Historians say we need to know where we've been to know where we're going.
For Columbia County, we need to know where we are. And more importantly, we need to let other people know.
The county's Convention and Visitors Bureau received an energetic report this past week from Judy Randall, of highly touted Randall Travel Marketing. Randall was hired last year to conduct comprehensive travel research for the county.
Randall was to undertake an outsider's review of the county, what it has to offer visitors, and the job it does in attracting them.
That effort is vital. As Randall points out, every dollar invested in tourism in the county yields $75 in benefits. The economic impact of tourism is so strong that it resulted last year in $200 in tax relief per household in the county.
Could more be done? Randall's report, while largely complimentary, makes it clear that more can and must be done if Columbia County is to grow tourism revenue.
- The county desperately needs to do a better job of identifying itself with signs at major entrances. "There's nothing that says, 'Welcome to Columbia County,' said Randall during her presentation to community leaders. "Visitors think they're in Augusta."
- Similarly, once visitors are clued in on their arrival to the county, they need better directions for getting around. Using outsiders unfamiliar with Columbia County to try to navigate the county's attractions, the Randall study found that it's relatively easy to travel inside the county - but only if you already know where you're going.
The county's Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center, for example, can be maddeningly hard to find.
- The CVB needs a visitor's center in a location useful to actual visitors. The best location, Randall says, would be near the Interstate 20-Belair Road exit, where most of the county's hotels are clustered. Currently the CVB is shoehorned into a county office, and the visitor's center is in the Gatekeeper's Cottage at the Augusta Canal Headgates - another place that's easy to find only if you already know where it is.
- Regarding I-20, the county needs to do a better job of getting more of the 66,000 motorists on the interstate to stop at one of the county's four exits. Projects at the aptly named "Gateway" at Lewiston Road are a perfect start.
- The county needs a larger facility for conventions and trade shows. Nothing complicated, just big enough and easiest enough to find that it bumps the county up a notch in attractiveness for bigger events and more visitors.
Randall is scheduled to return for a seminar today at 3 p.m. at the Belair Conference Center to provide local tourism officials and hospitality workers with a blueprint toward putting the study into action.
This is one report that definitely doesn't need to sit on a shelf and collect dust. We look forward to seeing the dividends - and to anything that will make visitors feel more welcome in our community.
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