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Riford hits ground running at travel bureau

April 26, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

The Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau has had two unpleasant surprises last year. The first was when the group discovered that its executive director had stolen $15,000 to feed his gambling addiction. The second was when CVB board members realized, in the wake of the scandal, that many citizens didn't know exactly what the organization did.

Tom Riford is out to change that. The CVB's new executive director, who took office March 8, said that getting the word out, about how important tourism is and how CVB promotes it, is one of his top goals.

Riford, who came to Washington County in 1991 to put together a ski-instruction program for Whitetail Resort, has had a variety of jobs since then, including stints with the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Department and Associated Engineering Sciences, Inc.

All of them, he said, have involved working with a variety of agencies to promote the county. In those jobs and in this one as well, Riford said his task is to spotlight the good things others are doing. And based on state statistics, Riford said, CVB and its allies are doing a lot.

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The county now ranks fifth among Maryland's 24 jurisdictions in the number of tourists, drawing 1.2 million to a variety of events and historic sites like Antietam Battlefield, and the county is eighth in the amount of tourist dollars spent.

"This doesn't even count the millions of out-of-county people who come to Prime Outlets, where they had 4.1 million visitors last year, 90 percent of whom came from outside Washington County's borders," he said.

Similar numbers have been posted for Valley Mall and the Centre at Hagerstown, both of which Riford said draw significant numbers of shoppers from other states.

And the occupancy percentage at local hotels and motels is up as well, even though many new rooms have been added in the last few years, he said.

"Our annual occupancy average is over 53 percent and yet our average hotel room rate is only $60," Riford said. That means the cost of doing business here is lower, a selling point for conventions and commercial travelers, he said.

Getting those rooms filled is one of CVB's top jobs. Customers fall into three classes: Those who come here for meetings and conventions, leisure travelers and business customers.

Though it lacks a convention center-type facility, the county has little trouble attracting convention business, Riford said.

"We're already 20 to 40 percent above where we were last year in terms of conventions and meetings," Riford said, adding that more than 8,000 rooms have been reserved for 2004 events.

Those events don't come here by accident. The CVB sales staff attends what are essentially trade shows for the convention and tour operator trade. For the price of admission, CVB officials get a chance to pitch Washington County to those seeking convention sites or places to offer to tour-goers.

That said, CVB would still like to see a convention center built, because even the large ballroom at The Clarion on U.S. 40 isn't big enough for some events that CVB could otherwise land, he said.

"We are losing a minimum of $2 million to $20 million in economic impact each year," he said.

Economic impact means the effect an activity has on the local economy, as dollars spent flow through local businesses and to pay local people. Last year, Riford said, tourism's economic impact here was $165 million and supported 2,300 local jobs.

Finding ways to do more now will be difficult, Riford said. When the county room tax was 3 percent, CVB got 100 percent of that. Now that it's 6 percent, CVB gets 45 percent.

"That was effectively a cut of $100,000," he said, adding that the CVB is facing difficult financial times, in part because of the agency's past philosophy of "paying for the present with the revenues from the future."

That will change, Riford said, and "the board is committed to getting onto a more successful financial footing."

In the short term, that will mean cutting expenses somehow in an organization mandated by law to spend no more than 30 percent of its budget on salaries and administration.

One way to close the gap will be increased use of volunteers. At the Sideling Hill Visitors' Center, where state cuts trimmed the paid staff from seven to three, Riford said volunteers have stepped up to greet folks who stop to look at the rock formations exposed when the road was cut through the mountain.

Listen to Riford talk and you get the feeling that he's got an evangelist's fervor about his subject and the product knowledge that makes the best salespeople successful. And even though local people don't pay a major portion of local room taxes, they ought to support the idea of tourism promotion.

Why? Because tourists come to visit, leave their dollars and don't ask anyone to build them a school or a sewer plant. They also help support amenities - a wider choice of restaurants or retail stores, for example - that wouldn't there otherwise.

If you haven't heard this message before, you probably shouldn't worry about forgetting it, because when I listen to Riford, I doubt if he'll let that happen.

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