Wise County stresses teamwork during tourism summit

Stephen Igo • Feb 28, 2007 at 6:06 AM

BIG STONE GAP - The "t" in tourism stands for teamwork, or does now for Wise County tourism-related businesses, groups and civic officials.

The county's first-ever tourism summit brought together representatives of hospitality industries such as hotels, bed and breakfasts and the like, to homegrown and long-established visitor- and heritage-oriented organizations like Lonesome Pine Arts & Crafts, "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" Outdoor Drama, Wise County Chamber of Commerce, Hands Across the Mountain, and the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority, plus municipal and county elected and appointed officials.

Gathered at Mountain Empire Community College's Goodloe Center, about 40 of the county's key players in local economic vitality issues now constitute a core group of tourism plotters who seek to blaze a clear, common trail to better promote and further develop the visitor industry in Wise County.

"What we will go through today, primarily, is go through the steps and process for Wise County to keep moving from there and bring in key customers," said Kitty Barker, a specialist with the Bristol, Va., field office of the Virginia Tourism Corp., who served as facilitator for Tuesday's summit.

Those steps include mustering up a SWOT - a list that identifies a specific locale's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that enhance or detract from a thriving tourism industry.

Organized by the Wise County Tourism Committee, a group organized by the county's Board of Supervisors about four years ago, the summit's goals are not terribly complex, said committee Chairman Jeff Rolen.

"This first session is really about getting down to the work that builds to our next meeting (in March)," said Rolen, executive director of Camp Bethel Ministries in Wise, a Christian youth organization. "And that pretty much boils down to deciding on a mission statement and developing three- to five-year goals."

Big Stone Gap's Dr. Stan Botts has had his fingers in homegrown tourism-related groups and issues for a number of years, and also serves on the county tourism panel. He said when the Virginia General Assembly created the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority several years ago to bring together several counties of Southwest Virginia to focus efforts on a regional basis, legislators also intended for each county to develop individualized tourism strategies.

"One of the main purposes of the legislation was for us to develop a tourism plan for the county. That's never been done, and that's our goal now - to put together that plan," Botts said. "One where everyone can work together rather than everybody doing their own thing."

Barker suggested a top travel trend Wise County should target is "Girlfriends Getaways." She said state tourism officials have discovered that women are the primary vacation planners of families, and more likely than men to join with their women friends to enjoy outings together. Women aren't all that keen about spending free time watching sports on television as a general rule, she said, so they generally take the lead in recreational opportunities with family and friends.

Time and money are the two priority factors that women take into account when planning outings, she said, factors that Wise County planners should bear in mind when developing a strategic tourism plan.

Barker said other top travel trends are pet-friendly markets, as well as multi-generational travelers where grandparents take their grandkids on vacation to fun places, as well as "foodies," who travel around to discover and enjoy regional cuisine.

Barker said Virginia averages 55 million visitors annually who pack a $16.5 billion a year economic wallop. The state ranks 10th among the 50 states in domestic visitor spending, and the state's tourism industry employs more than 207,000 individuals and provides about $2 billion annually in state and local taxes.

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