By M. Diane McCormick
A conversation with Mary Smith, director of Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitor’s Bureau.
When Mary Smith started as director of the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors’ Bureau (HHRVB), the region ranked seventh in Pennsylvania for drawing tourism dollars.
Last year, for the first time, the area passed Lancaster.
It now stands at fourth, behind the giants of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Poconos.
“I think we’re making a huge difference,” says Smith. “It creates a sense of pride with Dauphin County Commissioners that they have an organization that’s representing ourselves and the businesses and the community.”
Smith joined the bureau at a time of turmoil, as five participating counties created their own visitors’ bureaus – and took their funding with them.
Staff dwindled from about 14 people to one and a half. Now, staff is back up to 12 full-time and two part-time people, and HHRVB is turning a bright spotlight on the region’s tourism enticements.
What were your initial goals for HHRVB?
The first three years were about building. Trying to figure out who we were. Who was our visitor? Who were we trying to get here? What types of meetings were we looking for?
Baltimore was our first reach with a marketing campaign – “Just 88 Smiles Away.” Our mission is to drive visitors here and get them to stay a night in the hotels.
The sales team has done a great job generating leads, and we rely on our business partners and attractions to provide what the visitor is looking for.
What’s the role of your business partners?
Businesses can be listed on our visitors’ guide and website, reaching that mom-dad couple to come to the area. They can also participate in meeting and convention groups, motor-coach groups, many other groups that they want to reach.
One of the huge improvements is the relationship we have with the Farm Show Complex and Expo Center. It’s the biggest venue around – one million square feet.
Our role was not only to make sure the community knows, but also the business partners understand it’s not just an agricultural building. We have had a basketball tournament in the region for years.
It has increased in the number of teams so much that we invested in a special sport flooring for 15 basketball courts. The county commissioners helped. It’s vital because event promoters don’t have to rent it from an outside source.
So you can say to promoters that Harrisburg has something they need.
What we do is very competitive.
Every county in the U.S. has a convention and visitors bureau. We need to know our market and be competitive.
Williamsburg is a huge competitor because they have an amusement park and host meetings. Valley Forge is a competitor. At the same time, we have to work together.
I was just going to ask. Tourism professionals talk about the need to compete and to work together. How do you strike that balance?
The visitor doesn’t recognize county lines. Hershey, Gettysburg and Lancaster are well-known everywhere.
Our job is to make people understand how close we are. You could make a four-day trip and hit them all at the same time, plus Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and New York City.
We often use our location on the East Coast as a selling point. You can take a day trip from here, but you’re still better off spending the night here because of the rates.
The diversity, and what they are able to do. We really do have everything [in our region]. We have the family component, the urban culture and the outdoor component. That’s our pitch. We have something for everyone. ~ Mary Smith
Why do convention and visitors’ bureaus matter to the community?
They really do a lot with grassroots. Yes, we’re responsible for bringing in all that extra traffic, but at the same time, the impact of all these events helps keep taxes down and employment high.
It’s your bartenders, waitresses, housekeeping. Everyone thinks of the leisure market, but there is the meeting convention market, the motor-coach market, the reunion market.
Sporting events are huge for us. We’re attracted to youth sports because they travel with their parents. They travel with their grandparents.
Girls’ sports are great because they don’t just stay in their hotel rooms – they shop, they dine out. Last year, we hosted a synchronized-swimming event in Hershey.
The hotels were packed. The restaurants were packed.
We’ve hosted the Keystone State Games, and this summer, we’re hosting the national State Games of America. Two years ago, it was in San Diego, and now it’s here.
What do people not know that you do?
We all travel for business. You’ll go to a convention and not even think twice that you’re going to Orlando. At the same time, we need the people in our community to say, “We could host that in this region.”
Are the region’s urban areas doing more to draw visitors?
Absolutely. When all the turmoil started with Harrisburg, our stand was that there are still a lot of positive things to talk about. Restaurant Row is very enticing for meeting and convention attendees.
It’s nice to walk down the street and have so many choices. We didn’t want to talk about the impact of the city and its financial problems. Visitors really don’t look at that.
The HHRVB did a tremendous job as a media resource when the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show was cancelled in February.
How were you able to handle that so well?
We have a great director of PR and director of sales. First and foremost, we made the decision that we’re not commenting on the reasons.
We are commenting on what it means to not have this show. We’re not just talking about revenue lost for hotels and restaurants. Even the Girls Scouts lost one of their big fundraisers.
The company that does the parking shuttle lost revenue.
Is anything being done to make up for that lost revenue?
The good news is there are a lot of exhibitors that are reaching out to us and the Farm Show Complex, saying, “Let us run a show.”
We’re not just looking for a small show. We’re looking for something of the same magnitude. The Farm Show Complex will ultimately make the decision, and (Eastern Sports organizer) Reed Exhibitions isn’t out of the picture.
It’s not just a hunting and gun show. It truly is a family show, with camping and fishing.
What do you like to tell people is the best thing about coming to this region?
The diversity, and what they are able to do. We really do have everything.
We have the family component, the urban culture and the outdoor component.
That’s our pitch. We have something for everyone.