PARKERSBURG - With the 2014 tourism season getting closer day by day, tourism official Mark Lewis is hopeful for another positive year after a successful 2013 in the Mid-Ohio Valley.
At the same time, Lewis, president and CEO of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he and other tourism officials across West Virginia are following potential impacts from the January chemical spill which affected drinking water for 300,000 customers in nine counties around the Charleston area.
Lewis said he attended Tourism Day at the West Virginia Legislature in early February in Charleston and the water issue was a topic of conversation and concern among tourism officials and state officials. Many are waiting to see if there will be any impact on tourism in that area or elsewhere in the state this year.
The Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau reported a positive year for local tourism in 2013, especially for Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park which saw thousands of new visitors last year. The CVB plans to continue its support for local attractions, fairs and festivals in 2014 in hopes of seeing more growth this year.
"It's early yet, but the problem was a lot of the national headlines were not 'Water crisis in part of West Virginia' but 'Water crisis in West Virginia,'" Lewis said. "When you look out there, I think people have a hard time sometimes differentiating and realizing that while it may have affected Charleston, it didn't affect Parkersburg or Beckley or Morgantown or Shephardstown."
Lewis said he is concerned about what the fallout will be for the Charleston area. He is not aware of any calls relating to water concerns coming to the CVB office in Parkersburg or any other local tourism entities and hopes that will continue.
"We are worried that there may be some long-range impact on the 'Wild and Wonderful' brand in West Virginia," he said. "We hope that the state Legislature and the administration will consider that and maybe take some action to help support the Division of Tourism in case it looks like there has been an impact and maybe even be pro-active."
State officials will collect information about the potential impact in the weeks and months ahead and work on a response based on what they find, he said.
"I'm really optimistic that the fallout from the water situation will not be long-lasting, but it really is very early right now," Lewis said. "Once we get into the season, if this thing drags on and is not seen to be resolved, then we will have some more problems."
Looking back at the past year, Lewis said the 2013 season was a positive one for the Mid-Ohio Valley, especially for Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park. The park saw about 5,000 more visitors last year compared to the previous year.
The park is offering more and different types of programs and activities associated with the island, from evening charters to new types of events, Lewis said.
"They are expanding the opportunities for visitors to take advantage of what they have to offer and I think that will continue to grow this year. We're also getting increased visitorship at the Oil and Gas Museum and Henderson Hall," he said.
In 2013, the CVB did market research and will be using that information - which includes what types of people were coming to the Mid-Ohio Valley and what they were interested in - to do integrated marketing in targeted areas in a goal of bringing more people to the local area, Lewis said.
"We believe that gives a strong foundation to really specifically target the types of people that are most likely to come here," he said, but stressed the CVB is not giving up on efforts to attract as broad a range of visitors as possible.
While the local tourism scene is strong in the heritage and history category, Lewis said the CVB is working to develop more information about the area's outdoor activity offerings. The Parkersburg office is working with the Marietta-Washington County CVB to create an outdoor recreation visitors guide for the Mid-Ohio Valley, include walking and biking trails, river activities and other types of outdoor activities in and around the valley's local, state and national parks and other attractions.
"That's a demographic that we didn't identify through the research, but we believe is out there. It's just that we have not pushed that marketing message out" in the past, he said of the outdoor recreation category.
"There were a lot of successes in 2013 in terms of visitorship. Attendance at our fairs and festivals was pretty strong and we're going to continue to try to promote those," Lewis said.
The local CVB office will continue working this winter and and during the upcoming season to network with other tourism entities around the state and the region. For several years, Lewis said the office has participated in a co-op program organized by the West Virginia Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, with agencies joining their efforts with other destination-marketing organizations to promote the state as a whole.
Information about sites, attractions, events and activities in the Parkersburg area has been distributed to thousands of travel show attendees and through other venues under the cooperative effort, pooling personnel and resources to provide more coverage.