Tourism target: Boost motorcoach visits

Eleven group tour operators arrived in Marietta Wednesday for a two-day Familiarization (FAM) Tour of the Marietta and Parkersburg areas.

“It’s been quite a while since there’s been a FAM Tour here. The idea is to bring in group tour operators, some who’ve been here before and others who are here for the first time, to help familiarize them with what we have to offer tour groups in this area,” explained Jeri Knowlton, executive director of the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Group tours, bringing busloads of tourists into the area, have dropped off considerably in recent years, which is the main reason for the FAM Tour-to try and generate more interest from group tour operators.

“Years ago this area saw more than 400 group motorcoach tours a year,” Knowlton said. “But it’s a different world today-we live in a much more mobile society, and people travel for different reasons than they did in the past.”

Local attractions like Fenton Art Glass Company in Williamstown, which has ceased manufacturing its popular glassware and no longer offers factory tours, and the closing of the Middleton Doll Factory in Belpre are among the factors that have impacted group tours in the Marietta and Parkersburg areas.

“We have to build new tourism markets for this area,” Knowlton said. “These group tour operators are always looking for something new. So we wanted to paint a new picture for them during this FAM Tour. That’s why the Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption is part of the itinerary, as well as the Anderson Hancock Planetarium at Marietta College.”

She said group tourists also want to take part in “hands-on” experiences like a cooking demonstration at the Cook’s Shop on Front Street that was included in the FAM Tour agenda.

Knowlton said the Marietta-Washington County CVB and Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau have joined forces to host the FAM Tour for group tour operators from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois.

The operators were picked up in Toledo Wednesday morning and bused to Marietta where they toured some local attractions and spent the night at the Lafayette Hotel. Today the group attends a morning mini-trade show at the hotel featuring representatives from 12 area businesses and attractions before heading to Parkersburg for more tours and a stay at the Blennerhassett Hotel.

Ann and Jim Lewis, coordinators for Timely Tours in Port Clinton, Ohio, were among the FAM Tour visitors in town Wednesday.

“We came to find out what this area has to offer our group tours,” Jim said. “We’re already planning tours for 2015.”

Ann said Timely Tours still has one “mystery tour” that has to be arranged during 2014, and hinted that Marietta could be a possible destination.

“We try to make sure the places we visit have plenty of parking space for buses and that there’s a variety of attractions that are ‘senior-friendly’ sites,” she said. “We have a lot of seniors who book tours with us.”

Deborah Fowler, coordinator for Lenzner Tours and Travel in Sewickly, Pa., said this is her first time in the Marietta and Parkersburg area.

“But I’m very happy to see this area,” she said. “We try to do a FAM Tour of a different location every year.”

Fowler said she has already arranged a “Summer Adventure in Marietta, Ohio” group day trip tour that will take place in June or July this year, with plans to visit a host of local attractions.

Faith Crandle from Cooperville, Mich., works with a senior program in that area and said she is constantly looking for new adventures for her clients.

“This would be a wonderful trip for our group,” she said. “Marietta is really a beautiful town.”

Le Ann Hendershot, director of the local Campus Martius and Ohio River museums, said those facilities will be among the attractions taking part in today’s mini-trade show at the Lafayette Hotel.

“We’re looking forward to talking with the group tour operators about the museums and what we have to offer, and encouraging them to come see us,” she said. “The local CVBs are working hard to build the bus tours back up in this area.”

Hendershot said the museums receive a lot of group tours through the Marietta-Washington County CVB.

“But we also get several groups every year that contact us directly for museum tours,” she said, noting the museum staff often recommends those tourists also visit other local attractions like The Castle, Fearing House and the Valley Gem Sternwheeler.

Marietta Councilman Tom Vukovic chairs council’s finance committee that designates half of the city’s lodging tax to help support the Marietta-Washington County CVB. In recent years the CVB’s share has been in the $400,000 range.

“I think the FAM Tour is a great idea,” he said. “We have to promote this area, and joining with the Greater Parkersburg CVB makes good sense to promote the entire region.”

Mark Lewis, president of the Greater Parkersburg CVB, echoed that thought.

“Working across the river to market this region makes good sense, and the more we can promote the areas the better,” he said. “We have so much to offer. A motorcoach tour can easily spend three to four days visiting both cities and surrounding areas. That’s why these FAM Tours are so great. If we can get the group tour operators interested, they have the potential to bring hundreds of people here.”

In addition to the basilica, planetarium and Cook’s Shop, the group tour operators also visited the Peoples Bank Theatre and heard a presentation by local historian Lynne Sturtevant while in Marietta.

Today the group will visit Holl’s Chocolates and the Parkersburg Arts Center as well as the Blennerhassett Museum and renovated Smoot Theatre in Parkersburg. They will spend the night there at the Blennerhassett Hotel before returning to Toledo where the annual Heartland Travel Showcase will take place this weekend.