WCVB plans for the future

After months of focusing on making sure it would remain solvent, the Warren County Visitors Bureau is ready to move forward.

At the bureau’s monthly board meeting Thursday night, members discussed what kinds of actions they might take in the coming year.

Part of the discussion involved where the group should be putting its money.

Members stressed that their goal is to bring visitors, ideally overnight visitors, into the county.

In the past, many of their dollars went outside the county – to outdoor, sport and travel shows and the like.

Some members argued that spending dollars on county events would increase the bureau’s visibility, and reduce criticism, while still accomplishing the goal.

Treasurer Karen Sobkowski suggested “devoting a certain amount of our budget specifically to (in-county) events” because those events lure visitors to the county.

She suggested the board set an amount, perhaps $10,000, that it would dedicate to events and distribute that funding via lottery to some events each year.

“Every community has an event,” board president Coralee Wenzel said. “If our contribution to the event gives them a step up, we’ve still met our mission.”

“I’d rather have you putting the money out, rather than in,” Dan Ristau, WCVB liaison to Warren Main Street, said. “The best way to support me, including Main Street, is to carry the word outside of this county. Your mission is to support us outside of Warren County”

“That was our mission… that was our objective,” member Tom Heenan said.

However, spending inside the county would benefit the events as well as show event organizers and the community at large that the bureau is working to fulfill its mission.

In previous years, the bureau “grew that (bed tax) revenue by 21 percent,” he said. “We’re drawing people to Warren County.” But he said people at municipal meetings were saying, “‘What do you do? We can’t see it,'” when the bureau was spending almost exclusively outside the county.

The visitors bureau will host an events meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Hampton Inn in North Warren. The meeting is intended to bring organizers together to establish a calendar, prevent scheduling conflicts, and share ideas, Sobkowski said.

Ristau said the bureau should establish itself as the internet destination for information about Warren County events.

There was no question among the board members that maintaining a presence outside the county was essential.

Member Tom Heenan suggested that the group set up space at sport and travel shows in Pittsburgh and Cleveland in February and March.

“We’ve had no representation at all from the national forest in what… five years,” he said. “It would certainly be nice to find some way to do them.”

The Pennsylvania Wilds takes visitors bureau information to those types of events when the bureau does not attend, member Chuck Johnson said.

Similar shows in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Erie, Salamanca, and Olean and as many as five shows that are particular to golf were also added to the list of possible destinations and targets for WCVB advertising.

Member Marty Hinton said targeting every show every year would create a drain on the organization’s resources. He said by rotating through “two or three shows a year… we hit a bigger circumference of the market.”

Sobkowski advised a focus on golf shows that are north of the county. “Ninety percent of our golfers that come to Warren County come from Buffalo,” she said. “People like to come south. From Pittsburgh, not many come for leisure” other than those who own property in the county.

The board agreed that it is important to open lines of communication – maintaining ties with municipal governments, making regular reports to the county commissioners, and getting back to a good working relationship with the Warren County Council on Tourism (COT).

While trying to educate municipal supervisors and council members about the mission and works of the bureau, members established contacts with those groups. “I don’t want to let go of our contacts,” vice-president John McGraw said.

Johnson said the board should make an effort to make contact with those municipalities on “a regular basis. I don’t think the municipalities knew much about us.”

Wenzel said she would like to see the open house held in October become an annual or even semi-annual event.

The board unanimously passed motions to set up meetings with both the commissioners and COT Executive Director John Papalia to discuss how they can work better together.

McGraw said he would like the commissioners to receive the information handed out at board meetings, including financial reports, each month.

Wenzel said the group’s established five-year strategic plan may need to be updated in response to the “rough year.”

“We certainly have had a lot of controversy throughout the last couple of years,” she said. “It may change our point of view for the (strategic) plan.”

She asked members to return in February with any thoughts about additions or changes.

In September, the Warren County commissioners passed a motion that would have taken the county’s tourism promotion agency (TPA) designation away from the bureau as of Jan. 1 if municipal governments representing more than half the county’s population approved.

The board put forth a concerted effort to convince township supervisors and city and borough council that their organization should retain the title. That effort was successful.