Golden age: Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau celebrates 50 years

It wasn’t always called the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau.

When Ferguson Township resident Chuck Mong became director of the visitors bureau in 1968, succeeding Harold Johnson, the group was called the Centre County Vacation Land Council as a government-funded tourism promotion program.

It wasn’t until about a decade later that the nonprofit was changed to its current name, Mong said.

Mong, who was part of the bureau for 16 years, said the mission always has been the same.

“It never changed. It’s to bring tourists and tourist dollars into Centre County,” he said. “That’s the best economic dollar you can have because tourism supports nearly everything.”

On Tuesday, the bureau is celebrating its 50th year in service.

Executive Director Betsey Howell said the organization was started in 1963 as part of the State College Area Chamber of Commerce. When the name was changed to the Central Pennsylvania Convention & Visitors Bureau, it became a separate organization from the chamber.

The office originally was located at the Bellefonte train station with two staff members.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Mong would travel along the Eastern Seaboard and Canada promoting tourism in Centre County, he said.

“We went from a small agency with no employees through the national bicentennial with two employees and were able to extend promotional activities through travel shows on a broader exposure,” Mong said.

The largest market was in Toronto, Mong said.

“People from that part of Canada were often traveling south, and State College was a great place as a layover for them before they began to drive again,” Mong said. “During that time, the growth of the county was nice and steady then. In the last 10 years, I believe, (it) has seen the biggest growth.”

Around 1986, the visitors bureau moved to office space in the Fraser Street parking garage, where it shared space with the chamber of commerce, Howell said. About five years later, it moved locations again to South Atherton Street and in 2000, moved to its current location on Park Avenue near Beaver Stadium.

Around 1998, the bureau opened a satellite office in Bellefonte and a visitors center in July 2000 that is open seven days a week, Howell said.

As the area grew, so did the bureau. It now has 10 full-time and six part-time staff, Howell said. Howell started at the bureau in 1981 and became executive director in 1986.

“Growth of the area helped contribute to our growth,” Howell said. “There is more business, therefore more things to promote, especially on the meeting and convention side of business.”

The growth of the area then helped create a “trickle-down of visitor spending,” Howell said.

“The spending that they’re doing is not just at the hotel, but that trickles down to those other businesses as well and, in turn, those businesses are paying employees to work at the business and then those employees are using their money and buying other local services,” she said.

The bureau works with businesses around the county and with other Pennsylvania tourism offices, Howell said.

“They’re key to our success. We work collaboratively and they’re a great partnership to have,” Howell said. “Our mission is to promote Centre County with a goal of bringing in tourism that can be in leisure, sports, and meeting and conventions or anything else.”

Howell did not have a specific percentage on how much the visitors bureau has grown, but said the growth has been steady each year.

“We continue to work with that and adapt to growth with realistic goals,” Howell said.

A key factor in its growth is communication with the business industry and tourism bureaus around the state, Howell said.

“If we’re seeing a slow trend of visitors in our area due to the economy, then we also target locals,” she said. “We help them find out what they can do in their own back yard.”

“We see growth in the future and will continue our mission,” Howell added. “We do that by working with the community and promoting ourselves.”

The bureau is funded through state funding and through private investors.