Annette Gavin Bates (center) with Chair of the Tourism Advisory Council, Jeff Lusk (left) and Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby (right).
West Virginia’s Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby recently presented the “Tourism Professional of the Year” award to Annette Gavin Bates, leader of the local Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). “Annette is a true leader in our industry and is most deserving of this recognition,” remarked Ruby. “She’s devoted her life to promoting her community — and her state. The results have been phenomenal with Jefferson County continuing to soar in visitor spending on her watch. I truly appreciate her dedication and look forward to continuing our work together as we promote the Eastern Panhandle as a world-class tourism destination.”
The mission of the CVB is to bring visitors into the county, so planning for the impact from the three month closure of Route 340, the main connection between Jefferson County and the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area, has occupied Gavin Bates’ attention for the past several months. The Observer asked her to share her thoughts on the importance of tourism to the local economy and what’s ahead — both in the next three months and into the future.
Observer: How did you get started in the tourism industry and what advice would you give to a young person thinking about a career in this field?
Gavin Bates: At the age of 25, I married into the industry. My former in-laws owned Cliffside (which is now the Clarion) in Harpers Ferry. From there, I worked in sales and management at Hill Top, and then opened the Inn at Charles Town at Hollywood Casino. With 23 years in the hospitality industry, I laid a pretty strong foundation for my current role in promoting Jefferson County’s tourism. I think some of the best advice I can give to someone thinking about a career in tourism is to start at the front of the house, in a restaurant or hotel, be motivated to learn, listen, and watch your fellow coworkers and management. Always remember to value your relationships and make strong connections, and don’t take this lightly, but never burn bridges. While I “married” into the industry and moved up over the years, I consider education a key component of success. When I was at Hollywood Casino, I took many continuing education classes and still do today. As a matter of fact, it is a core principle of every good Director of a CVB to find learning opportunities. Finally, I would add, surround yourself with good, positive people. They are the ones who will help lift you up.
Observer: We can tell by the license plates that Jefferson County sees a lot of visitors. Can you share some numbers that capture how important tourism is to the county’s economy?
Gavin Bates: Jefferson County accounts for more tourism dollars spent in West Virginia than any of the other 54 counties in the state. Tourism is a vital economic driver for Jefferson County and the entire Eastern Panhandle. According to 2022 data from the West Virginia Tourism Office, Jefferson County accounts for over $825 million in visitor spend annually. The Eastern Panhandle accounts for $1 billion in visitor spend annually — by far the largest of any travel region in West Virginia.
The tourism industry supports over 6,300 jobs in Jefferson County and with new projects in the works, these numbers will be increasing over the next several years.
These growth trends align with our Jefferson County hotel motel numbers; 2022 is the highest ever and I expect to see the county and region numbers for 2023 to reach an all-time high. In addition, according to the stats for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, July 2023 had the highest number of visitors to the park since the early 1990s. Talking to local merchants, the month of July was exceptional and, in some cases, their busiest month ever.
Observer: We know the pandemic changed a lot of travel habits. Has the local tourism-related economy fully recovered? How has it changed?
Gavin Bates: For West Virginia, the tourism industry accounted for $7 billion in economic impact to the state in 2022. This is an increase of 17 percent from pre-pandemic numbers. The rest of the country is averaging a modest 1 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.
Visitors are seeking less-populated destinations featuring outdoor adventure and scenic beauty, which fits perfectly into what West Virginia offers. For Jefferson County, we are benefiting from DC and Baltimore residents seeking a close-by escape from the city and finding our beautiful county within a short drive of home.
Observer: You and your staff speak directly with a lot of the visitors. Where do they come from and what attracts them to Jefferson County?
Gavin Bates: The DC and Northern Virginia market is by far our largest source of visitors. However, we have seen nice growth in visitors from Ohio and Pennsylvania over the last several years. We have placed more advertising in these markets with good results. Of course, in-state visitors are also a significant part of our success.
Visitors come to Jefferson County for our unique historical attractions and our incredible outdoor adventures. They also love our quaint and welcoming small towns filled with great dining and shopping options. Breweries and distilleries have also been a positive addition to the tourism product in the county helping to attract younger visitors and complementing our outdoor recreation opportunities. And of course, our racing and gaming brings a lot of visitors year-round.
Observer: There’s been concern that the three month closure of Route 340 in Harpers Ferry will affect tourism-related businesses throughout the county. What have you seen so far, in the first weeks?
Gavin Bates: Everyone knew from the beginning that the Route 340 closure would affect both visitors and business revenue. The CVB’s primary mission is marketing, and we wanted to develop some messaging to address the detours and change the narrative around them, so we developed an overall campaign “Country Roads lead to Jefferson County” to share with our businesses and organizations. The tag lines include “Detours lead to Adventures,” and “Go the Extra Mile and Support Local Businesses,” trying to remind all of us that this is a critical time for all partners. The response has been incredible, and I think our merchants really see and feel the outpouring of love. The first Saturday following closure was incredibly busy for the merchants in Harpers Ferry and even Shepherdstown. I literally had texts from merchants on Saturday that they were so surprised to see both visitors and locals come out. The true test will be in October when we historically see “leaf peepers” arrive. I really encourage our locals to support all the county merchants throughout this closure.
Observer: What do you see ahead for the CVB and the local tourism industry, looking at the upcoming holiday season and into 2024?
Gavin Bates: We have some exciting times ahead and let’s start with the holidays. In November, we will kick off our “Find Your Joy in Jefferson County,” holiday campaign for a second year, based on such positive feedback last year. A scavenger hunt, and emphasis on retailers with an overall message of shop local. We will overlap and roll into our winter festival “Frostyfest” at the end of January with ice skating, comedy, movie showings, and this year, maybe even an ice sculpture event. Restaurant week is scheduled for the first full week of March.
If you’re a local business and curious about how to tap into the tourism market, we’ll be hosting our annual Tourism Summit in April at the Bavarian Inn. We bring together local business owners, state and local leaders and have lots of presentations and discussions to help identify opportunities and provide tips on marketing and promoting your business to visitors.
A big (and exciting) project for 2024 will be the partnership with the town of Shepherdstown to renovate the 200 year-old Market House building in the center of downtown. Now that the public library has a new home, we’ll be working with the town to turn the historic building into a Shepherdstown Welcome Center, complete with accessible restrooms!
The CVB currently operates three welcome centers in Jefferson County, at the outskirts of Bolivar & Harpers Ferry, in downtown Charles Town, and in downtown Shepherdstown. The website for the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau is WhereAlmostHeavenBegins.com.By Staff Contributor