Tourism looks to get back on track

Officials hope Sept. plans to promote historic homes ease travelers' trepidation

Howard County

August 12, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

With concerns that memorial services for last year's terrorist attacks will keep people from traveling next month, the Howard County Tourism Council is starting to plan events to help the industry.

The group has expanded its heritage tourism week to a month, with activities designed to attract regional travelers. The council hopes the activities will help several businesses in the industry, which lost millions of dollars to travelers' fears last year.

The list of events includes Historic Ellicott City Decorators Showhouse from Sept. 21 through Oct. 20 at historic Cloverdale estate in western Howard County; Heritage Day and Victorian High Tea at Patapsco Female Institute on Sept. 22; Farm Heritage Days on Sept. 28 and 29 at Mount Pleasant Farm; and a fund-raiser for Preservation Howard County at historic Belmont estate Sept. 29.

"I think this September is critical for people to know things are safe," said Melissa Arnold, executive director of the tourism council. "If they don't get out, we're going to feel a terrible economic impact. I think it's important to have activities so [visitors] can spend money. "

Heritage tourism - travel that focuses on viewing historical sites and venues - is one of the most popular segments for county tourism. Although the fall months traditionally are busy ones for the county's tourism office, drawing visitors regionally from Central Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia, few people visited the region after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last year.

The shortage of travelers put a large crimp in tourism-related businesses across the county - some of which are only starting to recover. Immediately after the attacks, the tourism office reported a loss of more than $1 million among a sampling of tourism businesses in the county's $13 million industry. Restaurants were among the hardest hit.

Glenelg-based Eyre Bus Co. - which runs a motor coach service, a tour company and a travel agency - had 218 chartered tours canceled after the attacks, according to Ronald L. Eyre, the company president. The company lost school travel business for the entire year and had to cut the budget and fire several employees.

"The cancellations were huge in October and November," Eyre said. "Our two top destinations are New York and Washington, D.C. Of course, we're going to be impacted."

Hotels also have suffered. Although much of the local hotel business has been from mostly business travelers, hotel managers who have not seen those patrons return in great numbers have been reaching out to vacationers this summer.

Douglas Lacey, assistant general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott in Columbia, said his hotel has been accepting discounted room rates "more so than we have in the past" because business travel has been down. But those vacationers have helped boost weekend occupancy rates, he said. Also, business has picked up since about April.

Lacey said business in the second quarter was about equal to that of the second quarter last year. For Eyre, business started to return in May and June, when the company saw higher revenues than for the same months last year, he said.

"I am now seeing a definite improvement," Eyre said. "I see confidence returning. The verdict is out as far as schools. I don't know yet if they'll make policy changes to say educational trips will resume."

But as the anniversary of the attacks nears, Arnold said she fears that reminders of the events could cause people to want to stay home, creating "residual effects" for tourism businesses.

The tourism council has lowered rates on its tours as an incentive. Arnold says she hopes history-related events will woo tourists and persuade them to spend money.

"We're all going to be painfully aware of what could happen," she said. "We're going to need to be comforted in September, and heritage tourism is a great way to do that."

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