By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
North Central West Virginia Airport Director Rick Rock was in Charleston on Tuesday to participate in a ‘Tourism Roundtable’ discussion with WV Senator Shelley Moore Capito. In addition to Rock, airport leaders from Morgantown and Huntington were also in attendance along with representatives from ski resorts, parks, restaurants, Convention & Visitors Bureaus, etc. The topic? Successfully marketing the state of West Virginia.
“Tourism is a $5.1 billion industry in West Virginia,” Rock stated. “It is big business for our state, and we want to do all we can to be an advocate for the Mountain State. What we all want to do is to try to market our state to the international traveler.”
Rock noted some specifics. While those who live in West Virginia and/or nearby might consider “travel” going away for a long weekend or a week’s stay somewhere, the international traveler typically is away for an average of 23 days. One in four enplanements is an international traveler. Colleges are even recruiting international students. People traveling to the South from Canada, for example, need to know why they should consider stopping in West Virginia.
“We are a small state, but we have lots of attractions in our state … white water rafting, ski resorts, golfing, the New River Gorge Bridge, some of the best cuisine anywhere, fairs and festivals year round, etc. Tourism creates quite a few jobs in our state, and even with limited resources, we can still promote our tourism.”
Certainly, everyone wants to concentrate on opportunities to bring people into their own area. However, Rock said that perhaps part of the solution is to look at tourism statewide instead of regionalizing so much.
“Senator Capito supports our efforts here in West Virginia and suggests that we leverage our efforts together to market our state as a whole and be joint advocates for our state,” Rock added.
Rock said that although the Essential Air Service program has been clear that it intends to strongly enforce a monthly cap for Silver Airways flights to Washington-Dulles Airport, he feels that the upcoming months will show improvement at NCWVA.
“January and February are typically not good months for us, and this has been a bad winter – not just for us – but all over. However, while they may look at perhaps a year end summary, we are constantly tracking our numbers month to month, and historically, our bad months should be behind us now. As spring and summer approaches, our airport is entering its high travel months and our numbers will increase,” he said.
There are numerous positives at NCWVA, and Rick was quick to point out that the local airport has witnessed a 106% increase!
“This is the largest increase on the East Coast!” he specified. “We want to continue to build on this momentum. People want to utilize our airport; they like its amenities. We have great customer service and have upgraded our parking as well as our terminal. We’ve made a billion dollar economic impact to north central West Virginia, and since our airport is one of the only ones growing in the state, we believe that is a pretty good argument to keep our Dulles connection. While our Florida and Myrtle Beach flights are wonderful for people in the area, we still want to continue to maintain our connection to Washington.”
Benedum Airport Authority President Ron Watson added, “We must remember that our airport and the one nearby in Morgantown are both taking people on the very same flights to Washington. Perhaps that should be looked at. But our big thing is that we continue to qualify for airport improvement funds. We have gone beyond just meeting the minimum 10,000 enplanements. Last year we had 22,000 enplanements, which is a big hike! But we are never satisfied; we are constantly looking for better and more economically reasonable opportunities to serve our area better.”
Rock concluded, “We have proven that we are a very strong economic engine for North Central West Virginia and we’re confident that we will continue to develop. We are centrally located; we have the Bridgeport Conference Center for conventions and meetings and now, with talk of a convention center coming to downtown Clarksburg and our many new hotels, these are all positive points that will boost tourism in our area. We will keep pushing to bring people to North Central West Virginia. Our state and our immediate area has great potential for growth and we want to be a part of that.”