5 Questions with Professor Stefanie Benjamin

Stefanie Benjamin, assistant professor in the Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management program, recently was featured in a BuzzFeed article about the Lake Lure Dirty Dancing Festival. The Chimney Rock Camp for Boys in Lake Lure, North Carolina, was transformed for filming of the 1987 hit, and every summer more than 3,000 people come to town to re-create scenes from the movie, take dance lessons, and dig into every aspect of the film.

Stefanie Benjamin

Stefanie Benjamin

Benjamin studies cultural and historical landscapes regarding heritage tourism in the US South, with special attention devoted to power, politics, and collective memory.

What are your research interests and why did you choose this direction?

I’m interested in the social and cultural issues within tourism and identify as a critical tourist scholar. I’m interested in producing and promoting social change within the tourism landscape through practice, research, and education. I use novel ways and methodologies to understand how power and politics shape tourism. 

What were you doing at the Dirty Dancing Festival in Lake Lure? 

Along with Rachel Chen, a professor in UT’s Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management program, and Whitney Knollenberg, a professor at North Carolina State University, I received a grant to explore attendees’ perceptions of the 2017 Dirty Dancing Festival. Knollenberg and I collected data at the festival, asking participants to use social media to upload photographs of their experiences using a specific hashtag. Thanks to these hashtags, we will be able to see, through their eyes, how they are experiencing the festival—their likes and dislikes—so we can work with the Dirty Dancing Festival organizers to help improve the festival for the future. Additionally, we are interested in creating a film event toolbox to potentially help other rural communities that have some type of film-induced location identity create their own festival to attract visitors sustainably.

The article mentions that you will be studying Game of Thrones tourism. What will you be looking at?

I’m working with RHTM PhD student Sonia Hur and Rochelle Butler, a PhD student in counseling psychology and a qualitative research consultant in UT’s Office of Information Technology, in exploring Game of Thrones tourism. We are analyzing tourists’ social media posts using specific hashtags related to GoT in order to see what type of film tourists they are. Are they fanatics? Or simply amateurs? We are using real filming locations in order to see what level of fandom draws these tourists to visit. I did a similar study with my thesis at East Carolina University, where I explored the effects that the Mayberry Days Festival had on the town of Mount Airy, North Carolina. I created film tourist profiles to understand the level of fandom, their economic impact on the festival, and their social behaviors as film tourists. 

What heritage tourism sites are especially interesting or presented especially well? What are some of the problems you see with heritage tourism? 

The Whitney Plantation Museum in Edgard, Louisiana, is doing an excellent job with telling counternarratives pertaining to slave experiences. It is the only plantation museum that is solely dedicated to the history of slavery. Unfortunately, in the southeastern United States, operators of plantation museums have traditionally engaged in a selective and romanticized remembrance of the antebellum past that has regrettably silenced and marginalized the historical experiences and struggles of enslaved African people. More recently, some plantation managers have sought to engage in the memory work using artistic practices to reconstruct and interpret slavery heritage for visitors. I recently wrote an article, based off my dissertation, with UT geography Professor Derek Alderman that explores museum theater as a form of memory work and suggests that theatrical performances are an increasingly important but not yet fully understood strategy for recovering, embodying, and representing a different and hopefully more just narrative about enslaved Africans. Heritage tourism sites tell stories, but not always the stories or lived experiences of marginalized people. That is an issue where power and politics play a major role in whose story is allowed to be told.

Which of the Game of Thrones kingdoms would you live in?

Well, I took the BuzzFeed quiz about which Game of Thrones group I belong in, and, no surprise, I got House Targaryen. Apparently “I am a leader and handle responsibility well.” I’m totally content with this placement—and plus, this means that I get to ride a dragon!