By Nicholas Minor
No one could have imagined a year like 2020, the King George tourism industry was coming off a strong economic performance in 2019 with employment and travel activity at all-time highs. The tourism industry has been growing for the past five years, with the County reporting in 2019 over $25 million in expenditures, $5.6 million in payroll, and generating just over 250 jobs that year. Unfortunately, by mid-March, the tourism industry would flip upside down with minimal warning.
The COVID crisis has hit the County very hard; our hotels and restaurants are barely getting by with decreased traffic and overall travel. The Board of Supervisors has taken action to support the industry by tasking our department in April of 2020 to launch a tourism website visitkinggeorge.com and creating the “Carry-Out King George” marketing campaign. This campaign urged our residents to support our local restaurants during the Governor’s orders to limit eating in restaurants. The board also allocated over $300,000 in CARES Act funds to stand up an EDA grant program that supported 63 different King George businesses. Additionally, we received an $8,300 Virginia Tourism WanderLove grant that promoted the County’s outdoor recreational areas. We highlighted locations such as Caledon State Park, Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail, Machodoc Creek Marina, Belle Grove Plantation, The Estate at Whitehall, and many others.
In the fall of 2020, the board requested that the County have a strategic tourism plan developed in partnership with the Tourism Advisory Committee. The Tourism Advisory Committee or TAC is an appointed group of community members representing the subsections of the County’s tourism industry. The strategic planning process requires collaboration from our community and businesses alike; planning cannot be done in a vacuum. To avoid that mistake, the TAC and our department proposed a five-month strategic planning process that will include two focus group meetings with our tourism industry and regional partners, a tourism stakeholder survey, and three public townhall-like meetings. With three additional internal planning meetings to address budget, marketing, and strategy for the next five years. A final presentation will be given to the board in late April or early May.
The timing for this request could not be better for a couple of reasons; 2020 has changed the way people travel, research has shown that 69% of travelers planning to travel in the next six months are changing their plans. These changes typically result in more regional road trips to outdoor recreational areas; because of this, the TAC and our department think that King George can capitalize due to our location and existing tourism assets.
Second, we currently measure website traffic through our Visit King George website and new subscribers to our newsletter list through our email marketing software. This software allows us to measure our newsletter open rate, engagement level, and several other metrics used to decipher what kinds of content our subscribers are clicking. The pandemic will allow the TAC and our department to develop a baseline marketing plan with metrics that can measure our strategies. We can then identify where to grow our metrics and how to better direct ads to our target markets.
Third, this is the perfect opportunity to re-brand the County as a location to work, live and visit. Branding is about promoting the values of the County, and this is why the TAC is important to this process. They bring to the strategic planning process an authentic understanding of the community. Over the next few months, we will continue to access the County’s image and what our message will be to our visitors; this process will be the basis by which we market the County to future businesses, residents, and travelers.
Included in the strategic planning process will be tourism asset development; King George is full of historical locations, buildings, and homes. These historical landmarks give our county character; however, they do not drive most tourism traffic. Our most visited sites are our public parks, Caledon State Park, river access areas, and wineries. Our strategic planning process will include ways to improve our existing areas and attract and develop new tourist destinations. This could include expanding our county-owned parks, working with landowners to attract additional tourism businesses, and creating cooperative agreements with our State Park system, to name a few.
Events are a different part of product development, and the County supports events like the Sheetz to Sheetz Run on the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail and the annual Fall Festival at some capacity. The TAC will be looking for additional events to support that can drive outside travelers to our businesses and hotels.
When the vaccine has been widely disseminated, we expect that travelers will return to the roads and airways in masses. With a new strategic plan in place, we intend to put in practice what we have discovered and improve our marketing performance that will complement the efforts of our existing and future tourism business sector. The TAC and Economic Development and Tourism Department are honored to take on such a task and encourage the county residents to provide their input and feedback during this process.