Tourism with a purpose
DRIVE program helps localities set game-changing goals
When Chris Canfield of the Virginia Tourism Corp. was soliciting ideas for how a community might make itself more appealing to visitors, one suggestion was to change the color of the locality’s logo. Canfield had something more substantive in mind.
For the past several years, Canfield, who is vice president of partnership alliance marketing for VTC, has been the point man for DRIVE, a just-completed $1 million tourism development program that is picking up speed in 23 localities across Virginia.
DRIVE’s purpose was to assist communities in determining not only how to make the most of existing tourism assets, but how to go about creating new ones. From sprucing up downtowns, opening farmers markets and developing transit systems, DRIVE encourages localities to set tourism goals that translate into economic impact.
Tourism is no minor contributor to Virginia’s economy. In 2014, it was the fifth largest industry in the commonwealth, responsible for 217,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in state and local revenues. Visitors spent $22.4 billion in Virginia that year, which, according to the VTC, works out to about $1 million every 29 minutes. These figures, says Rita McClenny, VTC’s president and CEO, represent an increase of 5.7 percent over 2013.
The DRIVE initiative, designed in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, began in 2010 with a period of extensive research. Through surveys, workshops, interviews and meetings, data were compiled from individuals from every aspect of the industry, including tourists; members of local and state agencies and private organizations; managers and owners of entertainment, sporting, cultural and outdoor attractions; and hoteliers, restaurateurs, brewers and vintners.
Canfield says an examination of 100 tourism plans from across the country and from overseas showed how few, at least in the U.S., focused on anything other than marketing strategies — such as changing a logo to a more eye-catching color. “It was a big shift just to adopt a product development idea,” he says.
In 2014 VTC, along with communications partner, Charles Ryan Associates, began holding DRIVE tourism workshops in localities. VTC helped localities map out a route toward achieving immediate goals, two-year goals and, ultimately, a game-changing, five-year goal.
Wytheville was the first of the 23 to complete the requisite series of three workshops that usually were spread across six months to a year. The meetings started out with philosophical questions such as “What is your identity?” and “How do you maintain your authenticity?” and then moved on to nuts-and-bolts concerns such as how to find partners to accomplish desired changes. Workshops covered possible financing options for projects, too, some of which involved public-private efforts.
“The workshops were like taking a real course,” says Rosa Lee Jude, director of the Wytheville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We had homework.”
Wytheville’s takeaway from DRIVE was to steer its energies toward the growth and revitalization of downtown. To that end, it is at work on a feasibility study for a possible entertainment center that could host theater, film, art classes and other community activities. The opening of such a venue, if shown to be doable, would be the town’s five-year objective. Meanwhile, Wytheville already is making progress on a two-year plan to open a year-round farmers market, expecting to lock down a building to house the market sometime this spring.
“We’re not newbies [to the tourism industry], but we still learned something about ourselves,” Jude says of DRIVE. “It was a good way to put a mirror up.”
At the other end of the state, in the Northern Neck, the biggest focus was on the recently opened Virginia Oyster Trail. Lisa Hull, coordinator of tourism and economic development for the Northern Neck Planning District Commission, says that although the region’s immediate mission is to expand the operating hours at the Dahlgren Heritage Museum at the foot of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, the trail will be its priority for the next couple of years.
The Northern Neck intends to add more site markers along the route and conduct an outreach effort to area businesses, educating them on being ambassadors for the region’s newest draw. Five years down the road, Hull says, the Northern Neck hopes to have made infrastructure improvements to the Route 3 corridor to make it friendlier to cyclists.
Lynchburg, roughly halfway between the Northern Neck and Wytheville, was the last community to finish the DRIVE workshops, holding its final one in September. Sergei Troubetzkoy, the city’s tourism director, says that the city saw an immediate unanticipated benefit from its decision to participate: Many business owners who had never met before began networking.
As in Wytheville, the collective opinion of the Lynchburg DRIVE participants was that the fastest way to attract more visitors to the area would be to make downtown more attractive. Five years ago, the city’s streets were deserted at night, but new housing there has triggered “a renaissance,” Troubetzkoy says.
Unfortunately, some downtown businesses had not updated their operating hours to reflect that change, so Lynchburg’s quick fix for attracting more tourists is to encourage shopkeepers to stay open later and on Sunday.
Its midterm priority is to support the restoration of the 1905 Academy of Music Theatre, which has been shuttered since 1958. The city recently voted to contribute to the fundraising campaign to reopen the theater as a performing arts center. That looks to be on track to happen in just two years, Troubetzkoy says.
In five years, the tourism director hopes, downtown will have a transit system. Lynchburg is a hilly city, he says, and the prospect of having to do a lot of huffing and puffing to get around probably discourages some visitors the city is trying to woo. A bus or trolley would remedy that problem. (See community profile on Lynchburg.)
Other communities that participated in DRIVE came up with a broad array of major projects to showcase their best assets. In Abingdon, the five-year goal is to develop a mountain outdoor recreation resort. In Richmond, it is to add a hotel or at least more rooms near the convention center. Bristol hopes to initiate passenger rail service, and Chesapeake will enhance a sports complex. In Chincoteague, the target is an improved sewer system, recognition that expansion of tourism often is predicated on basic infrastructure upgrades.
“The DRIVE program was an incredible capacity-building exercise,” says Maurice Jones, Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade. “It coalesced a team locally. It forced them to become scholars of their own story and present it in a way that attracts visitors.”
And that, says the secretary, “is a game that every community can play.”