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  • Writer's pictureChris Brewster

Pandemic forces regional tourism to shift focus

Over the last year, nobody has been spared from the changes the global pandemic has brought. That includes our regional tourism organizations. Like all of us, they have adapted to current situations and continue to find creative ways to show people what our area has to offer.

In many cases, one of the biggest changes has been the target audience. With travel still somewhat limited – and very limited since last March – much of the focus has switched from marketing to travelers into the area to those who already live here.

“Beyond visitors coming to tour Finger Lakes Wine Country, the largest drivers of tourism in Chemung County are business travel and events of all kinds,” said Cynthia Raj, Vice President of Tourism Promotion for the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce. “The latter includes large-scale regional events, such as race weekends at Watkins Glen International, as well as local ones, such as Clemens Center’s Broadway performances. “Beyond these, we also benefit from weddings, college orientations /

graduations, reunions, and traveling sports teams, such as hockey games at First Arena. All of these came to a halt.” What that meant, Raj added, was a slight shift in focus.

“Shortly after the lockdown, we began to work with local tourism businesses to provide the public with updates on safe activities and business openings/closings during COVID-19,” she said. “We also shared relevant information to attractions and restaurants on webinars, grants, and loans related to COVID-19 relief options. Both of these continue to the present.” An important first step, for not only visitors and residents but also tourism-based businesses, was becoming a key component in sharing information.

“Shortly after the lockdown,” Raj said, “we began to work with local tourism businesses to provide the public with updates on safe activities and business openings/closings during COVID-19. We also shared relevant information to attractions and restaurants on webinars, grants, and loans related to COVID-19 relief options. Both of these continue to the present.”

For Judi Hess, Director of the Greater Binghamton Convention & Visitors Bureau, an emphasis on targeting both visitors and local residents was something they already had in place. “Our social media presence has grown over the last few years to where it’s a healthy mix of visitors and locals, which really benefits both groups,” she said. “It’s been our best too through the pandemic. We’re not ready to take out large print ads, so we can do more of a soft sell through social media.” Both Hess and Raj identified outdoor activities as an area that continued to thrive while other activities struggled.

“Our park system in the state set records, and our county parks did extremely well because of the outdoor activities,” Hess said. “The attendance really did elevate, and that continues to be the case. We recently did a session on how people can visit county parks and do winter activities.” Raj sees this trend continuing to grow. “The renewed interest in outdoor recreation, such as hiking and biking, will continue,” she said. “Destinations such as the Finger Lakes region, which offers an abundance of these, are likely to recover more quickly than urban destinations.”

Another change in the Finger Lakes region was the reliance on tourism writers visiting and publishing articles about attractions. The pandemic caused this to be modified.

“Although our on-site media tours were largely cancelled during 2020, we safely participated in three tours with visiting writers that focused on outdoor activities,” said Raj. “We also reached out to writers who visited in previous years to provide them updates on attractions. Together these efforts have resulted in 19 published articles, featuring a total of 25 local attractions.” In Binghamton, officials took advantage of the proximity from New York City and other downstate locations to develop a film office.

“We knew that traditional conventions and events would take a little while to come back, and we’d had really good success with film already,” Hess said. “We Identified locations and connected with people looking to do a project so we could show them locations here. “We are close to city but not real close, and in many cases, the more rural nature of our area lends itself perfectly to something like this.”

Through Finger Lakes Wine Country, many of the regional tourism agencies had already started a promotion for agritourism, and that planning allows those businesses to hit the ground running in 2021. “We had already partnered with Steuben, Schuyler, Yates, and Tioga counties to further develop, Finger Lakes Farm Country, a multi-county agritourism trail which will launch in 2021,” Raj said. “The growing interest in agritourism, such as You Pick farms, orchards and farmers markets, will continue as people increasingly to want to know the origins of what they eat and of the significance of supporting local businesses.”

Both Raj and Hess see local museums and similar attractions as popular destinations, especially since they’ve already opened with limited access. “We’re still walking a tightrope of what you can promote and how,” Hess said. “We continually educate people that you can still be a tourist but you need to do it safely.” Raj agreed.

“Overall, people are eager to get out of the house and explore new things, although closer to home,” she added. “Thus, the growing trend toward road trips will continue.”

Tourism picks

Broome County: March’s First Friday Art Walk, sponsored by Broome County Arts Council will be on the second Friday, March 12, from 6-9 p.m. in downtown Binghamton. See artwork at the Artisan Gallery, 95 Court Street, and Orazio Salati Studio and Gallery, 204 State Street.

Chemung County: The year-round farmers market at Chamberlain Acres in Elmira, on Sundays from 11-3. It’s held in a large greenhouse that’s heated throughout the winter months and provides a fun way to get outside and to meet farmers throughout the region and buy from them directly.

Tioga County: Whether you prefer a virtual or walking tour, check out Evergreen Cemetery in Owego. Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1851 by the Village of Owego as a park-like resting place for a growing population. Today, it is filled with the graves of former residents, some who are notable for their contributions to shaping the history of the local community, the state, the nation and even the world. This tour will guide you through the cemetery and introduce you to many of these people through historic and current photographs and descriptions of their lives. If you decide to visit in person, you can follow the walking tour and locate the graves using the map while enjoying the terraced terrain, towering evergreens and a panoramic view from the Sa-Sa-Na Loft Monument at the top of the hill.

Photo: Courtesy Tioga County Chamber - Facebook page



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