By Peggy Mackenzie
According to Executive Director Kara Dense of the Greenbrier County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), Greenbrier County continues to build upon its reputation as a premier getaway and tourist destination, as reported in the CVB’s annual report for fiscal year 2013-14. Dense made her first presentation to Lewisburg City Council on Oct. 21, and will continue to make the rounds to White Sulphur Springs, Ronceverte, Alderson and Rainelle in the coming weeks.
“The tourism industry is rebounding,” Dense said, citing a whopping $243 million in direct spending by visitors in the county in 2012, gathered from the latest economic impact study by the WV Division of Tourism. “That’s a 26 percent increase over 2010,” Dense enthused.
“Sixty to seventy percent of our current market is driven by Baby Boomers seeking leisure travel,” Dense said. The CVB is “testing out new strategies that will help younger generations identify with the Greenbrier Valley experience,” she said. Staying abreast of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram with regular posting updates will help ensure that ‘younger fans’ stay engaged with our brand.”
By the numbers, the annual report lists the visitors center with 35,063 visitors in fiscal year 2013-2014. More than half the visitors who come to the valley do so to vacation (51%) and as a weekend getaway (38%). Ten percent come to special events and visits to friends and family account for 16 percent. Top activities are dining out (61%), scenic drives (54%), a stay at The Greenbrier (49%), while another 47 percent are drawn to local attractions and historical sites. Of course, shopping always draws a respectable number at 42 percent. The outdoor recreation opportunities in southern WV clock in at 30 percent, and lastly, special and cultural events account for 12 to 13 percent each.
Beginning this year in February, Dense said, the visitors center has kicked off a program featuring local artists in monthly exhibits. The new art program is called Art in the Valley. Rotating monthly inside the visitors center, the exhibits are designed to provide an outlet for artists within the four-county region to display their work. Shows premier at Lewisburg’s First Fridays After Five events and remain on display for that month.
And, speaking of Lewisburg, Dense said, the historic town has received a lot of coverage lately. Last week, Lewisburg was featured on an early Thursday morning on the Weather Channel’s “Wake Up With Al,” and was recently ranked by Travel & Leisure Magazine’s America’s Favorite Places Survey 2014 as the third favorite town in the USA overall out of the Top 25 Towns. This is on top of the award Lewisburg received from America in Bloom, mentioned in last week’s edition of the Mountain Messenger.
And gleaned from the Wall Street Journal online is a recent article titled “A (yes) culinary road trip through Appalachia,” in which the Stardust Cafe and Swift Level Farm were showcased as indicative of “the new tourism initiative [to] help educate folks – not just about Appalachia, but about where their food comes from.”
2014, Dense said, “is the best year ever” for Lewisburg in terms of hotel rates. “The rates are higher – up 6 percent from last year.” She stated she thought the town could support more hotel rooms.
She noted the New Orleans Saints’ stay at The Greenbrier had a larger impact on Lewisburg than has the PGA golf events, in part because PGA guests were bussed to and from the resort without immediate access to local sights and shops.
Another tourism factor is that convention facilities are not currently offered in our area, Dense stated, although, a 1,000-seat auditorium is projected for construction as part of the new student center on the campus of WVSOM. With that in place, the valley may soon be able to accommodate large convention events. Large groups do visit the valley, Dense said, for example, the State Fairgrounds hosts large mobile home conventioneers who take the time to savor the attractions offered around the valley.
“People want to be able to park, sleep and meet in the same place that they eat and walk around,” Dense said, referring to the preferences of convention groups. There is still room for improvement, and the CVB is looking at the ways to increase tourism. Dense mentioned better walkability, more parking options, and more signage as areas for improvement.
Lastly, the second annual Best of Greenbrier Valley awards, held on May 8 in conjunction with National Travel & Tourism Week, garnered nearly 1,000 responses from visitors across 30 states to vote in the following categories: Lodging – Winner: The Greenbrier, Runner Up: The Historic General Lewis Inn; Dining – Winner: Food & Friends, Runner Up: The Historic General Lewis Inn; Retail – Winner: Wolf Creek Gallery, Runner Up: Harmony Ridge Gallery; Event – Winner: TOOT, Runner Up: Chocolate Festival; Attraction – Winner: The Greenbrier, Runner Up: State Fair of WV.
Dense lauded the CVB’s Mini Grant Program, now in its 13th year, with having awarded nearly $350,000 in direct marketing grants to a variety of Greenbrier Valley organizations, festivals and events in an effort to market our area. A total of $24,025 was awarded during the 2013-14 fiscal year.