Touting local assets
Belmont County tourism director gives update on state of the local industry and the impact of the coronavirus
ST. CLAIRSVILLE – The tourism industry in Belmont County has taken a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Tourism Council Director Barb Ballint and staff have been working to promote the area and its attractions.
Ballint updated the county commissioners Wednesday during her second quarterly tourism report after presenting her first quarter report via email.
“What an interesting half (of a year) it’s been. In January, we were really looking forward to this year. … We had no idea what the future was going to hold for us,” she said.
“During the first three months, there was a 31 percent decline in travel in our state, and it was estimated that there was going to be a $355 billion deficit in the travel and tourism industry,” she said. “So we use our social media platforms to share really important information.”
Lodging tax collections are also down, she said, with a 36 percent decrease as of the end of June compared to last year’s numbers.
“I follow that closely,” she said.
The council received more than 50 grant applications and awarded 44 grants, totaling more than $100,000 distributed in Belmont County to organizations and events that promote tourism and attract visitors. Ballint said 10 of the events have been canceled and the funds returned, likely to be donated again next year.
The virus put a halt to beloved events such as Betty Zane Days in Martins Ferry, as well as the new and growing Blame My Roots Fest country music festival.
In early 2020, the tourism council was active in new programs, trade shows and other events to promote the county. This included an RV show in Pittsburgh spreading word of the area’s attractions, which may have borne fruit since camping in Belmont County has increased by 85 percent.
“If you can find a campsite in this area for this summer, you’re going to be lucky and it’s probably because of a cancellation,” she said. “We are very glad we participated in that.”
Other events included a home and garden show in Cleveland and the AAA travel show.
Ballint said other anticipated events are still to come. The council had hoped to host a community expo with more than 40 organizations, vendors and entities set to participate in the trade show at the Ohio Valley Mall. Ballint said the event has been postponed, not canceled, and no date has yet been set.
“It is something we’re still looking forward to doing,” she said.
She also looks forward to events such as the upcoming Belmont County Fair in September. Ballint also said the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival is still scheduled to proceed.
“It’s been very challenging. There’s been some really tough things that’s happened in this area,” she said.
She related the early days of the coronavirus, awaiting word of cancelled or postponed events and reopening of facilities such as museums and parks.
“We didn’t know what the future held. We just knew that everything was on hold,” Ballint said. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants kind of like everybody else, because this is something that no one’s experienced before.”
The second quarter was marked by brainstorming and networking. Ballint said her agency has also strengthened ties to area businesses.
Ballint also reported successful outreach through social media and increased quality and quantity of online activity.
“It continued to amaze me how many followers and the growth that we’ve had each quarter on our social media platforms,” she said. “We can easily complete with some of the larger (tourism boards) throughout the state with how many followers we have.”
“We paid more attention to detail. It really gave us a chance to see what we were doing, what information we needed to share, and how we were going to share it. We had to be really innovative and come up with ways to keep our followers engaged and to bring new people to our area and to our social media platforms and our websites.”
During the second quarter there were 22,000 people hits on their website. Ballint said they are active on eight social media platforms including Tik Toc.
The tourism council has shared resources with locally-owned businesses about state and federal services and grants, provided updates on cancelled and postponed events, and reached out to all dining facilities and the tourism council is providing up-to-date information whether they are open and the degree of availability. They also conduct virtual tours of area museums and Historic National Road.
“We’re known for having strong roots and we’re very diversified in this county,” she said. “At the end of June, over 3,000 people have done our (virtual) tours.”
“If you visit our website, you’re going to find some interesting reads about events and attractions in our area.
The commissioners were impressed by the Tourism Council’s efforts and enthusiasm in promoting the county during this pandemic. Commissioner J.P. Dutton asked the public to attend any upcoming event if they feel safe doing so.
“If there was ever a time to support these events, this is the time,” Dutton said.