With the state eclipsing the $5 billion mark for tourism revenue in 2012, this week’s Travel South Conference in Charleston gave visitors bureaus across the state a chance to cash in and drive even more tourism opportunities to their respective areas. But the conference comes nearly seven weeks after the spill of thousands of gallons of MCHM into the Elk River by Freedom Industries.
Many locals worry that the tourism economy would, much like the water, be left with a tainted reputation. Tourism professionals from across the country seemed unphased by the water crisis while here and local travel professionals hope the stigma of the spill won’t last.
“We had worked on this for 18 months and we really felt comfortable, quite honestly, that the group would not start seeing cancelations,” said West Virginia Division of Tourism Commissioner Betty Carver.
Given the circumstances surrounding the chemical spill and water crisis, Carver said her office, along with Governor Tomblin and Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, is evaluating a new marketing campaign following the incident. She said it's not yet known when that project will launch.
Leading up to the conference, Carver said she reached out to other organizers of the conference to gauge whether or not participants would actually show. One person she called after the spill was Travel South Executive Director Liz Bittner.
Bittner has some experience with trying to help cities and states market themselves after disasters, like the BP Oil spill into the Gulf Coast in 2010. She said conference participants didn’t express any concerns over the water while in Charleston.
“I haven’t heard anything from any of my delegates as far as concerns about the water. Again, we’re focused on driving economic development and economic tourism and the business at hand,” Bittner said.
“All of the hotels, the restaurants, the convention center and all of the places that we’re going to are using filtered water. It’s been tested. It’s been cleared by the CDC. And, so, it’s really been a non-issue.”
As for the conference itself, hundreds of representatives from 11 states presented their opportunities to potential travel operators. It’s sort of like the tourism industry’s version of speed dating.
General Manager of Carr’s Holidays from upstate New York, Michael Guidi sat down with Group Sales Manager Lauren Hunt of the Charleston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. He's looking to bring travel groups from his area, like high school marching bands, to various destinations around the U.S.
Strangely enough, Guidi wasn’t concerned with the water here, or even how it might affect his business and their decision on whether or not to bring tourists to Charleston or elsewhere in West Virginia.
“Other people have addressed it so…I mean, for me it’ll be future trips, anyway. Trips that’ll come won’t happen for another year or so. So, hopefully it’ll be addressed by then,” said Guidi.
He said he noticed coverage of the spill and water crisis on national media and became only somewhat worried. Even so, his concerns were quickly quelled once he arrived to town.
“It seems to have been handled. When I checked into the hotel, they were great about it and explained everything. No fears, no worries,” he explained.
Hunt said Guidi’s take on Charleston’s water is representative of almost all of the operators and travel writers she had met with.
“Actually, I’ve only had one appointment that’s even mentioned it. Everyone’s been very supportive and very in our corner. They know it can happen anywhere and they’re just happy to be here,” said Hunt.
Hunt said that participant packed five cases of bottled water for the trip to Chalreston.
"But she wanted me to know she didn’t have to use it, so she was pleased,” Hunt said.
While early estimates of the economic hit Charleston small businesses took in the earliest moments of the water crisis place that figure in the tens of millions of dollars, many local tourism professionals see this as a chance to reboot the local economy.
“We don’t want to focus on negative things. We want these people to come back and add to West Virginia’s economy. This spill has already really hurt our economy and we’re trying to do something that’s going to have an impact in a year,” said Bill Richardson, who operates Hatfield-McCoy and coal history tours out of Logan County.
“These people will all come back next summer with these groups. We’re trying to focus on the positive things because we need this money to make up for all of the money we lost because of the spill.”
Richardson said he believes the timing of the spill and water crisis in the off-peak winter season might’ve insulated the small business and tourism economies to some degree.
But the question remains as far as what, if any, long-term impressions the water crisis might leave on those looking to travel to the area.