By Katrina Lewis

Outdoor recreation may be the key to increasing local tourism, especially among millennials, according to a year-end report released by the Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism department.


“We have a dichotomy,” said the tourism department’s marketing director, Patty Williams, “where our history is what made Lexington what it is, but that history is less relevant to the audience that we’re trying to reach now.”


Williams compiled the Year in Review report for the multi-jurisdictional department, which operates the Visitor Center serving Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County. She said the year-end summary appears to show that 2016 brought a new, younger pool of visitors to Lexington for different reasons from those of older generations.


After examining marketing campaigns from the past year, Williams organized a focus group with 11 millennials to assess what could help draw the younger generation to the area. The group included millennials from different towns and areas of employment.

Rockbridge Outdoors offers tourists information about local nature excursions.

“We are seeing a slight trend toward outdoor recreation, and we have identified that as our growth market,” Williams said. Aside from outdoor recreation, she said the group also mentioned interest in coffee, beer and music.


Tourism Director Jean Clark also emphasized that outdoor recreation will only become a more prominent part of what attracts visitors to the area.


“[The focus group] just further reinforced that what we’re working on is an important part of keeping tourism viable in our community,” Clark said.


The tourism department has also been preparing to generate more buzz about the area’s natural resources with a national media tour scheduled to come to town in June. For four days, journalists from across the country will have a chance to explore the different features of Lexington, including its outdoor recreation.


“It’s going to be a great investment for us, and we’re hoping that the community is going to join us and help support them while they’re here,” says Williams. He added that having some national press in town will be a great opportunity.


The tour is being organized by Geiger & Associates, a public relations firm in Tallahassee, Florida, that specializes in increasing tourism and the travel industry business. The journalists and representatives of media outlets set to attend will be announced at a later date, said Williams.


“[Geiger & Associates] President Debbie Geiger has been conducting successful media tours for 30 years,” Williams said in an email. “Debbie’s experience and relationships will bring qualified and proven national and international media outlets and journalists to the area who will publish editorial coverage of our area’s tourism products.”


Two of the campaigns that Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism launched in 2016 marketed the area as a destination for outdoor recreation. Both Get Outside! and Braiding the Way for Outdoor Recreation in the Rockbridge Area are geared toward all generations, with the outdoors at the forefront.


Williams, who is in charge of Get Outside!, said a state tourism grant helped fund a guide, website, advertising series and promotional concert for the campaign.


“We want people to get outside, explore—to see what’s in their own backyard and try something different,” Williams said about the program. “There are endless opportunities.”


An additional grant from the National Park Service helped finance Braiding the Way.


The program’s goal is to create a braided network of parks, trails, bikeways and “blueways” — on local waterways — to support community health and conservation goals. It encompasses the historic, cultural and natural attractions of the surrounding area.


Clark, who oversees Braiding the Way, said the community has been very supportive of the project and its mission.


“I’ve never worked on a project where I’ve had so many people volunteer and just say,  ‘Hey, can I help with that? What can I do? I want to be a part of that,’ ” Clark said.


The enthusiasm for Braiding the Way helped fill the project’s 20-member steering committee. The Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism department chairs the committee, which includes a diverse set of groups, from Lime Kiln Theater to the Washington and Lee University Outing Club.


The Stonewall Jackson House is owned by VMI and has been a tourist mainstay since it opened to the public in 1954.

Both Williams and Clark said that receiving outdoor-focused grants in the past year provided their office with an opportunity to expand its marketing focus beyond Lexington’s history. But Williams added that she expects the transition toward outdoor recreation to be gradual.


“I think we saw a little bit less of the usual people coming for history, but it does take time, you know, when you’re starting a new campaign and trying to get to a new audience—especially the millennial audience,”  she said.


Stonewall Jackson House Site Director Grace Abele said there has not been a significant change in her site’s visitor traffic despite increased interest in outdoor recreation.


“The largest portion of visitors is people who are traveling, and then we still have others who are history enthusiasts,” Abele said.


To help promote outdoor recreation in 2017, the Lexington and Rockbridge area tourism team has been working on expanding Rockbridge Outdoors’ website. It has trip suggestions listed by activity and difficulty, information for gear rentals and an events calendar for upcoming outdoor events in the area.


Lexington City Manager Noah Simon said the city is aware of the potential for growth in the market for outdoor recreation, and supports the trend as an addition to what Lexington and its surrounding area have to offer.


“There is a growing trend toward outdoor recreation—it’s something we’re aware of,” Simon said. “It’s an opportunity for us to market and brand ourselves as a place within the region for people to do these outdoorsy things.”

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