By Peggy Mackenzie
A presentation of the results of a market study to assess the vibrancy of Greenbrier County as a travel destination was held at the state fairgrounds on Wednesday, Feb. 26.
Streetsense, a global research and destination marketing firm in Bethesda, MD, led the study and presented their findings to a crowd of community leaders in the Cecil Underwood building at a catered luncheon by Blue Ribbon Catering. The event was the culmination of a year’s collaborative efforts of the Greenbrier Valley Tourism Partnership (GVTP), composed of the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau, The Greenbrier, the State Fair of West Virginia and the Greenbrier County Airport Authority.
The Streetsense team, Executive Director Ralph Thompson and Director of Destination Activism and Marketing Josh Collins, began their presentation with a breakdown of their marketing outreach programs covering real estate, consumer lifestyles and branding to identify what makes a specific place a “vibrant destination.” Taking in the whole of Greenbrier County, they immersed themselves in what they termed the county’s “brand,” interviewed stakeholders, researched strengths and weaknesses and potential long-term opportunities. Thompson and Collins’ combined years in advertising, tourism and entertainment industries were the attributes GVTP was seeking in choosing Streetsense to begin assessing a visitor profile.
They found that visitors report Greenbrier County as being positively perceived as a place of scenic beauty and small town charm, with a beautiful resort, a vibrant range of tourist attractions including agri-tourism, fairs and events, culinary and dining, culture/arts and historical attributes, and outdoor activities like cycling, camping, hiking along the river and mountain trails, getaway places and golfing.
The negative attributes, also reported, reflected the long-held perception of West Virginia stereotyping, that included opioid issues and the presence of abandoned buildings. But overall, like a hidden gem, visitors experienced “an unexpected positive surprise” while visiting Greenbrier County, a reflection of the “genuine and authentic” people who live here.
The study showed that “awareness is Greenbrier County’s greatest barrier,” Thompson said, exposing a gap between expectations and the actual experience. A visitor’s expectations, both positive and negative, and their actual experiences as a visitor is the point where the study showed improvements could be developed to garner a competitive marketing edge.
Streetsense queried 418 people from 20 states across the country who were considering a vacation in West Virginia, and more specifically Greenbrier County, with 27 questions essentially asking, “What is important to you when going on vacation in a West Virginia environment?” The answers led to three focused target groups; A) affluent nature lovers, B) culinary spenders, and C) culture and history seekers. These are the primary groups Streetsense considers untapped potential markets, that if greater investments were make to the region, would release $695 million to $1.2 billion in incremental visitor spending.
Every presentation has its charts, and this one was no exception. Calling it the 10 Pillars of Vibrancy, Greenbrier County was exposed as mostly needing work in Progressive County Government, Long-term Vision, Major Employer (not counting hospital or educational facilities), Infrastructure, Desired Retail Outlets, Aligned Tourism Plan and Adequate Funding. Those areas that were in good to very good shape were Safety, Health/Wellness and High Education Presence.
In summary, Streetsense recommended a leadership task force be formed to develop a vision for the county and a master plan for stewarding this opportunity to fruition. Thompson and Collins lauded the collaboration of the first-time partnership of The Greenbrier, GCAA, the State Fair of WV and the CVB as a first step in creating a vision for the future potential of tourism in Greenbrier County. The study’s findings and research cost $40,000 with $10,000 from each partner.