As Americans’ vacation plans begin rebounding with the national economy, Centre County tourism officials are banking on more day trips and overnight visits.
The gradual economic recovery led more people to spend money on travel in 2012, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s most recent economic impact study.
“In 2012, Pennsylvania hosted an estimated 189.2 million visitors — a 4 percent increase from 2011,” according to the report.
And visitors spent $649 million in 2011 alone. That was up from the $588 million spent in 2010.
While county-specific statistics are not yet available for the past two years, the 2012 Annual Traveler Profile from the Pennsylvania Tourism Office suggests that statewide tourism continued to increase.
“The increase in marketable travelers was from both the overnight and day-trip segments, clearly showing that consumers are feeling more confident about their personal financial situation and willing to once again spend a portion of their discretionary dollars on travel,” according to the report.
Besides the economic resurgence, the region also is becoming more accessible thanks to new transportation options.
The act of traveling to Centre County, and State College specifically, has been streamlined for many potential out-of-state visitors. The University Park Airport recently started offering twice-daily flights to Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
Betsey Howell, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she believes this is an opportunity to attract new tourists to the region.
“With the new direct flight to and from Chicago, we will be targeting that area specifically for meeting and convention business,” she said.
Attracting visitors from Chicago is just one of many new initiatives that the bureau is using to increase traffic in the region.
“We have developed new promotions that take advantage of some of the events the area is already hosting to entice visitors to extend their stay and encourage new visitation,” Howell said.
The bureau also is taking advantage of social media to spread the word about events in the region.
“We recently launched a new quarterly consumer e-mail piece that targets visitors who have opted to receive updates about upcoming events,” Howell said. “We have developed several online contests via Facebook that encourage visitation. Our website allows for local tourism-related events to be submitted online and, after approval, promoted via the website calendar of events, weekly membership e-mail blasts and quarterly consumer email blasts.”
The visitors bureau, a nonprofit organization funded by members and the local lodging tax, is committed to marketing the county’s municipalities as vacation destinations for local, national and international visitors. About 80 percent of its yearly budget promotes efforts for local events and attractions.
The bureau operates the Centre County/Penn State Visitors’ Center on campus as well as a second location in Bellefonte.
“We assist over 100,000 visitors annually between the two visitor centers,” Howell said.
In addition to the continued efforts of the bureau, one of the main sources of tourism in the region is some of the bigger events such as the Central PA 4th Fest and the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. These events have continued to grow since their creation, attracting more than 1 million visitors from all over the country.
The Grange Fair near Centre Hall began in 1874 as a small picnic and has since turned into an annual event that draws tens of thousands of visitors. Howell estimated that events in the region account for about 250,000 visitors annually.
That 250,000 is just a portion of the people who visit Centre County every year.
“If one considers all of the events in the area — both large and small — along with meetings, conventions, sports, etc., Centre County hosts an estimated 1.5 million visitors,” Howell said.
One of the reasons for such a large number of visitors, especially when compared with statewide totals, may be people’s willingness to return after visiting once.
According to a survey published in the visitors bureau 2012-13 annual report, when visitors were asked if they would return to the region, 86 percent of respondents said they would.
The survey also asked people what their reasons were for visiting the area.
The top responses included seeing the scenery, shopping, visiting a historic site, visiting Penn State and hiking. This list of answers illustrates the diverse list of things to see and do that continues to make the region appealing for tourists, industry leaders said.
And most importantly for the region’s economy, these visitors are spending a lot of money.
A 2009 economic impact report conducted by Penn State outlined the enormous revenues generated by just the football program. According to the report, “out-of-state visitors to Penn State football spent nearly $51.1 million in the Pennsylvania economy, and approximately $34.1 million within Centre County.”
With new attractions — such as the Pegula Ice Arena — continuing to open, there are several reasons to believe that 2014 could be another big year for tourism in Centre County.