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New tourism exec aims to unite efforts

February 24, 2001

New tourism exec aims to unite efforts



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Every community makes its own efforts to lure tourists, and that has never made a lot of sense to Bob O'Connor.

Counties often have their own visitors bureau, and efforts to promote communities individually are undermined by politics or by too narrow a focus on that community, said O'Connor, the new executive director of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

O'Connor's main focus will be attracting tourists to Berkeley County, but he said he won't hesitate to promote the entire Tri-State region.

If a visitor wants to know where there is gambling, O'Connor said he will be happy to tell the person about the Charles Town Races in neighboring Jefferson County.

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"The tourist doesn't care if it's in the next county. They just want to make sure it's close. Our theme is, 'The center of it all,' '' O'Connor said.

In Berkeley County, a number of boards and organizations are involved in promoting tourism. O'Connor wants to bring the organizations together in a concerted effort to lure visitors.

Among the groups promoting the area are the George Washington Heritage Trail Commission, which oversees the highway route that follows the travels of the first president through the Tri-State area; the Berkeley County Roundhouse Authority, which is overseeing the renovation of the old B&O Roundhouse in Martinsburg; and the board that oversees the annual Apple Harvest Festival in Berkeley County.

O'Connor said he needs to find out what those groups are doing to lure tourists, and he wants them to realize what the bureau's focus is.

"There are ways we can work together smarter. I don't have the answers, but I have the experience to get people to work together," said O'Connor.

For 11 years, O'Connor was the executive director of the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Hagerstown. He also worked for three years as director of the Hershey Partnership, the visitors and convention bureau in Hershey, Pa.

During his time in Washington County, O'Connor was instrumental in the development of numerous successful tourist events including the National Pike Festival and the annual luminaire event at Antietam National Battlefield.

The Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau has a seven-member board of directors. Board members usually determine the direction they want to proceed, although O'Connor said they want to hear his ideas, too.

Members of the board of directors are appointed by the Martinsburg City Council and the Berkeley County Commissioners. The board is funded through grants and half of the motel tax in the city, which amounts to about $180,000, O'Connor said.

O'Connor said the county must "do a better job of selling what we have."

Although he is still determining how that should be done, he knows some basics about local tourism.

To begin with, the typical customer here is different from those in the rest of the state. In southern parts of the state, the largest number of visitors come from Ohio, O'Connor said. In Berkeley County, they come from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

O'Connor is also familiar with what he sees as weaknesses in the tourism industry. For example, employees in the industry, who have the most contact with visitors, often have the least amount of knowledge about tourist attractions in an area, he said.

"It's a fallacy of the whole system," said O'Connor.

O'Connor replaces Jim Castleman, who left the post recently to head up the Shenandoah Travel Association in New Market, Va. O'Connor, 55, lives in Hagerstown but plans to move to Berkeley County.

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