Monday, June 27, 2011

Brand experiences as tourism

Over the last couple of days in Central Pennsylvania, we've made four very different brand pilgrimages.

The biggest and best known is Hershey's Chocolate World, which is consists of a free ride through a simulated factory-slash-"It's a Small World After All" animatronic extravaganza. You exit through the gift shop, which is the world's most extensive Hershey's candy department. Best souvenirs: rare candy bars and Hershey's Kiss earrings (about $6). Chocolate World also offers some 3-D movie nonsense and a "create your own candy bar" experience, but because the adults supervising children under 8 needed to pay the full admission price, we gave all the add-on experiences a pass. Instead, we took a Chocolate Lab class (they're offered at the Hershey Museum) for about $8 a person. We donned hairnets and aprons and created our own Aztec-inspired candy bars while learning about the history of chocolate.

The Turkey Hill Experience, which just opened this year, borrows a page from Hershey's. It's about entertainment and branding versus an authentic factory experience. The "museum" is right by 3 Mile Island nuclear plant, about 35 minutes from Harrisburg. For about $11 a person you get to sample very small portions of Turkey Hill ice cream and beverages, learn the history of the company and create your own pretend flavor of ice cream. From mixing in virtual ingredients to designing a carton to shooting your own commercial, it's a high-tech experience (complete with a social media overlay) that made a huge impression on my kids. If they were ever to see Turkey Hill ice cream in our Chicago-area supermarket, they'd definitely ask me to buy it.

On the other, more rustic end of the spectrum, were the Wilbur Chocolate Museum and Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz. The former is a large candy store and working chocolate shop with a lot of vintage chocolate artifacts on the walls. Stop in and sample their famous chocolate buds, which looks suspiciously like Hershey's Kisses, but taste more premium and cost quite a bit more. At the Pretzel Bakery you can tour the original pretzel factory and get a lesson in pretzel rolling. You'll get a free bag of Tom Sturgis hard pretzels at the end of the tour, and I can't decide which is better: those hard pretzels or the fresh, doughy pretzels they sell in the front room for $1.

Speaking of deliciousness, we drove through Amish Country from Lititz to West Chester, where my in-laws live. We bought fresh peaches, cherries and blueberries from a farm stand; sweet-looking baked goods (including whoopie pies) from Bird-in-Hand Bakery; and homemade root beer. In order to get the root beer, we followed a hand-lettered sign up a long driveway and flagged down a gaggle of Amish children, who went inside to get 2 pint bottles of ice cold root beer that their family made on site.

Two days on the road and I don't want to kill my kids