Tourism Agencies Sell the Region to Visitors

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Natives of northeastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania find it easy to pick out their favorite restaurant in Trumbull County or a weekend getaway spot in Mercer County. First-time visitors to the region find it a bit harder to decide where to dine and where to stay.

Enter the tourism bureaus: Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Trumbull County Tourism Bureau and VisitMercerCountyPA.

“Our purpose is to promote all the things you can do here to the traveling public, to entice them to spend their money before they head home,” says Stephanie Sferra, executive director of the Trumbull County agency.

The three bureaus are funded primarily by a 5% lodging tax that applies to most hotels, motels and inns – a few bed-and-breakfasts are exempt as are houses rented through sites such as Airbnb. In the two counties in Ohio, the income is divided between the bureau and the Western Reserve Port Authority, the development agency receiving two-thirds.

The Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau is a government agency – one of two in the state. Both Trumbull and Mercer agencies are nonprofit organizations and have membership dues – $50 for the Trumbull bureau; Mercer County’s ranges from $40 personal memberships up to $200 for large hotels – for businesses that want to be featured in advertising materials.

That income – about $530,000 for the Mahoning County organization last year, the highest of the three – supports promotional activities for visitors to the area. The most common form is what’s known as collateral: brochures, pamphlets, visitor’s guides, tourist maps and more. Ads are also put in publications such as AAA Living magazine and those aimed at RV enthusiasts.

“Many of those publications have reader response, where people tear out a card, circle a number and say, ‘Send me more information,’ ” says Linda Macala, executive director of the Mahoning County agency.

Last year alone, the Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau printed 100,000 visitor guides and fulfilled 16,000 requests for information – usually for a guide – from all 50 states as well as a few in Europe and Canada.

Visitors have a large impact on the economy in terms of revenue, taxes and employment. In a 2015 impact study, the Trumbull County Tourism Bureau reported visitors – Sferra defines them as those who come from 50 miles or farther – spent $333.1 million, generating $504.6 million in total sales and $63.3 million in taxes.

In the same study, done by Philadelphia-based Tourism Economics, Mahoning County brought in $821.7 million in sales and $102.8 million in taxes, while Columbiana County generated $187.4 million in sales and $23.4 million in taxes.

Meanwhile, VisitMercerCountyPA President Peggy Mazyck says tourists spent $400 million in 2015 in Mercer County, affecting 4,000 jobs. What’s more in her district, she continues, is the establishment of the Tourism Attraction Development Grant that provides attractions up to $20,000 for expansions and new developments.

“We believe that it’s not enough to just market. Just like any company, they always have to be looking at their product and trying to improve it to stay competitive,” Mazyck says.

Beyond tourists, improvements such as those the grant funds also help the community, she adds. “The good thing about tourism is that when you’re adding to the experience for visitors, you’re creating a place that’s also good for the community.”

What makes the Mahoning and Shenango valleys attractive to guests, the three agree, is the diversity of all there is to do. While there are well-known attractions such as Mill Creek Park, Grove City Premium Outlets and the many wineries throughout the region, what tends to draw guests are niche events and activities.

At the Covelli Centre, for example, the Ohio Athletic Commission hosts the grade-school and junior-high state wrestling championships on back-to-back weekends. Last year’s finals drew nearly 18,000 visitors over the two weeks with most hotels at capacity, Macala says.

During the final weekend in March, the Niles Wellness Center hosts the Ohio USA Women’s Gymnastic State Meet, which will draw more than 1,000 gymnasts in levels two through five – ages 4 to 7 – and their families.

“Sports tournaments are a dedicated market with a built-in audience. Those families are involved and they are all-in,” Macala says. “So when their child qualifies, they come and the younger they are, the more people that travel with them.”

In Trumbull County, the state’s second-largest inland lake brings in hikers, hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts. The demand for information about Mosquito Lake is so great, Sferra says, that her office had to create a hunting and fishing guide, highlighting nine public hunting areas, shooting ranges and wildlife areas. Those visitors rarely stay in hotels, she continues, but they’re still people coming from outside the region who spend money here.

A recent trend Mazyck and Visit-MercerCountyPA have tapped into is weddings. Over the past few years, rural weddings have become increasingly popular – to the point of being named one of the hottest trends in several bridal magazines – leading the agency to advertise venues on the back cover of its yearly visitors’ guide.

“Farm weddings have become big for people coming from the city. As we look around our county, farm weddings generate overnight stays for us,” she says. “You can’t really market them except for putting their names out there because people book [so far in advance]. They’re already booked for 2017 and into 2018.”

These kinds of events also provide opportunities to generate repeat visits. If a family from Chicago is at Youngstown State for a track meet at the Watson and Tressel Training Site or stops at the Grove City Outlets on their way back home, then there’s a chance to create that first impression of the area being a vacation spot.

For first-time visitors, selling the area to those who have never been here is often a challenge in more ways than one. The Rust Belt label still sticks, Macala says, but once people arrive, they’re often “pleasantly surprised.”

“Time after time, we heard people say that they weren’t excited about coming to Ohio,” she says, citing a recent trip to the American Bus Association trade show in Cleveland. “We hosted a familiarization tour afterward with operators to show them around and they couldn’t believe how much there is to see and do in this area.”

As a mid-level market – one that lacks the same caliber of offerings as Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Chicago – there’s also the challenge of getting motor coach operators to stop here. Since Sferra has been at the Trumbull County Tourism Bureau, she’s seen operators turn more to casinos, eschewing museums and restaurants.

“They don’t care about history. That’s where you have to be imaginative and come up with some real crazy itineraries that appeal to people and show our diversity,” she says.

Mahoning and Trumbull counties are members of Adventures in Northeast Ohio and Ohio’s Appalachian Country, which includes tourism agencies, magazines and destinations. The members pool resources to promote their regions.

“If somebody is traveling a long distance, they’ll want to see things like the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Macala says. “We promote the entire region. The more you have to offer, the more reason people have to come.”

With the completion of the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Youngstown later this year, Mahoning County will have 40 hotels. Recent projects around the Grove City Premium Outlets have upped the number of beds, allowing more income from the lodging tax because between 3% and 5% of the six million visitors annually stay overnight. Trumbull County, meanwhile, ended 2016 with the most bed-tax dollars collected since 2006 as new hotels opened around the Eastwood Mall Complex.

“Some people think there is a glut of hotels in Trumbull County, but we lost almost 390 hotel rooms with the loss of the Metroplex, the Ramada Inn and the Avalon before [Ron] Klingle bought it,” Sferra says. “If that was our biggest year in a decade. Imagine where we’d be if we were in full force throughout the decade.”

Pictured: Linda Macala, executive director of  The Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.