West Virginia tourism drive begins to pay off

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia, in the third year of its Wild and Wonderful branding campaign, is experiencing tourism growth as visitors stay longer and spend more.

This fiscal year, which began July 1, the state's division of tourism is spending $3 million on advertising in consumer magazines and cable television. The campaign features the John Denver song, "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

In addition, the state's co-op fund program is providing the industry with $12 million this calendar year for promotions on a matching funds basis, more than double last year's amount (see sidebar below).

"We're a baby [in tourism]. Actually, really we're just about to deliver. We have a long way to go, but all trends are positive," said Alisa Bailey, state tourism director.

She added, "We're positioning ourselves as a premier outdoor destination. We have some of the world's best white-water rafting; we have mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing and skiing.

"We also have sightseeing, historic towns and the old American main streets. It's a restful, relaxing destination."

Tourism has developed to the extent that Gov. Cecil Underwood declared at the state's annual governor's tourism conference in September that the state's beauty and natural assets were no longer a secret.

He announced that tourists spent more than $2.8 billion last year, an increase of 5.7% compared with 1998, and he credited the co-op funding program as a significant factor driving the growth.

Last year, 4.2 million visitors stopped at the state's eight welcome centers.

West Virginia's main target markets are the mid-Atlantic states and the Midwest. And although international visitor numbers are small, the state also is targeting this segment.

It appointed a U.K. representative last year; has a rep covering Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and markets itself in Japan, where it has an economic development office, through Travel South.

"We have to work smart to capture our market share and look to revenue, not volume, [because] international visitors spend more [than U.S. visitors]," Bailey said.

When planning the television campaign, tourism officials found "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was recognized by international visitors at the welcome centers. "Even the Japanese, who didn't understand it, recognized the word 'heaven,' " she said.

Landlocked West Virginia gets 60% of its U.S. visitors from six states: Ohio, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, which share borders with it, and the Carolinas.

Nicknamed the Mountain State, it has fewer than 2 million people; its biggest city (Charleston, the capital), has only 57,000. The state has 220 properties with 21,400 rooms.

Almost 80% of its land is covered by forests; it has 37 state parks, plus state forests and wildlife-management areas.

Eight of the parks have lodges, most with meeting facilities, and even many state forests have cabins.

Said Bailey, "We're fortunate we have the best state parks, where people can stay overnight. Kentucky is similar. It has a great park system."

West Virginia has two national byways, eight state byways, and seven state backways routes.

The state offers a new brochure with maps listing them.

Earlier this year, the tourism division introduced its first African-American heritage brochure, printed a new trails-map brochure, and last year, a Civil War heritage brochure.

Also this year, a private sector firm published a meeting planner guide, which is available through the tourism division.

The state maintains 800 miles of hiking and 350 miles of mountain bike trails.

The big news here is the opening in October of the first 300 miles of motorized and nonmotorized trails of the Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Area in Logan and Mingo counties in the south.

The area has a Web site, located at www.trailsheaven.com.

Plans are for the project, which is on private lands, to be developed into a 2,000-mile trail network. "All the signs are good," said Bailey.

"We're now fortunate because of our isolation," she said, explaining that in 1945 the state only had five miles of divided highway (coal and other major products went by rail and river, so roads weren't needed). Today, its 1,000 miles of divided highway is still growing.

"The Eastern Seaboard became urbanized. People want to get away. We're right in their backyard," she said.

State's plan targets agents

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia is planning a program that would encourage its tourism industry to move toward the agency distribution system.

The state's division of tourism, which recently joined ASTA, has $12 million in grants for co-op promotions to award this year, up from last year's $5.6 million.

The division's program, which aims to give the industry ideas on how to spend the additional money for co-op funding, is scheduled to start in January. It will center on symposiums for the industry on how to market to travel agents.

The additional money for co-op marketing came as a surprise to many.

"We never knew it would grow so much," said Alisa Bailey, the state's tourism director.

The Cooperative Tourism Promotion Fund began in 1995 and is endowed from a percentage of revenues from a video lottery, and from gaming at two horse racing tracks and two dog racing tracks.

She added, "We want to train the white-water rafting companies, the car rentals firms and all the other recreation firms how to market, how to package and how to deal with travel agents.

"Agents are looking for additional revenue, and the program will enhance our ability to market and will open up a whole new field for the state," she said.

The division also currently is upgrading its Web site, which will tie together consumer data received from toll-free calls and the site.

It also will mean that suppliers will be able to update their information on the site themselves.

For information, call (800) CALL-WVA. The division of tourism's Web site is located at www.callwva.com.

-- T.B.

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