Visitor Bureaus Sing ‘Happy Trails to You’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Grill on the Hill has a dare for its patrons: the Cliffhanger Challenge. 

In 10 minutes or less, participating patrons must eat the three-layer bacon cheeseburger, served with “a hill of fries.” Those who rise to the occassion get their burger for free, says Mark Lyngarkos, owner of the New Castle, Pa., restaurant.

“We have had people come, from professional eaters to regular patrons,” he says. Of the 75 who have tried the challenge over the past two years, just 11 have succeed.

Grill on the Hill is one of the eight stops on the Lawrence County Burger Trail, one of several such marketing initiatives that convention and visitor bureaus in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys have launched in recent years to promote tourism and boost business at local venues. 

Tourism overall represents no small share of the regional economy. According to Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics company that tracks tourism spending, the impact of such spending was $855.5 million annually in Mahoning County and $558.4 million in Trumbull County. 

A separate Tourism Economics report put 2017 traveler spending at $305.7 million in Mercer County and $126.8 million in Lawrence County. 

Behind agriculture, tourism is the second-largest industry in Lawrence County, says Janet Falotico, Visit Lawrence County executive director.

Trails in the counties are largely structured around food and beverages, although some promote historical venues and recreation such as hiking, kayaking and golf, featured in both Mercer County and Trumbull County in Ohio.

In addition to the immediate area, the Mercer County Golf Trail draws from an area encompassing Cleveland, Erie, western New York and southern Ontario, Canada. “Of course, Pittsburgh is a big market for us,” says Peggy Mazyck, president and CEO of VisitMercerCountyPA.

TourismOhio’s map of tourism trails in the state includes 72 trails, three in Mahoning and Trumbull counties. Venues in the two counties also are featured on some of the statewide trails. 

“We’re following food tourism trends. People travel specifically for food,” says Beth Kotwis Carmichael, executive director of the Trumbull County Tourism Bureau

Locals who travel to Cleveland and Pittsburgh to dine often don’t realize that people from those communities and others will come here “if you’re giving them a unique food experience,” she says. 

Nearly 50 restaurants take part in the Italian Food Trail, says Trumbull County Tourism Bureau Executive Director Beth Kotwis Carmichael.

That trend spurred the creation of the Trumbull County Italian Food Trail, which Carmichael says is the first of its kind in the nation. Soft-launched last year with 34 food sites in the county, the Italian Food Trail this year lists nearly 50 venues.

“With the Italian Food Trail, we wanted to do something unique,” she says. “A lot of people who are born and raised here don’t realize that we have unique Italian dishes that you cannot get outside this area.” In communities even as close Columbus, people haven’t heard of greens and Italian wedding soup, she says.  

The bureau is in the process of creating a passport program for the trail this year, she says. The goal is to have up to 15 venues participate. The first 100 individuals who get their passport stamped by all the participants will receive a baseball cap with the food trail logo on it.      

The Lawrence County Burger Trail is in its second year, growing to eight restaurants from six during its inaugural run, Falotico says. 

“We hope it will continue on for many years and grow to be something that people look forward to,” she says. 

Participants get passports stamped at the restaurants when they order a burger and are eligible to win prizes. The restaurants also give out miniature Gummy burgers to patrons. 

Grill on the Hill saw about a 20% increase in business last summer during the Burger Trail promotion and many of the new customers have returned, Lyngarkos says. “We have people coming in that we’ve seen from Mercer and Beaver and surrounding counties that normally wouldn’t come here,” he says. 

This year, changes to the trail were made to reflect lessons learned from last year, Falotico says.  

“We’ve learned that you can’t just have a certain burger that people have to choose,” she says. Now, any burger from any restaurant on the trail qualifies for a passport stamp. 

Also popular in both states are trails featuring local wineries and taprooms. The Mahoning County Convention & Visitors Bureau is again conducting its Wines of the Valley Wine Trail this year, which runs through Sept. 29. 

Visitors can pick up a passport at each of the six participating wineries or download it from the convention bureau website, says Linda Macala, executive director. 

When visitors purchase a glass of wine at a winery, they get their passport stamped and receive a charm unique to each venue.

“Our wineries have grown in number tremendously and each one of them is unique,” Macala says. 

Mahoning County Convention & Visitors Bureau assistant director, Tara Mady, and executive director, Linda Macala, say the wine trail has boosted business.

Those who visit at least five of the wineries will receive a box for the charms they collect, plus a bonus charm.

“This was a real success in 2018,” Macala says. “It brought new customers through their doors, absolutely.” 

Last year, more than 700 people redeemed their passports, including “a good amount” from outside Mahoning County, she adds. Visitors came from Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, as well as western Pennsylvania communities such as Erie and Pittsburgh, and from Kentucky. 

Diletto Winery in Boardman took part in the trail last year and is returning this year. The winery has an escape room, which people enjoy attempting to master with a glass of wine or sangria, owner Jacqueline Shell says.

Last year, the county wine trail promotion brought an additional 1,000 patrons through its doors, she says. 

“People were excited about the opportunity to do something like that locally,” Shell says. “There’s a huge following for the wine trail events that they have in Geneva and I think people appreciate that they have the opportunity to do that closer to home.” 

Mercer and Lawrence counties have wine and beer trails among their offerings as well. Mercer County offers the Wine and Brew Trail, says VisitMercerCountyPA’s Mazyck. The trail features eight wineries, five breweries and two distilleries. 

In addition to promoting the trail, the Mercer bureau plans trips for groups in partnership with Anderson Coach and Travel. The bureau is in its second year of that arrangement and typically schedules two such tours a month, usually consisting of about 10 people each. 

VisitMercerCountyPA helps plan trips for visitors in a partnership with Anderson Coach and Travel, says the agency’s president and CEO, Peggy Mazyck.

“We help them out by providing the transportation, doing the itineraries, setting up the meal, everything,” Mazyck says. “All they have to do is come and have fun.” 

Lawrence County offers its Wine & Craft Beer Trail, which began about two years ago, Falotico says. 

And though it doesn’t feature alcoholic beverages, Mahoning County also offers the Joe in the YO coffee trail, Macala adds.

Among the trails listed on the state tourism website is the Ohio Presidential Trail, which features two Trumbull County stops: the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial and the McKinley Birthplace Home, both in Niles. 

A statewide arts and culture trail also includes the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown and an ice cream trail features Youngstown-based Handel’s Ice Cream, Macala says. Local coffee shops are on an Ohio coffee trail as well, she adds.    

Getting visitors to these particular venues is only part of the objective. The larger goal, the tourism directors agree, is to lure them in with trails before convincing them to spend more time here.

“Our marketing is talking about all the cool things there are to do in Trumbull County while you’re here doing the Italian food trial,” Trumbull County’s Carmichael says. 

Pictured above: Janet Falotico, executive director of Visit Lawrence County, helped organize the agency’s Burger Trail, which takes visitors to eight restaurants in the county.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.