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Hospitality is alive and well in Washington County

November 04, 2004|by Tom Riford

It's been asked, "what does the Convention and Visitors Bureau do?"

The membership organization is charged with helping market Washington County and to attract visitors.

Tourism is a critically important part of our economy. It creates and maintains jobs, and makes a sizable investment in our community.

According to Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulations, more than 5,300 of our county's citizens are working in "leisure and hospitality" today. Without tourism, our unemployment rate would double. In 2003, tourism produced a $168 million economic impact for our county, which is the amount spent by overnight visitors. Economic impact is the effect an activity has on the local economy, as dollars spent here flow through local businesses, and pay local people. Washington County ranked fifth in the state for the numbers of visitors, and that doesn't even include the numbers of out-of-town shoppers who visit here on "day trips."

The marketing efforts of the CVB are paid for through membership dues, advertising and Visitors Center revenues, and also from a minority share of the county's lodging tax. As we all know, local people generally don't pay local room taxes. Visitors stay in hotels. However, local people ought to support the idea of tourism promotion. Tourists come to visit our county, they spend money here, they leave, and they don't ask anyone to build them a school or a sewer plant. The tourism industry supports amenities for our citizens - a wider choice of restaurants or retail stores, for example - that wouldn't be here otherwise.

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Some of the CVB's marketing efforts include the annual Visitors Guide (more than 120,000 copies are distributed throughout the nation), our constantly updated Web site (which gets more than 73,000 unique visitors requesting information annually), our downtown Hagerstown Visitors Welcome Center, the numerous trade shows and sales missions we attend, the CVB's advertising, and our public relations efforts. We're pleased to announce several new things, including that the new Dining Guides, Shopping Guides and Calendar of Events have been designed and produced, and are available now. These guides are used by visitors and residents alike, and are very valuable in our marketing efforts.

2004 has been a record year for Washington County tourism. Over the last several months, the occupancy rates at our local hotels are at the highest levels that the county has ever seen. We've gone back and looked at hotel occupancy over the last several years, and there's never been anything like it. The independent Smith Travel Research firm tracks occupancy and room rate statistics for the tourism industry. Hotels during the last several months reported in excess of 75 percent occupancy, and averaging in the entire year report in excess of 65 percent occupancy. The whole year shows hotel occupancy up 15 percent compared to 2003. These are phenomenal visitors statistics for our county, and truly important economically.

The Tennessee-based Smith Travel Research is a nationally-known hotel research and survey consultant. While some of the statistics are confidential, the overall totals can be publicly discussed. The monthly STR Reports are the industry standard. Our hotels are doing very well with occupancy percentages, while the consumer is truly benefiting from fairly stable rates. The latest year-to-date report showed that more than 324,000 hotel rooms had been utilized through September. Campgrounds have also enjoyed a record business year. Our local historical attractions and educational opportunities have also fared well in 2004.

For Washington County, convention and meeting business is up approximately 40 percent this year, as well. We've had a great year with group business. Some of this is a result of months and years of work; however, much of the success happened during 2004. There's no doubt that we're a top destination choice for the small and medium convention market. Our hotel rates are much lower than our neighboring metro areas, and we have a lot of attractions, shopping, culture and dining opportunities which help convince groups to hold events here. The hurricanes and tropical storms didn't affect meeting and convention business here, as much as it did in southeastern states.

Gasoline prices haven't been as negative an impact as had been feared.

The economy is strong. Nationally, tourism has approached the record numbers of 2000, but here in Hagerstown our occupancy rates have surpassed our record years. Gas prices may have actually positively impacted tourism; we believe that people came to Hagerstown, instead of pursuing more expensive travel plans elsewhere. Millions of people live within 200 miles. Let's never forget that we have a lot to offer, and it's right here in people's back yards.

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