Howard County Tourism Inc.'s visitor information center has been on the back of the post office building in historic Ellicott City for almost a decade. But it took new paint, shutters, flags and signs to get many county residents to notice it for the first time.
"Since [the redecoration] happened, a number of people have said ` ... I never knew you were here,' " said Ed Lilley, visitor center manager.
In fact, the office saw a 50 percent increase in customers between 2003 and this year, said Executive Director Rachelina Bonacci.
An office face-lift is one way Howard County Tourism - an independent, nonprofit membership organization of more than 200 hotels, museums, restaurants, businesses and others - stepped up its efforts this year to get people's attention.
In addition to promoting attractions, the tourism team developed a new ghost tour, kicked off a plan to plant hundreds of cherry trees in the county and worked with the state tourism office to put up signs marking Civil War sites, among other activities.
Bonacci, who became executive director in June 2003, and three other full-time staff members "have lots of creativity, lots of energy," said state Del. Gail H. Bates, a Howard County Republican and a member of the tourism council's executive board. "They're doing a wonderful job, I think, of creating value and bringing people to the county."
Bates added, "For years ... it was kind of business as usual. It is really nice to have things moving ahead."
Even though many tourism attractions focus on recreation and entertainment, Bonacci said the mission of the tourism office is serious.
"Tourism is about economic development," she said. Her office wants to draw visitors to the county who will patronize stores, restaurants, hotels, golf courses, theaters and other businesses that belong to the tourism council.
In 2003, the tourism industry in Maryland reached a record $9.3 billion in economic impact, according to a study conducted for the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. The industry also generated an estimated $2 billion in federal, state and local taxes and employed 112,000 people, the study said.
To fund its efforts, Howard County Tourism receives a portion of the county hotel/motel tax. Other revenue comes from membership dues and fund-raisers.
Among the activities aimed at boosting tourism this year, the county office worked with the Maryland Office of Tourism to establish areas of Howard County as part of the Civil War Trails project. Signs direct drivers to explore nine sites, including Ellicott City, Oakland Manor and Savage Mill.
The organization raised donations and worked with the county's Department of Recreation and Parks to plant the first of hundreds of cherry trees intended to attract tourists in the spring. It also added a ghost tour at Savage Mill, in addition to the one it revamped in Ellicott City, to draw shoppers and diners to the former cloth-making complex.
All of the efforts involve collaborations, Bonacci said. In some cases - such as the first Farm-City Celebration in September highlighting events on the county's farms - that means joining a coalition.
In other cases, it means playing a supporting role. For example, tourism staff members have set up the group's new red tent at county events and served as an information center while promoting other services and attractions in Howard County.
Ideally, the tourism office can help visitors perceive Howard County as place for weekend stays, in addition to day trips, Bonacci said. "We are hoping [county] events can become destination events."
In the coming year, the tourism office plans to upgrade its Web site, www.visithoward county.com, with a more comprehensive calendar of events. Bonacci and her staff also want to work with the state tourism council to highlight the National Road, a historic byway that cuts through Howard County, and to showcase local sites related to the Underground Railroad.
As those plans take shape, tourism staff members will continue to offer brochures, ideas and hospitality at the visitor center. Lilley said some of the most common requests are for suggestions for a romantic dinner, directions to historic sites and shopping recommendations.
Such one-on-one contact is often very rewarding, Bonacci said. "You do walk away at the end of the day feeling like you've helped," she said, "and that's a wonderful way to make a living."