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Sharon Zou CHAD

RST professor helps tourism industries build sustainable financing

Growing up in Guangzhou, China, Suiwen “Sharon” Zou quickly learned the importance of marketing a business.

Zou’s parents are entrepreneurs and they run their own factories.

“My parents, they are very savvy business people,” said Zou, an assistant professor in the Dept. of Recreation, Sport and Tourism at the University of Illinois. “Growing up, I was educated by my parents that financial resources are an important means, if not the most important means, to an end. That got me very interested in business, in different business principles. So I always have that in mind.”

When Zou left China for the United States to pursue a graduate degree, she was focused on business. When she chose Texas A&M—in part to be near the person who became her husband—she gravitated toward an interest in marketing because of her advisor, whose research involved marketing.

“I was taking multiple classes, and specifically two classes that really got me to shape my research agenda. One was a class with the marketing department,” she said, “and the class discussed influential papers in psychology and behavioral economics. That started to plant the seeds.”

In the final year of her doctoral studies, she took a class that connected marketing and the financing of park, recreation, and tourism services. That’s when everything clicked for Zou, and she was hooked. Zou completed her Ph.D. at Texas A&M and then, with her husband urging her on, she applied for the job in the College of Applied Health Sciences at Illinois.

“I was not confident I would be able to get tenure here,” she said. “But my husband told me I have the support. So when I came (to Illinois for the job interview), there was this celebrity crush, you know? And then (RST Professor) Monika Stodolska picked me up from the airport. I could not believe it, because I was citing her work. I could not believe I was meeting people that I cited in my research!”

Now, she said, “I study how people have fun.”

Precisely, the overarching goal of Zou’s research is to improve tourism/leisure experience and community well-being by examining consumer's perceptions and devising innovative marketing practices. 

A recent study involved fee-based pricing at the Indiana Dunes National Park.

Zou said it was vital for public parks and other tourism industries to build a sustainable revenue model and not to solely rely on decreasing funding from state and federal sources. 

The primary purpose of Zou’s study was to “understand visitors' and surrounding community residents' perceptions of Indiana Dunes National Park user fees to inform a fee structure that balances revenue generation and equitable access.”

During and after the COVID-19 pandemic, Zou said, “parks saw explosions of people visiting.” While that was great for parks in terms of revenue, it also led to increasing operation costs at a time when government funding for these sites is being reduced.

“The specific goal is to find out how visitors see the park fees, and are they fair?,” Zou said.

The RST researcher said her preliminary findings indicate there was no consensus from study participants on what “fair” means, and that tension between fairness principles partly explains the longstanding controversy and debate on public land user fees.

Zou said tourism industries need to diversify their revenue streams because of declining funding from state and federal agencies.

“It's like an investment,” she said. “You need to diversify in order to have that sustainability. You need to be more entrepreneurial with your funding sources. As for pricing user fees, how we can design a fee structure based on visitors’ diverse levels of perceptions and willingness-to-pay so that it is more acceptable to the visitors and we'll get more revenue for the underfunded park services.”

Zou is also working with four local, rural communities—Galena, Savanna, Havana, and Grafton—to build up their tourism industries. Those communities have small populations—in the hundreds—but on the weekends, it grows ten-fold, in some cases.

“The goal of that project is to create a toolkit for a rural community that is underresourced to help to guide their tourism development initiatives,” she said. “We are close to finishing the toolkits.”

One thing is clear from speaking with Zou: she loves her work and her workplace.

“(RST Dept. Head) Carla Santos told me, ‘This is a huge playground. You will have a ton of support to do the research, and you will have a lot of playmates that will play with different toys. And it will be a great place to work.’ And it turns out to be really, really true.”’ 

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