West Virginia sees tourism boost

CHARLESTON — West Virginia tourism officials reported Tuesday that recent initiatives implemented by the Tourism Office are showing good progress.

Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby said, “We are starting to turn the corner. We are seeing really positive metrics. Our hotel stays are up 10.7 percent. Our travel guide requests are up 36 percent. Our website page views are up 91 percent and our unique visitors are up 58 percent.”

Ruby gave her report to the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Subcommittee at the state Capitol during the final day of scheduled legislative interim meetings.

The statistics given are year-to-date figures, Ruby reported.

The role of the Tourism Office has changed since 2017, Ruby said, and the progress comes in part because of the passing of the Tourism Act by the Legislature.

“Prior to that (bill), tourism was primarily responsible for marketing and advertising,” Ruby said. “That bill gave us the added responsibility of looking at industry development — figuring out how to make the tourism industry grow and expand.”

Tourism means about $4.1 billion annually in direct spending for West Virginia, Ruby said. “That results in about $527 million in state and local taxes paid, supporting 45,000 tourism related jobs.”

Overnight visitors add up to 15.9 million people each year.

Ruby said long-term goals for the Tourism Office include better positioning West Virginia as a world-class travel and tourism destination, promoting a positive brand image to counter negative perceptions, maintaining a strong repeat visitor base while increasing new visitors and increasing the average length of stay and average spend per visitor.

Among the many assets to the brand of West Virginia, Ruby said, are its unspoiled and uncongested lifestyle, a certain mystique — a sense of the unknown and unique things to do, including events and festivals.

Key advertising markets have included Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Roanoke, Baltimore, Charlotte, Richmond and Harrisburg, Pa.

A new branding and marketing campaign was released by the Tourism Office in April, capitalizing on the internationally famous “Almost Heaven” slogan and song, and its ties to West Virginia.

More intensive research is helping the Tourism Office better direct its marketing strategies, Ruby said.

“We used to be only be able to ask people that had visited our state, ‘Why did you come to West Virginia?’ she said. “We now are able to ask those who haven’t been here, ‘Why aren’t you coming to West Virginia and why are you going to other states?'”

People haven’t been thinking about West Virginia as a vacation destination in the past, Ruby said.

“We weren’t on their radar,” she said, adding only about 5 percent of those polled even listed West Virginia as a possible vacation destination.

The numbers are improving, Ruby said, explaining that, thanks to advertisements using inspirational images, people are looking at the Mountain State in a new light.

The Tourism Office follows through with a multi-layered ad campaign.

“People are seeing two or three different types of ads,” Ruby said, giving billboards, website banner ads and targeted Facebook ads as examples. Traditional radio, television and print advertisements solidify the message.

Ruby said a recent advertising campaign targeting the Washington, D.C. Metro area and its buses and trains drew a spike in people seeking information about West Virginia tourism. More than one million impressions hit tourism sites the night of a Stanley Cup Championship game in Washington, due to public transportation riders, likely hockey fans, being exposed to West Virginia tourism ads, Ruby reported.

Sam England, chief of the Parks and Recreation section of the Division of Natural Resources, also provided an update on DNR facilitation of adventure sports and volunteer trail efforts.

England said his goals remain to promote, preserve, protect and provide amenities for the 35 state parks visitors, as well as the eight state forests and two rail trails.

“Our state parks are the foundation of outdoor recreation (in West Virginia),” England said, adding outdoor recreation is responsible for providing up to 91,000 jobs in West Virginia.

England shared recent studies showing the No. 1 gateway activity to state parks is hiking.

“People want a safe place to walk and hike,” he said. “That’s what a state park represents.”

The rest of the top ten England revealed, in order, include camping, water sports, bike sports, snow sports, motorcycle riding, off-roading, fishing, wildlife watching and hunting.

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