how the Condé Nast’s reader’s choice was established, knowing that it would be impossible to use an open questionnaire model to tally survey participants opinions versus a pre-selected model. There has to be a substantial in-depth limitation of choices to come up with interpretable results. Only going to the magazine’s website and actually DOING THE SURVEY, could clarify some of these questions for me. And that’s what I did.

Knowing how a survey is designed, is crucial for the validity of the outcome.

Curious about why for example certain hospitality properties show up frequently in the results and others never, one of the first questionnaires I opened, was the one that asked “Where Did You Stay during the past year”. Note which 3 properties are listed as exclusive options for Amelia Island???!!!
Now, I’m very familiar with these three outstanding properties and they deserve their credits….but there are many more great hotels and Inns on the island that obviously fell victim to the need of pre-selection. Unfortunately they are not mentioned as a check off option in the survey, severely limiting the Readers choice. So the value of this Reader’s Choice result is compromised, at least in my opinion. It’s a lot like why incumbents in the world of politics have a much better chance of getting re-elected: brandname recognition.

A further study of the criteria reveals that Amelia Island scored as follows out of 100:

Scenery: 85.7
Friendliness: 84.8
Atmosphere: 86
Restaurants: 79.4
Lodging: 83.7
 (remember there are only 3 choices given!)
Activities: 82.1
Beaches: 85
Average Score 83.8

Now remember that these are relative numbers based on absolute responses. That now is another problem if you try to attach actionable conclusions to these ‘findings’. “You’re over thinking this whole thing”, says a good friend. “The only intention of anything Best of the Best is to attract eyeballs”. He’s probably right. This is not an effort in being mathematically precise. Little is these days.

I could go into a strength and weakness analysis of this survey, but that would rapidly become overbearingly boring so I only point at a couple of discrepancies that could question the actionable value if not the validity of the overall project, such as a limited number of Magazine chosen island options to choose from. Florida offers a 9 island choice!

Another one is the number of selection options you are allowed to mark off. While the absolute quantification of the survey comes from a reported 80,000 frequent traveler participants, most likely all subscribers to the publication, a natural born skeptic like myself would first establish how to define the term islands. The survey doesn’t do that, but instead lumps them all together and pre-selects (without validation) to a total choice of several hundred islands worldwide. Just for reference according to more official definitions, there are anywhere from 2,000 to 180,497 islands in our oceans and seas, with a total population of more than 730 million people.

To validate a list of best islands we need to not only define questions such as: Do they have to meet a certain size criteria? Do they have to be inhabited and how much is enough to qualify? Are you talking all islands or just the ‘blue water’ ones? Does it need a village or settlement to be considered or is a lighthouse keeper and a camping ground enough? What type of touristic infrastructure is basic for qualification. We also need to take into consideration subjective and emotional considerations such as: how was the weather when people stayed on an island?, what was the season if any?, where there any service distractions such as government shutdowns(???)that made parks and monuments inaccessible, strikes, garbage pick up issues, over bookings, rude taxi driver experiences etc. etc. etc.

And even more crucial in my opinion would be to discuss if barrier and coastal islands with road connections to a main landmass should be considered and compared in the same list as islands that can only be reached by water or air, just because it has ‘Island’ in its name. You see, I think Amelia Island’s destination competition are places like St.Augustine, Destin, Panama City and yes Anna Maria Island, when it comes to scoring in the above listed travel and vacation criteria.

Don’t get me wrong, I love living on Amelia Island for all its obvious and less obvious reasons, but I would never compare it to many of the previous island stops and stays in my life.  I have been living on real and imagined islands for the better part of 30 years and for the purpose of comparison, Manhattan for example is also an island and possibly the most intriguing and exciting island in the world when rated on 6 of the 7 criteria above (no beaches to speak of), but as a destination it is not considered an island, seeing that it features multiple bridge connections to the mainland and is reachable by other transportation means than boat or airplane. There are potential parallels between Manhattan Island and Amelia Island, albeit on a completely different scale these days. I seem to have read somewhere that it was David Yulee’s vision to turn Amelia Island into a Southern equivalent of Manhattan, which has a total area of 33.77 square miles. Of that total area, 22.96 square miles is land and 10.81 square miles is water (Bit like the marshes of the Green Way) the total length is a little over 13 miles and its widest point is 2.3 miles. Sounds familiar??

