By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton is preparing its budget for fiscal year 2021, and that process includes county supervisors hearing from agencies and boards as each makes a case for level or increased funding.
Robie Marsh, who is also the executive director of the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, was chosen as the executive director of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission when it underwent a complete reorganization last year, a collaboration of Accomack and Northampton officials.
When Marsh came onboard, the tourism commission’s administration was down to one staff member, but it is now fully staffed, including Christy Betz, assistant executive director, Aileen Joeckel, executive assistant, and Susannah Morey, marketing director.
Sally Williams and H.H. Scott are the manager and the assistant manager of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Welcome Center near the exit of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
Filling all available staff positions was the first of the tourism commission’s top five accomplishments of 2019, Marsh told Northampton supervisors Feb. 11.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission also completed and launched a brand-new website, visitESVA.com
Visitors can explore the website and discover places to eat, shop, stay, and play, and experiences to try.
The tourism commission produced two different visitors guides last year, one for 2019 and one for 2020, which was recently released.
About 125,000 guides were distributed at various locations, including six new places along busy interstates in Delaware and Pennsylvania.
The tourism commission’s main office is now in the same building as the chamber of commerce, on Route 13 in Melfa, at the entrance to the industrial park.
A new sign out front promotes both the chamber of commerce and the tourism commission and will be joined by a new LOVE sign later this year.
A new traffic light is coming to that intersection in 2020, Marsh added.
The tourism commission began a new practice in 2019 when it offered each town an entire Saturday for self-promotion at the Eastern Shore of Virginia Welcome Center, also called the Southern Gateway welcome center.
Last year, the welcome center hosted Cape Charles Day, Exmore Day, and Onancock Day. Popcorn and snow cones were offered to attract travelers to the presentations. Marsh expects additional towns to participate this year.
He also discussed the tourism commission’s top five targeted focuses for 2020.
The commission wants to capture more “through traffic” on Route 13, such as northern travelers driving to southern vacation destinations. But that can be difficult.
“If you’re like me when you travel, I want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, and I’m probably going to stop as little as possible,” Marsh said.
The tourism commission wants to place a series of billboards along Route 13, which will communicate to travelers, “Why are you still driving? You’re passing all these great things right off of Route 13.”
The commission wants to continue expanding the shoulder season for Eastern Shore tourism, with more events like “50 Days to Explore the Shore,” a scavenger hunt that was available to complete between October and November 2019 by visiting locations and participating in events around the Shore.
Promoting regionalism is on the to-do list, and it’s also the theme of the commission’s annual tourism summit, Monday, April 6, at Eastern Shore Community College.
The tourism commission will focus on making the Eastern Shore a destination for tour buses, with bus-friendly itineraries, historical tours, and unique shopping excursions, Marsh continued.
It will also promote various locations on the Shore for weekend getaways, for both out-of-towners and locals.
“There’s no reason why, if you live on Chincoteague, you can’t come down to Cape Charles and … have a nice, relaxing weekend, and vice versa – Cape Charles to Chincoteague, Onancock, Wachapreague, Exmore.”
The tourism commission has a five-minute video in production, which will be shown all over the Eastern Shore, intended to attract the attention of travel writers and social media influencers. Snippets from the video will be posted on social media, Marsh said.
The tourism commission more than tripled its advertising budget for 2020, from about $14,000 to $49,000. It also increased its marketing budget by about 70%, from nearly $62,000 to more than $104,000.
Visitor spending on the Eastern Shore totaled more than $292 million in 2018, a 31% increase since 2011.
Eastern Shore tourism generated more than $62 million in wages, salaries, and tips for locals in in 2018. There are more than 3,000 jobs in tourism on the Shore.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission is requesting $157,500 from Northampton County, in addition to $129,438 from Accomack County in FY 2020. The commission has also been supported by the towns of Cape Charles, Exmore, and Onancock.
Additional FY 2020 budget requests submitted to Northampton supervisors Feb. 11 included more than $2.6 million for the Eastern Shore of Virginia 9-1-1 Commission, about $109,000 for STAR Transit, and $15,000 for the Eastern Shore Coalition Against Domestic Violence.