Come to Shangri-la! (But who has the map?)

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At first glance, the small ad in The New Yorker reads like a typical upscale travel pitch. It describes "a world-class luxury all-inclusive resort combining the pleasures of an active beach vacation with care designed to revitalize and relax body and mind."

But wait. Something is missing. This "all-inclusive" resort fails to include one essential detail: its location. The headline begins, "Give us your body for a week...," but the ad never tells readers where they must take their bodies for the promised rejuvenation. There's no address - just an 800-number and a Web site.

Twenty pages later in the same issue, another travel ad uses a similarly coy approach: "Learn to play croquet and enjoy a great vacation at a world-class resort," it teases. But where are those lush croquet lawns? Sorry, it's a secret. The ad simply invites inquiries by toll-free number, fax, and e-mail. A third ad, this one for a weight-loss clinic, also promises "beautiful surroundings." But it too fails to tell where they are.

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Welcome to the latest status symbol: the unlisted address. Taking a find-us-if-you-can approach, these advertisers apparently hope that an air of mystery will pique curiosity and draw customers, and that the particular "experience" they offer will make the locale largely irrelevant.

A phone call to the "all-inclusive resort" reveals that it's on the island of St. Lucia in the West Indies. The weight-loss clinic turns out to be in Durham, N.C. As for the croquet resort, six calls in two days yielded only a cheerful answering-machine voice: "At the tone, please leave us a message." The mystery deepens, although a fax number in the ad includes the area code 540. Aha! Virginia. But where?

Vacation retreats aren't the only ones with a disappearing sense of place. This same issue of The New Yorker features address-less ads for everything from a women's designer-shoe outlet, a lamp and fixture company, and contemporary sculptures to tour companies, public-speaking seminars, and a dating service for Ivy League graduates.

On one level, the old real-estate mantra - location, location, location - remains as important as ever. Just ask people living in certain classic area codes - 212, 617, 312 - who mourn their loss of status as area codes divide and subdivide. ZIP codes such as 10021 in New York and 90210 in Beverly Hills offer similar cachet.

So important is the "right" location that some homeowners on corner lots move their front entrance to face a better-known street, thus gaining a more prestigious address.

At the same time, thanks to technology and cyberspace, location is becoming increasingly irrelevant for certain businesses. Who needs an address or a storefront when an 800-number and a Web site can deliver customers around the world?

One family in Cedar Falls, Iowa, now operates a small version of the Internet bookseller, Amazon.com, from a spare bedroom in their house. What cyberspace customer would ever know or care, especially since Lyle Bowlin's prices are lower than Amazon's?

Likewise, telecommuting employees, tethered to an office by laptop, fax, and e-mail, can work anywhere, anytime, no longer bound to the 9-to-5 routine of a particular desk at a fixed address.

This diminishing sense of place takes other forms as well. Letters to the editor in some publications now give only the writer's name, as if the accompanying line, "Via e-mail," eliminates the need to identify that person's city and state. Where is a cyberspace postmark when you need one?

Location becomes even more obsolete in Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards. Linked only by e-mail addresses and the cyber-names they choose, participants enjoy a dual anonymity, seemingly floating in space.

Yet as location becomes an abstraction, rather than a specific address or a dot on a map, something inevitably gets lost. In an age of mobility and rootlessness, a firm sense of place helps to promote a sense of community and belonging.

The proverbial shop on Main Street offered an anchor, a feeling of continuity and tangible identity. As the personal increasingly yields to the impersonal, as small shopkeepers are swallowed by giant retailers, and as giants themselves now compete on the Internet, the number of nameless, faceless, placeless exchanges and transactions multiplies daily.

As one small antidote to this disappearing sense of place, perhaps advertisers, particularly those marketing travel destinations, could be persuaded to include an address. Who knows? In time, a PO box number might even become a status symbol - wonderfully old-fashioned and a refreshing change from cyberspace chic.

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