MARIETTA - For the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau summer actually begins during the cold, snowy months.
To sell the area as a tourist destination through June, July, August and beyond, the bureau hits the trade shows and buys advertising in magazines and other media during the winter.
"The middle of summer is very event-driven," said Casey Knowlton, public relations and social media coordinator for the CVB. "Most of our marketing efforts put forth over winter, we are starting to see the results of that."
One of the jewels in Washington County's crown is Marietta College, Knowlton said. The bureau spoke to parents and students recently.
"They like the things students could do and things they could do when families visit," he said. "It gives us a new avenue to touch people."
Jan Shepheard, a designer at Two Peas in a Pod Florist, which has been in business for 10 years, said she always sees increased traffic starting with the MC graduation in May, especially on weekends.
"Some do spend money on gifts, and many come back again and again," Shepheard said. "The more it gets into the summertime, we have more people visiting, especially during the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival and the boat races."
Knowlton also said Marietta ranks very high in the Buckeye State in terms of visits. When people go on vacation, he said, people seek out things they cannot see in their own backyards.
"It's difficult for local people to imagine going on vacation where they live," he said.
Knowlton said Washington County's total tourism impact is 1,691 jobs and $191 million in sales. The county represents one of the highest economic impacts for the southeast Ohio region. In general, Knowlton said, southeast Ohio seems to be the smallest market of the five regions in the state in terms of tourism.
"We stand alone at the top along with the Hocking Hills region," he said. "We ranked highest in terms of sales."
In town recently, Allyson Huston, of Canton, decided it was the perfect weekend to take her traveling companion on a well-deserved weekend away from work for a little rest and relaxation.
Their first choice as a destination?
The pair were sitting on the patio enjoying the view of the Ohio River, the boats and a glass of wine. The 54-year-old said she had been here a few times, especially for the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival.
Her companion, Ron Varner, 56, also of Canton, was enjoying his weekend getaway. They planned to cruise on the Valley Gem as well as a pontoon on the Ohio River.
"I like it down here a lot," Varner said. "It's going to be a future weekend getaway."
Things are really picking up this time of year, said some area merchants.
"Summer is one of the best periods here," said Scot Monaghan, 66, owner of Barking Dog Books & Art, 212 Putnam St. "For retail business, summer and Christmas, that's our year."
Monaghan and his wife have owned the shop for about 10 years and say they are looking forward to a good year. The June Merchants and Artist Walk, they said, was the biggest they have experienced since they open the doors a decade ago.
On the second Friday evening of each month (May, June, July, August and November), visitors can stop in at more than 35 shops and visit with area artists and crafters.
The Monaghans' store is gearing up to participate in a downtown-wide scavenger hunt for visitors and shoppers involving fairies and gnomes in early July. They also plan a craft project using found items to decorate a fairy house, similar to doing a gingerbread house at Christmas, a book signing and presentation on fairies for adults only.
Monaghan said the presentation will be reminiscent of the original Grimm fairy tales, many of which are too frightful for children.
Carol Grimm, owner of Bridals by Carol G., at 154 Front St., said while her business caters to brides and weddings, which doesn't tend to bring much tourist traffic to her door, she does have summer dresses available, too.
"It's nice to see the tourists walk up and down the sidewalks," she said.
Many of the trends the travel industry is seeing, especially nationwide, are reflected in what is happening in Marietta and Washington County.
Some of the developing trends in the area, Knowlton said, include smaller groups coming from Cleveland, Akron and other areas of northeast Ohio, which includes church groups looking for a retreat location or other groups looking to camp out. Several motorcycle groups from Columbus or Pittsburgh are seeking out the stretches of highway across the county, Knowlton said. People in larger cities also are looking to Marietta and Washington County for experiences not found in their urban areas, such as outdoor recreation, historic sites and heritage and outdoor recreation, such as golf or fishing.
"In terms of visitor hearsay, it's the vibrant downtown they like and that it's charming," Knowlton said.
He said while motorcoach tours do flock to some areas, the retiree market has changed dramatically. Those people who are newly retired are less likely to get on the bus. They are traveling on their own for the flexibility most motorcoach tours don't offer, he said.
That trend is being seen statewide and across the nation, said Tamera Brown, public relations manager for Tourism Ohio.
"Baby boomers as they reach 60, don't travel like their father and mother did," Brown said. "The older generation was more willing to step on a motorcoach with a set itinerary. The baby boomers want to be their own boss. They want to do things when they want to do it. If they travel, they are going to travel with a small group."
When smaller groups of travelers visit Marietta, the bureau can help direct them toward sites that meet their interests. For cooking, visitors can take advantage of The Cook's Shop or The Marietta Brewing Co., especially when beer is in production. They may also enjoy the time-honored Campus Martius Museum, Ohio River Museum and The Castle.
"We have seen an increase (in traffic) now that summer is here," said Dana Styer, who owns Marietta Brewing Co., 167 Front St., with her husband, Tony.
Dana said the restaurant offers a sampling of five of their in-house beers for $6 served on a paddle and floats with homemade root beer, a hit with small groups.
Along with permanent businesses and attractions, the area offers plenty of events, including the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival in September and the Marietta Sweet Corn Festival and the Riverfront Roar in July .
The CVB announced in the spring that the American Queen plans three visits to Marietta this summer: July 29 and Aug. 7 and 11.
"It's important for Marietta to step up and be open for the American Queen and what is happening in the community," said Terry Archer, sales associate at Goldline Jewelry, 150 Front St.
"We are ready for summer," Archer said. "We have a great summer season with tourism."
The CVB also is stepping up its marketing to the snowbird segment of the population, Knowlton said.
The snowbirds typically leave their homes in the snow belt cities of Erie, Pa., Cleveland, Buffalo, N.Y., and even Canada as they make their way down Interstate 77 to warmer nests in the south for a few months.
Knowlton said the snowbirds tend to return four to five times to a location such as Marietta if they stop just once.