Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts: A Study in Beach Town Tourism

Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts
The Perfect Beach Destination in Need of Marketing, Historic Preservation and a Little Renovation

Firstly, this was written after our second vacation in Salisbury Beach so, while this isn’t the destination for everyone, it certainly has broader appeal than the message and impression the town, or tourism agency, is giving. And the town has displayed plans for a redeveloped town center in the square for everyone to see. If the plans come to fruition there won’t be much of a need to visit this unique slice of American pie.

Rack brochure for Salisbury, Massachusetts shows the common beach umbrella and the phrase “More than a Beach”

The main road into the beach from Salisbury has several really old school motels and campgrounds as well as a classic old ice cream business (Foote’s), independently owned, of course and they proudly sell fried foods too. And there are no chains along here which is the main attraction. You’ll pass summer cabins (Beach Road Grove Cabins) that look like their right out of the set for Dirty Dancing.

In the town itself, it is easy to see there’s several blocks that seriously need renovating, restoration or rebuilding. The problem with the town’s plan is that it looks like the entire four blocks around the town center will be rebuilt rather than a combination of restoration and rebuild. The town’s marketing materials really don’t play off the nostalgic feel the town center has. This is its primary positioning point. All up as well as down the coast there are towns with beaches, bands and bars. But there aren’t any that have the small town beach feel from the 1960s and 70s that Salisbury Beach has done an excellent job of creating – or rather preserving. And I don’t think it was intentional.

The campy mid-century signage at Joe’s Playland makes you smile. You just know there’s fun inside and its nostalgic. And it certainly is. This place is a great time and a great throwback in time.

On the north side of the square you’ll see Joe’s Playland with its unique signage that is straight out of the 1960s when skee ball and crane machines were king and video games hadn’t been thought of. It still gives tickets and prizes in fact. There’s Tripoli Pizza with the most classic of neon signs and Cristy’s Pizza with its unique sign and building as well as an independent dime store that is a treasure of a retail experience and a large Broadway sign on top of it. This block alone is a throwback in time that really movie set producers couldn’t recreate any better if they were looking for a 1960s set in a beach town.

More mid-century design at Christy’s Pizza in Salisbury Beach.  It isn’t the most pure of designs but it is campy and classic which makes it so fantastic.

The south side features a bar called the Upper Deck – a cash only business like so many and some great pizza and fried dough places along with a classic building that looks like it might have been a haunted house at some point on one end and a fun house on the other. Someone said to me they remembered the clown faces from when they were a kid – and his was someone in their late 50s. These buildings used to be all over America’s beach towns and the great thing is they are still here in Salisbury Beach. There’s also a small chocolate and salt water taffy shop – Willey’s – on the corner of this block.

The Tripoli Pizza neon sign is a gem in Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts.

The town’s plans show for all of this to come down. That would be criminal in my mind. A slap in the face to the American beach experience from the 1960s. The other blocks around the center probably should come down as they have no historic significance and are mostly abandoned now. The town’s promotional material just needs to be tweaked with some nostalgia that might include some mid-century fonts, encouraging people to rediscover their past, fall in love with the smell of cotton candy again, thrill at skee bowl, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an American over 50 who wouldn’t love to have a slice of pizza while playing in their past.

Part of the redevelopment promotion sign in the town center showing what the town might look like.  Pretty uninspiring.  

Throughout the town there are little beach cottages the type that used to be everywhere in places like Florida and New Jersey but have long since been torn down and replaced with non-descript condo buildings that lack charm and any sign of peeling paint. If this were to be the strategic direction for marketing of the town the product could use some additional focus. Placing some coin operated machines that were at least forty years old could be beneficial as would placing some 1960s cars throughout the downtown almost as if they were some type of public art.

Here is an example of what has been put into the seafront.  It could be any beach town, USA.  The food was good but it really stood out as out of place architecture that took away the authentic feel of the town. 

And think of the great social media exposure you could generate with those old fashioned beach face cutout things that people posed in that promoted the destination. Some of these types of things are not expensive but, when added to the product mix in this case, could be highly effective in creating a truly nostalgic destination – or at least a beach destination where there was a preserved historic district that offered all that. Once you have an anchor product that is different from anywhere else, you can fill rooms and restaurants surrounding this core – and there are some things here that are completely misplaced. The Sea Glass Restaurant and some of the slightly more upscale establishments in this area that are so obviously out of place in this destination at the present time.

These fun old machines are still in working order and can put a smile on any late baby boomer’s face.

New businesses that easily play off the nostalgic theme and compliment the historic core experience could be added. While there is obviously a need for some demolition and rebuilding with some mixed use development, the core two blocks could be restored to their original mid-century look and the new development could very easily have a look and feel that would compliment the historic district.

Looking at the destination marketing brochure you’ll find very little differentiation with other beach towns. They use the tired phrase “More than just a beach!” – just like every other beach town. They also tout their history – just like nearly every other New England town. It is interesting but not something to position yourself on. In the welcome from the Chamber of Commerce typical words like “explore” and “discover” are used just as they are in every destination across the country. The 1638 little cemetery is on equal footing as the beach itself given the geographic equality given to the entire Salisbury town. There’s a bike path that is also promoted and the cover of the brochure features an umbrella and beach chair. It is challenging for these beach towns to differentiate themselves – there’s even stock photography in this brochure.

A campy collection of signage is all part of the beauty of this place.

Looking at this destination from the outside it is clear how to increase business and make Salisbury a much more attractive place without large-scale construction projects. Hopefully the town will give some serious thought to what it wants to be because what it is isn’t far from what it could be. Charming, nostalgic, family-friendly, good value with loads of accommodation options where you can still buy beach pizza, play skee bowl, win prizes, sit in a photo booth, and so much more. It is all about making memories and this classic destination has the perfect foundation to re-invent itself.


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