Maria Young Published

Tourism School Aims To Grow More Hospitality Workers, Entrepreneurs

An ATV drives over a dusty wooded road in southern West Virginia.
Tourism students rode ATVs along the famous Hatfield McCoy trail system as part of their ten-day lesson on West Virginia's tourism industry.
Maria Young/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Governor’s Schools of West Virginia – which host a variety of free summer programs for selected students in grades 7 through 11– recently wrapped up a new offering: their inaugural tourism school. 

“I know that this is something that (Tourism) Secretary Ruby and Governor Justice have wanted for a really long time,” said Lauren Bodnar, who is the state director of public relations for the Department of Tourism. 

She and other tourism officials are hoping their efforts will pay off in the years to come.

The first-ever tourism school lasted ten days. During that time, 50 students from across the state – one for almost every county – ventured out to experience some of the top activities on a list of things to do in the Mountain State.

Some of the tourism students gather for a scenic photo during a pause in their ATV trail ride.

Photo by Maria Young/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“I believe they’re traveling over 1,000 miles from the Northern Panhandle and Wheeling to southern West Virginia to the Eastern Panhandle, Harpers Ferry and Cacapon Resort State Park. They’re really seeing and doing so much,” Bodnar said. 

From whitewater rafting and ziplines to Blennerhassett Island and a Charleston Dirty Birds baseball game, it sounds like summer camp on steroids. 

But it’s more than just fun and games. 

These students are also getting an introduction to the variety of career paths that are available to them in the tourism sector. And there are some high hopes riding on the career choices they will make in the years ahead.

“The tourism industry in West Virginia is just booming,” Bodnar said. “It’s growing at a rapid pace, which is amazing, but we need the workforce to aid that growth. You can’t keep accepting visitors and not have the workforce growing as well. So I think we see this as kind of a way to start planting seeds with students who are in high school, that, ‘Hey, these are different career paths that could be available to you.’” 

In the middle of Logan County, for example, students got to rev their engines and speed up and down some of the twisting, hairpin turns of the Hatfield McCoy Trail system. 

It’s not hard to see why the mountainous terrain attracts more than 95,000 visitors a year – most of them from out of state. 

What might not be so obvious at first is the impact those all-terrain vehicles have had on the economy of southern West Virginia. 

There are so many people coming for this kind of activity that tourism officials say there aren’t enough workers to handle them all. 

“Since the trail’s inception, we’ve had over 70 new businesses open up just doing lodging, just folks that are opening up either remodeling grandma’s house or opening up a hotel or a motel or cabins or major resorts,” said Jeffrey Lusk, Executive Director of the Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority. 

“We have a dozen major resorts that have opened up in Southern West Virginia, with our primary customer being this ATV, UTV, off road motorcycle enthusiast,” he said.

Lusk and other tourism experts hope the new school inspires the students to pursue careers in tourism – particularly as entrepreneurs.

“We’re hoping that these kids go away from here wanting to open up a business, wanting to take hospitality in high school, wanting to go to college in hospitality or tourism management. We need all of those folks in tourism, and we don’t have enough of them,” Lusk said.

He said the tourism industry here offers good jobs with competitive benefits, salaries and looming opportunities through a host of older managers eyeing retirement options..

Sixteen-year-old Evan Bass is a rising junior from Clay County.

“Anything tourism based I’m known around the school for loving it. I’m known for getting out hiking. My nickname around the school was the dirty hippie. But I’m not dirty, I promise,” he joked.

Bass was selected for the tourism school – and he’s exactly the kind of investment tourism officials believe will pay off in years to come.

“In all honestly, I couldn’t see myself doing any doing anything besides tourism for West Virginia. I mean, I love it. This is what makes me who I am, touring the state and showing people that it’s such a great place,” he said.

“This experience with the West Virginia Governor’s School of Tourism has only furthered that motive.”

His biggest takeaway from ten days on the road: the doors are wide open for people his age to find a path to their futures. “We have opportunities beyond opportunities. Tourism, it’s flooded right now,” he said.