People who are aware of my 20 plus years in the Caribbean Islands, have often asked me about my favorite island and when I answer Mayreau, their eyes return hollow question marks, very much like my Gainesville Florida born and raised wife 7 years ago looked at me, when I suggested Amelia Island as the place to move our family to. She had never heard about the island, having grown up only 100 miles away! I had learned about Amelia in the mid 90s through a visit to the ShrimpFestival, than followed by a 4 month period of building a house on the Municipal Golf Course for a close friend. Yes I love Amelia Island for many of the pointed criteria in the Condé Nast score, but I wish we were not ranked as an island, just because we are surrounded by water. Manmade structures connect us to the mainland and give us accessibility to an infrastructure real islands don’t have.

A true island finds charm and challenges in its isolation, as it can only be reached by plane or ship, like Mayreau in the Grenadines. Running a restaurant on an isolated island is quite a different challenge from running one on land. The size of the island often defines what fruits and vegetables can be served fresh and what needs to be imported. Airline connections and flight frequencies define affordability and availability of meats and ethnic spicing or specialty seafoods (Maine Lobster hmmm). So when Condé Naste Readers rank the Hawaiian Island of Maui Nr. 1 with an overall rating of 93.9, on the readers’ argument that it offers a “combination of tropical ambience and American comforts,” with an abundance of activities, from whale-watching to nature hikes to waterspouts,” the publication is dramatically exposing its readership as a marketing demographic of ‘wanting a vacation as a change of scenery with all recognition and creature comforts of home‘, which includes familiar brandnames, familiar language, familiar chain restaurant menus, driving habits and so much more. Considering a vacation as an opportunity to explore new and different holds apparently not too much appeal anymore for the reader of Condé Nast.

Condé Naste qualifies Amelia Island with the following quotation: Whether it’s the seemingly endless “green space,” or the “unbelievably hospitable” locals, readers agree that this Florida island is a “beautiful, history-filled family location.” Hike a trail through Fort Clinch State Park, or explore the downtown area for “year-round festivals, fun, and shopping.”

Obviously readers admit that Amelia Island is much more than just an island; it’s a way of life that harbors some memory of the days before bridges, that represents a more balanced multi-pillared economy than only tourism, that has seen a remarkable growth in the quality of dining, a widely balanced array of  quality accommodations, a nice balance of activities and attractions, a deep history that hasn’t been explored enough, an interesting global population mix contributing to a highly attractive “atmosphere”.

Yet, what’s interesting is that there is no mention of beaches in this verbal assessment. No mention of great accessibility either. An island needs to have attractive beaches to be considered a beach tourism destination. And we have an long attractive beach on Amelia Island. What we don’t have is beach attractions. For example the entire stretch between Ft. Clinch and The Ritz Carlton, a distance of about 7 miles I guestimate, we have a grand total of 2 restaurants on the beach??!!! Vacationers love to eat on the beach! It’s something they can hardly do at home. Also we don’t have the clearness and calm of the Gulf coast waters, so we need to look at the beach as an attraction point for watersports, beach recreation and maybe even undersea education.  We need to be prepared to compete with beachfront city destinations such as St.Augustine or Crescent Beach in the offering of the water tourism product, because really we’re not an island any longer.

Additionally, when I see the lowest score of 79.4 in the Condé Nast survey is reserved for our restaurants, I have to conclude that:

a. these experiences must be outdated because in recent years we have added some magnificent dining to our island palette and

b. we’re probably not talking about the food quality that is lacking, but maybe other factors such as service, price and ambiance have negatively impacted the overall ranking. Although I noticed that in most of the 25 ranking islands, the restaurants came out as the lowest ranked criterion.

Creating a Best of the Best list is a very subjective exercise, and it’s OK to give credit where credit is due. There is no doubt that we have come a long way from being Florida’s Best Kept Secret. Yet when it comes to brandname recognition, it’s sobering in the dozen or so conversations we entertained while on Anna Maria Island, that none of the visitors knew about Amelia Island or Fernandina Beach. And from that perspective we welcome Condé Nast’s recognition.

FUNNY SIDE NOTE

Bentonville, the 10 largest city in Arkansas with a population of 38,000, lives and breathes Walmart, as it represents the birthplace of the retail giant. Before Sam Walton gave celebrity status to the town, it was only known as a rest point on the Trail of Tears.  These days the town has a hotel called the 21C Museum Hotel (apparently there are 3 other very upscale boutique establishments) that scored a 95.5 Readers’ Choice Rating, landing it on rank 75 of best hotels in the world, even though it didn’t open until February of 2013!!!!

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