Visitors bureau is high on the Laurel Highlands

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Each year millions of visitors from all over the nation and beyond flock to Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands, a 3,000-square-mile region that encompasses Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties.

Drawn by the region's beauty, recreational opportunities and attractions, some 1.5 million visit Ohiopyle State Park alone. The Great Allegheny Passage, the largest rail trail in the Eastern United States, brings in close to 800,000 visitors, and, if you added all the visitors to the region's state parks together, the figure would top the 2 million mark.

"Another major draw is our huge number of festivals and events," said Julie Donovan, director of marketing and public relations for the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. "If you combine the number of visitors they draw, the figure would top 1 million."

With impressive visitation numbers, the bureau is inviting its neighbors in adjacent counties to come and see what the region has to offer in their own backyard. To help familiarize them with the area, the bureau recently released a glossy, 92-page 2013 "Destination Guide," available by phoning 800-333-5661 or by visiting website www.laurelhighlands.org.

"We feel the guide is a good way to enlighten people and inspire them to explore our region," Miss Donovan said. "Even though 85 percent of our visitors get their information from the Internet, our printed travel guide is very popular and relevant. People still like to be able to hold the tangible, hard copy guide in their hands."

The cover of the 2013 Destination Guide is a color photograph of the Baughman Rock Overlook near Ohiopyle, taken by Pittsburgh photographer Ward R. Dingmann.

"It's the topography of the region that makes the Laurel Highlands so great," Miss Donovan said. "Not only do we have Pennsylvania's deepest gorge, we also have Mount Davis, the state's tallest mountain at 3,213 feet above sea level."

Starting each June, three bureau employees begin working on the Destination Guide, but Miss Donovan said it's really an entire bureau team effort. To get the guide into print, staff works with the Pittsburgh-based Steelcoast Creative agency, which is responsible for the overall guide design.

This year, 200,000 copies of the guide will be distributed at places such as the Pennsylvania Welcome Centers, on the turnpike, at 84 brochure racks scattered throughout the Laurel Highlands and at most of the 550 bureau member locations. The cost of producing the 2013 guide is $120,000.

Out of the state, bureau reps distribute the guides at places like the New York Times Travel Show and the AAA Great Vacations Expo in Columbus, Ohio. The bureau also partners with the Cambria County Visitors Bureau, whose reps take them to motorcycle shows to help publicize its annual Thunder in the Valley motorcycle event held in Johnstown.

In 1958, a group of business leaders and tourist sites founded the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau and decided it would be more advantageous to market the region as a whole rather than county by county. The region takes its name both from the Laurel Ridge that runs through the area and the state flower, the mountain laurel, that blooms so prolifically in the area, typically in June.

The bureau is supported through its annual membership dues and by the 3 percent hotel room tax (gathered from the region's hotels, motels, resorts, bed and breakfasts, inns, vacation home rentals, cottages and cabins), which provides the bulk of the bureau's revenue.

The region's top target areas -- Pittsburgh, Washington/Baltimore, Cleveland and Columbus -- are blitzed by a multi-layered approach that includes billboards, print ads, online banner ads, television, radio, consumer e-newsletters and, of course, the "Destination Guide."

This year, the Laurel Highlands will celebrate two important milestones: the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway and the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Bushy Run. A special commemoration will be staged at Bushy Run Battlefield on Aug. 3-4 to recall the defeat of a band of Indians by troops under the command of Col. Henry Bouquet during Pontiac's War in 1763.

"Every year, it seems like the Laurel Highlands gets something new," Miss Donovan said. Seven Springs Resort recently opened a new snowboarding park for children ages 4 to 7, she said.

"This summer, Idlewild Park is opening a new Lazy River, an inner tube ride taken along a meandering stream. Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is opening a new casino, and Phase Two of the Flight 93 National Memorial is now in the works. There's definitely a lot happening here in the Laurel Highlands."

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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