When it comes to attracting tourists, the entire region works together
March 27, 2014 12:00 AM
Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater juts out over the Bear Run waterfall in Fayette County. It is among the region's top tourist sites.
Joe Starinsky, blacksmith, peers out of the doorway of the blacksmith shop at Meadowcroft Museum of Rural Life near Avella, Washington County.
Hundreds of Jeeps line the grass at the Butler Fairgrounds during the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival.
Visitors cross the Cobblestone street outside the Feast Hall on their tour Old Economy Village in Ambridge.
By Karen Kane / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh has its big-city skyline and quaint ethnic neighborhoods, its nationally loved sports teams and its eclectic museum collections of prehistoric bones, innovative glassworks and fine art.
That and so much more draws visitors to the city and Allegheny County, where tourist foot traffic yields more than $5 billion in travel-related spending annually, making tourism a key component of the local economy.
The same can be said of the region outside Allegheny County, according to the teams of people who work there to promote events and attractions such as the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival in Butler County, the historic Old Economy Village in Beaver County, the covered bridges of Washington and Greene counties, and Fort Ligonier Days in Westmoreland County.
“There’s so much to do and see throughout the entire region — so many reasons to come and stay awhile,” said Patti Jo Lambert of the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau.
Pennsylvania and anyone who cares about its fortunes are grateful to the travelers and to those who lure them here, said Lyndsay Kensinger, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Community & Economic Development, which oversees the state’s office of travel, tourism and film.
“Tourism remains one of the top industries in Pennsylvania —- a major economic impact,” Ms. Kensinger said, noting that 6.5 percent of the state’s total employment — 470,953 individual jobs — were pegged to the industry in 2012.
More than 100 pages of statistics are collected annually by the state on travel and tourism, and the numbers show a thriving and growing segment of the economy, divided into two region in southwestern Pennsylvania: “Pittsburgh & Its Countryside” comprised of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence and Washington counties, and the “Laurel Highlands,” covering Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties.
The “tourism economics” analysis commissioned by the community and economic development department reported:
■ Tourist spending in Pennsylvania rose from $37 billion in 2011 to $38.4 billion in 2012, generating $67 billion in total economic activity throughout all industries in 2012. The state’s entire travel and tourism economy in terms of gross domestic product was 5 percent of the state’s entire economy. (GDP measures the locally produced value of goods and services.)
■ In 2012, travelers spent more than $7.5 billion in the Pittsburgh & Its Countryside region, a 7 percent increase from 2011, and nearly $1.8 billion in the Laurel Highlands region, a 2.1 percent increase from 2011.
■ Spending by county in 2012 was led by Allegheny with $5.5 billion, followed by Westmoreland, $746 million; Washington, $741 million; Fayette, $644 million; Butler, $579 million; Somerset, $379 million; Beaver, $245 million; Indiana, $184 million; Lawrence, $119 million; Armstrong, $90 million; and Greene, $80 million.
VisitPittsburgh, the agency that promotes tourism and travel for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County and which works with its sister promotion agencies throughout the region, reports more and more events and attractions throughout the region to publicize each year. The interrelationship between those promotion agencies is one of the keys to the success of their combined efforts.
Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh, said Pittsburgh’s countryside has assets that attract visitors to the region. "Visitors don’t know where Allegheny County ends or Butler County begins or where the boundary is between Butler and Mercer counties," he said. "When visitors come, in their mind, they often think they visited ‘Pittsburgh,’ even when they are sometimes in other counties,”
Ms. Lambert echoed the comment.
“Travelers do not know borders. It just makes sense that we all work together and collaborate so that if someone wants to experience Downtown Pittsburgh, they know that, just 20 minutes to the north, they can experience Butler County, from our beautiful Moraine [state park] to our charming downtown Butler to our small towns and our rural, agricultural areas,” she said.
