It’s her home. She knows it well. And she knows there’s no place like her home.
Amy Goodwin, the deputy secretary of commerce and the commissioner of tourism in West Virginia, is a native of the Friendly City and a 1989 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, and she presided over the 2015 Governor’s Conference on Tourism at Oglebay Resort this week.
“Two facts we know to be absolutely true are that you can’t go anywhere else in the world and find another West Virginia, and that you cannot duplicate what we have here anywhere else,” she said. “If we combine what we already have with what we know to be working in the tourism industry, we’ll be taking an industry that is growing and growing.”
Goodwin’s Charleston-based career began in the early 2000s, when she accepted the position as former Gov. Bob Wise’s chief spokesperson, and she also has led communications in Charleston during her 20-year career.
She likes to talk, especially when the topic concerns the Mountain State’s 55 counties, and Goodwin believes she’s well on the way to attracting more tourists to the nation’s 35th state.
“Growth in tourism in West Virginia is possible through advertising, but not just throwing many at ads here and there,” Goodwin explained. “I can throw one good dollar at one bad dollar all day long, but that’s not going to move the needle. We have to be engaged in the digital world. We have to move forward in terms of marketing and advertising, and mobile is where this is going.
“And that’s what we have done during the past year, and we have seen it make a difference in our state. For the first time in more than a decade we have seen an increase in whitewater rafting numbers,” she continued. “For the first time in seven years Harper’s Ferry, where they just lost 30 percent of their businesses to a fire, is up 7 percent. Why? Because we are marketing that destination in new ways. Put it this way: I can want you to come over to my house forever, but you’re never going to visit if I do not invite you, and that’s what we are now doing.”
Other topics discussed during this year’s tourism event included multi-media, tourism signage, accessibility, Co-op opportunities, agritourism, and craft brewing. Chris Rice from All About Beer Magazine told more than 300 attendees how the state of North Carolina has moved forward in recent years.
“Craft beer was the topic that we talked about and learned about during our lunch hour today (Tuesday), and we are now aware of what they are doing in the cities in North Carolina right now,” Goodwin said. “And what is happening there is monumental because they are changing the face of the economy there, and it’s something that we could do here in West Virginia.
“We know changes have been made with legislation that is making it easier for brewing companies to do business in our state, and we’re hopeful more changes will be made in the future,” she said. “All someone has to do is take notice of how craft brewing has cut into the country’s major brewers and to take notice of how the commercial brewing industry has adapted. It’s here, and it’s here to stay.”
The Wheeling area, Goodwin insisted, will play an enormous role with the increase in tourists flowing into the state.
“Wheeling and our Northern Panhandle are essential to our success, and so is the Eastern Panhandle, and that’s because those parts of our state are in close proximity to international airports,” Goodwin explained. “That’s why we just placed a media buy throughout Canada and in China using the channels that we can use there, and that’s because the average international traveler stays on vacation for as many as 20 days. We would love to be their choice for a few days if not longer.
“Every year with the Governor’s Conference we want to highlight some of the best practices from all of the 55 counties in our state and also from throughout the country and internationally, too,” said Goodwin. “The theme that we have locked into is, ‘REAL.’ Real, wild, wonderful West Virginia, and we’re showcasing here at Oglebay everything this area has to offer the folks attending this conference.
“In West Virginia we’re talking about 46,000 jobs in a $5.1 billion industry, and I know when people hear the word tourism in our state, they immediately think about the hikers, the bikers, the fishers, the campers, the hunters, and the whitewater rafters. And that’s OK because we do those things here very, very well,” she continued. “But we bring a 7-to-1 return on our investment, so those things represent an investment that’s been made in West Virginia.”
Frank O’Brien, the executive director of the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau, served as the host for the Governor’s Conference, and that allowed him to expose the participants to places like the Capitol Theatre and the former West Virginia Penitentiary.
“This conference is a wonderful opportunity for us to showcase Ohio and Marshall counties,” said O’Brien. “We really do have a lot of wonderful attractions in this area, and Oglebay Resort is a perfect example. We have nearly 400 people here from around the state, and now they can speak to what they experienced while here.
“Plus, there’s a lot of education that is being offered during this conference, and I’ve learned a lot myself,” he continued. “It’s great to network with others who do what I do so we can compare notes and improve all the way around. “
And O’Brien offered most of the credit for the successful event to his co-workers.
“My staff worked very hard to properly welcome all of these people to our area of the state, and we’ve been able show them a lot of what we have in this area in both Ohio and Marshall counties,” O’Brien said. “Without Olivia Litman, Michael Biela, and Sonya Fedorko at Wesbanco Arena, none of it could have happened.
“Those folks do tremendous work for the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau and for the people of this area,” he added. “I couldn’t find a better group of co-workers, and I really mean that.”
Goodwin admitted she adores when her job allows her to return home to Wheeling, and the Governor’s Conference on Tourism made it two months in a row that she’s visited the Upper Ohio Valley. Last month she was in town for the Leadership West Virginia Conference, which was also staged at Oglebay’s Wilson Lodge.
This time, though, the fall foliage was in full bloom.
“I’ve heard, ‘Wows.’ I have had people coming up to me the entire time telling me that they should have brought their kids or their spouse. Another person told me that her drive up to Oglebay was one of the most beautiful trips she’s ever made. Everyone has told me that they have to come back here,” Goodwin reported. “Those comments have been great to hear because an important part of advertising and marketing is word-of-mouth.
“The members of the Millennium Generation are far less concerned about stuff like my generation has been. They care about experiences instead of stuff,” she added. “They want moments. They want real connections. They want to do it instead of looking at photos and reading about it. They want more than things. They want experiences, and we do that very well in West Virginia.”
When Goodwin is not talking, she’s smiling, and that’s because now she feels most comfortable in the skin of her current positions. But instead of offering a, “Yes,” or, “No” when asked if she likes her job, she instead answers while using an experience to explain.
“I was recently at a conference, and the keynote speaker was Andrew McCartney, a Hollywood actor who starred in, ‘St. Elmo’s Fire,’ and he told us that when he was younger, he was doing what all the other kids were doing like sports and things like that,” Goodwin explained. “And then he told us that one day someone asked him about auditioning for a local play. At first, he said, that it was pretty scary for him because that was a brand new area for him.
“He explained to us that when he went to try out for the play and he went out on stage, he thought to himself, ‘Oh, there I am.’ This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said. “And that’s how I feel about this job. This is my wheelhouse.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)