A tourism group in the Shenandoah Valley puts safety first for visitors and locals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
LEXINGTON – Patty Williams had to think fast when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the Commonwealth. As the director of marketing at Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism, Williams committed herself to finding a solution to an imminent issue in the locale: safe tourism.
Not only did Williams want visitors to feel welcome and safe in the Lexington, Rockbridge and Buena Vista areas; she also wanted the same for the locals.
“I figured, ‘How are we going to differentiate ourselves as we re re-enter the market and compete for visitor dollars with our competing destinations?’” Williams said. “I was thinking that the best way to do that would be to come up with a hospitality pledge.”
Striving for a dependable setup with businesses following state and federal COVID-19 guidelines, Williams created PACT in June 2020. That stands for Protecting All Citizens and Travelers.
What Does PACT Mean?
When a business takes the PACT pledge, they promise to limit the spread of COVID-19 at their establishment.
To participate in PACT, businesses vow to follow the Forward Virginia guidelines. In addition to the social distancing and mask wearing, those guidelines include proper cleaning and disinfecting practices and enhanced workplace safety practices.
There are also guidelines within the Forward Virginia plan for social gatherings, restaurant and beverage services, farmers markets, brick and mortar retail locations, fitness and exercise facilities, swimming pools, personal care and personal grooming services, campgrounds and overnight summer camps, entertainment and public amusement activities, religious services, recreational sports, horse and other livestock shows, outdoor speedways and racetracks, large outdoor amusement parks and zoos.
Participants signed up completely free of charge. In return, they received a PACT kit for their business. The kit included branded social distancing floor decals, postcards and a window cling.
By businesses displaying the branded signage and therefore portraying the message around town, the PACT pledge served a dual purpose.
“We wanted to make sure that we were one, using this as a marketing tool for the tourism office, but we also wanted our industry partners to be able to use PACT for their own marketing purposes as well,” Williams said.
A COVID-19 Partnership
As the pledge took hold throughout the area, Williams added each PACT business to an online list. That streamlined the process for area visitors and locals alike. People could see exactly which guidelines the multitude of businesses swore to maintain.
“It was a totally free and voluntary program for our hospitality businesses, but we did ask them to do a few things. They needed to announce their participation, and we provided them with language and graphics,” Williams said. “We asked them to – in an attempt to help cross-promote – to make sure that they had a link to the tourism website on their website and include a link on their Facebook and everything.”
The marketing director also promoted PACT through a paid Facebook advertisement that ran Aug. through Oct. 2020.
“That paid campaign generated 1.7 million impressions, 3,500 clicks, 4,400 post engagements, 3,000 websites sessions, 7,500 page views and 300 outbound links to our industry partners’ through our consumer page,” Williams said. “We also did another paid Facebook campaign through Blue Ridge Country Magazine and their campaign generated 42,000 impressions, 520 clicks, 40 engagements.
Williams also reached out to local media resources and colleges to spread the word throughout the area.
Currently, there are 46 businesses that took the PACT pledge. Out of those, there are three visitor centers, six service providers, eight retailers, nine accommodation locations, nine attractions and 11 restaurants.
PACT also added an interactive calendar to their website, featuring PACT-approved events.
Known for Outdoor Recreation
Nestled within the Shenandoah Valley region, Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism started promoting outdoor opportunities years ago.
“We have really been transitioning and diversifying our offerings to outdoor recreation,” Williams said. “We’ve really been focusing on that for the past five to seven years.”
The groundwork came in handy in 2020 when the pandemic limited indoor activities. Naturally, people shifted their focus outside.
Particularly, the Natural Bridge attraction drew people to the area. That not only benefited the state park, but also the surrounding communities.
“Our goal was to try to just bring people to the area for outdoor recreation,” Williams said. “And then, you know, of course, while they’re here, they need to eat.”
With PACT in the area promoting the guidelines, it not only aided the travelers, but also eased local concerns.
“It is a balancing act between having our community feel safe in their own community, but also trying to bring visitors in for the economic impact. You know, we’re a tourist town, so we need those visitor dollars,” Williams said. “It was just a way that we could try to reassure both sides that people were taking this seriously and were concerned about their safety.”
Google searches for outdoor recreation opportunities in PACT’s service area increased by 400% in 2020, compared to 2019.
Safe From COVID-19
With spring only weeks away, Williams hinted that more opportunities could draw individuals to the area.
First, there’s a new Children’s Discovery Area at Natural Bridge, which opened in Oct. 2020. Currently, the state park is working on an International Dark Sky Park designation. With that, they plan to host astronomical viewing events.
“We’re super fortunate that so much of our stuff is outside. I mean, we have the Virginia Safari Park, most of our attractions are outdoors and the breweries all have outdoor seating and the vineyards,” Williams said. “So I think we were able to really, while the weather was nice, try to provide visitors with good outdoor options in terms of activities and dining and things like that. And all of our merchants really bent over backwards to do things online and to do curbside and delivery and whatever they needed to do to help their customers.”
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org