YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Slowly but surely, events are returning and bringing tourism dollars to the five-county region.
But visitors bureaus say outdoor activities will be the biggest drivers of tourism growth, at least until people outside the area are comfortable enough to travel again.
In 2020, tourism was down across the board as health orders restricted indoor events and gatherings of large crowds. Tourism bureaus in the Mahoning Valley and Mercer County in Pennsylvania reported losses of anywhere from 25% to 40%, largely based on drops in hotel occupancy. Some hotels saw even higher drops, representatives say.
But while indoor gatherings such as sporting events, concerts and other specialty shows were put on hold, there was renewed interest in outdoor activities last year. And local tourism bureaus are leaning into that momentum for 2021.
Last year, venues such as golf courses “were more crowded than ever” as residents looked for safe outdoor activities, says Linda Macala, executive director of the Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which promotes itself under the brand Youngstown Live.
All of the bureau’s marketing this year is focused on outdoor activities, particularly golf and amenities that residents may have forgotten about or didn’t know were there, Macala says. With Mill Creek MetroParks reopening places like the D.D. and Velma Davis Education Visitor Center at Fellows Riverside Gardens, as well as Lanterman’s Mill, the bureau is encouraging residents to rediscover local attractions.
“There are so many areas that people may not have realized are there. Rediscover that gem in your own backyard,” Macala says. “I’ve lived here my whole life. And I just found a new trail in Mill Creek Park this morning.”
The Trumbull County Tourism Bureau is also promoting places residents might not have visited in a while. Among these are the Medici Museum of Art and the National Packard Museum in Warren, as well as the covered bridge in Newton Falls, says Beth Carmichael, executive director. She also encourages residents to “get out into the county” and visit rural attractions in Kinsman Township and Mesopotamia Township.
Trumbull County also is heavily promoting major draws, such as the Mahoning Valley Scrappers season and River Rock at the Amp, as well as its trails, particularly the Italian Food Trail, Carmichael says. Since launching the new digital version of the trail’s pass program in March, “We are seeing greater than expected signups,” at nearly 1,000, she says.
New pop-up perks offer giveaways to incentivize use of the pass. The current offer includes a $50 gift-card giveaway for pass-holders who check in at four locations along the Italian Food trail, she says.
“If you go to the website, ItalianFoodTrail.com, you can get more information, sign up for the pass and see what the pop-up perk is for that period,” Carmichael says.
In Columbiana County, overall use of parks last year was “just amazing,” says Eileen Dray-Bardon of the Columbiana County Park District. State parks that usually see a “smattering of people” had parking lots overflowing on good-weather weekends, she says.
“I think it was a discovery event for a lot of people who didn’t realize what their communities had to offer in terms of outdoor activities,” Dray-Bardon says. “To say it was triple the normal use would not be an exaggeration.”
To build on that momentum, the county looks to launch its first tourism bureau this summer, she says. The budding organization completed its strategic plan, has a website nearly built and is in the process of adopting a logo and structuring membership fees.
The park district is working with county chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus to ensure everyone is collaborating on the countywide project.
“They know this is a gap in our county and they’re eager to fill that gap with something people can just type in and find out what’s going on,” Dray-Bardon says.
Last year, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources forced outdoor events and educational programs to be canceled. With that restriction gone, the park district and Beaver Creek Wildlife Education Center are loading up weekends with hikes and kids activities, she says.
Three hikes held thus far were “better attended than we ever saw,” she says. The annual spring wildflower hike drew 34 participants, up from the 15 it usually gets.
“We had to break into three groups to comfortably navigate the trail,” Dray-Bardon says. More recently, a bird-watching hike on Hellbender Bluff drew 20.
The same goes for outdoor activities in Mercer County. Kayaking and canoeing venues turned a profit in 2020 and state parks saw “huge increases” in visitors, reports Peggy Mazyck, executive director of Visit Mercer County PA.
Greenhouses and gardens saw a 20% increase in use for outdoor classes and wedding ceremonies, she says.
Wineries and breweries with carry-out services also did “extremely well” as state liquor stores were shut down during the pandemic, Mazyck says.
As did Ohio counties, occupancy restrictions in Pennsylvania prompted a 30% to 40% drop in hotel stays in Mercer County, she says. Other venues that would have hosted large gatherings, such as golf courses, also took a hit.
“Some of our golf courses lost all of the Canadian traffic,” Mazyck adds. County golf courses see “huge bookings from Canada.”
That also impacted other aspects of the local economy, such as restaurants, hotels and shopping. In a typical year, Grove City Premium Outlets in Grove City sees more than six million visitors, 12% of whom are from Canada, she says.
“The outlets are a natural stop for them,” she says. “It’s high visibility and a good stop for people traveling Interstate 79 going to Florida and different places.”
Visit Mercer County PA is running its fifth annual Tourism Cash Giveaway during Father’s Day weekend, June 18-20. Booking accommodations at a participating Mercer County hotel will earn guests Tourism Cash received at check-in: $150 for a one-night stay, $300 for two nights and $500 for three.
Tourism Cash can be used at more than 40 participating vendors for shopping, dining, golf and water activities, such as kayaking.
“Pretty much all of our accommodations are going to participate,” Mazyck says.
Typically, the promotion is offered around St. Patrick’s Day. County officials felt holding it back until later would be a good way to welcome people back to Mercer County, Mazyck says. So far, it’s drawn at least 50 bookings.
“Our goal is to see between 150 and 200 rooms before we cut the program off,” she says. “It’s going to be huge.”
As tourism traffic increases, the challenge will be bringing back much of the hospitality and recreation staff that were furloughed or laid off during shutdowns. Current staffers are usually handling many tasks, Mazyck says.
“People are looking for higher incomes,” she says. “So I think what’s going to happen is the pent-up demand is going to drive [wages] up. So [employers] will have to pay more.”
Getting hotel bookings up across the board will also be a challenge as people from outside of the area remain cautious about traveling, tourism professionals say.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine announced May 12 that health orders will be lifted June 2. Tourism bureaus hope to capitalize.
“Regionally, I think people will start with short road trips,” Mahoning County’s Macala says. “Mahoning County offers miles and miles of trails, lots of wide open spaces, great golf courses, wineries and craft breweries, and plenty of outdoor dining. People in the region can feel safe and comfortable.”
The bureau has received calls from travelers looking for things to safely do in the county, she says.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in inquiries, people requesting information,” she adds. “So they’re in the planning phases.”
Macala expects Youngstown Live to add many events to its calendar. She encourages residents to visit YoungstownLive.com frequently and follow the bureau on social media.
Trumbull’s Carmichael is “cautiously optimistic” and expects tourism to “produce increases in the short-term economic impact,” she says.
“Our decision to increase our marketing is directly related to our funding,” Carmichael says. “We’ll continue to focus on our plan and as we see growth in funding, we’ll increase our marketing investment.”
A third-party research report on the effectiveness and efficiency of the Trumbull bureau’s marketing found that, over the course of the COVID travel period, marketing efforts impacted an incremental spending of $37.5 million in the county, she says.
“For every dollar we spent in marketing Trumbull County, the county sees $194 in visitors’ spending,” she says. “So that’s a huge success for us. We want to see that continue.”
Pictured at top: Beth Carmichael invites residents to visit Trumbull County landmarks, like the Newton Falls covered bridge.