One example of the piggybacking that happens with tourism promotion will occur in May. VisitPittsburgh is hosting a Pittsburgh-based conference of 180 Canadian travel writers and public relations officers, and arrangements have been made for them to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Fayette County; zipline at Seven Springs in Somerset County; a “field-to-fork” demonstration and dinner with a pioneer cooking class in Butler County plus a “quaint and quirky” tour that includes an oddly fashioned toy store, the cemetery from the cult classic “Night of the Living Dead” and a stop at the space ship in the borough of Mars; tour the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum and Meadowcroft in Washington County; and golf in Mercer County.
“It’s great to be able to promote all of the rich offerings that are available in the region. If people are flying in to visit Fallingwater, we want them to be able to experience Pittsburgh, too. And, conversely, if we know that visitors who stop by any of our welcome centers that have specific interests like [Pittsburgh’s] architecture, we’ll let them know that they can visit three Frank Lloyd Wright homes that are just a short drive away in the beautiful Laurel Highlands,” Mr. Davis said.
“More attracts more,” said Julie Donovan, vice president of public relations for the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. “We’re fortunate to have such a prosperous neighbor as VisitPittsburgh. There’s a natural tie between the regions, and we each benefit from the existence of the other,” she said, noting, “We have three Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the Laurel Highlands. If a visitor who is culturally inclined to see the [Andy] Warhol [Museum], they’re more than likely to want to see [Wright’s] Fallingwater.”
During her 12-year tenure, she has made it a practice to mention the sites and events of sister counties to visitors and journalists interested in the Laurel Highlands, and Mr. Davis noted that “VisitPittsburgh gives space in its visitor’s guide and on its website to attractions and events outside Allegheny County."
Ms. Donovan said more than $1 million is spent marketing the Laurel Highlands region annually in a way that combines traditional and digital forums, including a glossy travel guide, print ads and billboards plus hosting conferences, attending consumer shows and reaching out to group travelers. The biggest change in recent years has been a growing digital undertaking — Facebook, Pandora, online banner ads, Twitter and Flickr. She said that 85 percent of visitors make their travel decisions by going online to do research and make travel arrangements.
Ms. Lambert said her agency is capitalizing on this evolution and she has seen changes over her 10-year tenure most clearly with the promotion of the Jeep festival — an event that draws visitors from all over the United States and beyond.
"Our reach has expanded so much, and that’s reflected in the fact that our Jeep festival is pulling people from greater distances than any other event we’ve marketed,” she said. Her agency will spend $629,000 on promotion during the 2013-14 fiscal year. New this year will be a presence on Pinterest.
Elizabeth Menhart, tourism director for Greene County for about four years, said she, too, will direct a significant amount of attention to digital products this year. About $100,000 is spent on promotion and advertising. “We’re putting more effort into digital and social media marketing,” she said, but added that, for the first time this year, she will branch into television advertising in addition to paid advertising in magazines and publications, billboards and a visitor’s guide.
J.R. Shaw, senior vice president for tourism with the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, said a game-changer for his territory was the development of gaming and shopping, referencing the September 2008 opening of the Tanger Outlets followed by the addition of a casino.
"We’re proud and fortunate to be a big part of the tourism scene in the region," he said."That’s been the case for a long time, but the development of gaming and shopping has opened markets on top of an already popular heritage and rural tourism product.”
Mr. Shaw said much of his $1.5 million budget goes to promotion activities that buttress the marketing programs in place by Tanger and the Meadows Racetrack & Casino. “We try to be partners with them to amplify their message,” he said.
Tim Ishman, director of the Beaver County Recreation and Tourism department, said his office works with the county’s chamber of commerce. He said he has found during his three years in the position that a partnership with other organizations “is important to everyone. It’s reciprocal. We have a great relationship with VisitPittsburgh. They’re like the big brother.”
In addition to capitalizing on pooled resources, his department increasingly uses social media, balanced with the standby calendar of events, visitor's guide and a magazine for county residents called “The Bridge.” Some traditional ads for radio and print also are used, adding up to about $85,000 annually for promotion.
“We’re all in this together, " Mr. Isman said. "It’s about a joint effort to bring people to our doors.”
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