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2015 Buyer’s Guide: Innovative Destinations

Destination marketers are always looking for new ways to attract new visitors. But some convention and visitors bureaus are going about it in innovative ways.

Virginia Beach pioneered an adventure program for groups, and Philadelphia put together themed itineraries to highlight the city’s hidden history. Reno, Nevada, shifted its marketing away from the tried and true  — and tired — message to spread the word about new energy in town. And sometimes, CVB innovations, like Experience Columbus’ experiential programs, have even inspired area residents to open new businesses or change their current business models to take full advantage of the group market.

Here are five destinations that are making strides in how they attract groups and the experiences they offer visitors.

Reno, Nevada

People sometimes think of Reno, Nevada, and “associate us with a small Vegas or an old Vegas,” said John Leinen, vice president of convention and tourism sales for Reno Tahoe USA, the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.

What they don’t always think of is a booming culinary scene, hip arts and entertainment options, and the great outdoors. That’s what the agency is hoping to change with the launch of new marketing efforts that shift the focus from Reno’s established gaming scene to its up-and-coming offerings.

“There’s a lot more going on in our destination than just the gaming model,” Leinen said. “It’s so refreshing when somebody comes out here and the first thing out of their mouth is ‘I had no idea.’”

About six months ago, the CVA launched the Positively Electric campaign as a way to showcase all the area’s new activity. Tesla Motors is building a battery manufacturing plant just east of Reno, and Amazon is building a new distribution center north of the city, all of which has led to increased air service at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, new hotel investments and an infusion of energy into the local economy. Midtown is the newest hot spot for restaurants and bars, and the Artown festival in July features daily events and performances.

“[Positively Electric] is a double entendre that plays off Tesla bringing a battery-manufacturing plant to the city, plus the whole vibe in downtown and the surrounding area,” Leinen said.

Lake Tahoe is a 45-minute drive southwest of the city and is an “amazing draw” for the area, he said, and the city borders the Tahoe National Forest, making it a hub for outdoor-adventure seekers.

St. Louis

St. Louis is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. New attractions are going up, and some of its most iconic attractions are getting facelifts.

The famed Gateway Arch celebrated its 50th birthday this year, and the grounds surrounding it “definitely needed some nip-tucks,” said Renee Eichelberger, director of leisure travel sales for the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission.

The CityArchRiver 2015 project will connect the arch grounds with the Mississippi River front and the surrounding downtown neighborhoods and attractions, including the Old Courthouse, which had been separated by highways and roads. The entire park will be relandscaped by 2016, including new paths and a natural amphitheater. The Museum of Westward Expansion in the visitor center beneath the arch is closed while being remodeled, and a new entrance is being built into the hillside beneath the arch, all of which should be done in 2017. Groups visiting the arch between now and then need to make reservations.

The National Blues Museum is under construction in the hip Mercantile Exchange, or MX, neighborhood. The $15 million, 23,000-square-foot museum is slated to open by year’s end and will feature interactive exhibits showcasing blues memorabilia and artifacts, as well as a 125-person concert venue.

“It cements our place in the American music corridor and shows how the music changed from New Orleans to Memphis to St. Louis up to Chicago,” Eichelberger said.

The Inside the Economy Museum, located in the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown, opened last fall and is designed to teach visitors about money and the economy, although admission is free. Guests also leave with a small bag of shredded money.

This past spring, the original Anheuser-Busch Brewery opened the on-site Old Schoolhouse Museum, which features exhibits about brewing and Prohibition, as well as Anheuser memorabilia.

Virginia Beach, Virginia

The name says it all: “Live the Life Adventures” is a program the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau developed to market area attractions through adventure experiences.

Although “adventure” is a subjective word, the idea is “if you adventure out, you’re going to have a great experience,” said Kelli Norman, director of tourism marketing and sales for the CVB.

“Adventure can be anything because adventure to one person is going to be different than adventure for another person,” she said.

The Virginia Beach CVB pioneered adventure itineraries and experiences when it launched its program about six years ago. The agency approached area attractions to see what they could offer or add to “make them more experiential and more unique,” Norman said.

The CVB recently added oyster-tasting tours at Pleasure House Oysters. The oyster farm offers a variety of hands-on and behind-the-scenes tours, typically for groups of about 10 to 15 people. Guests can explore the farm, get knee-deep in the Lynnhaven River to harvest Lynnhaven oysters and even eat the famed delicacy while standing in waders at a table in the water.

Visitors also love to kayak with dolphins. It’s not a staged encounter; Virginia Beach has one of the largest populations of bottlenose dolphins on the Eastern seaboard, so “anytime you take a kayak out in the ocean or the bay, you’re 99 percent sure you’re going to see dolphins,” Norman said.

“They come within a few feet of your kayak,” she said. “They just like to play in the wake and the water.”

The One Beach, One World experience provides visitors with a host of volunteer opportunities. Groups can get dirty while helping clean up the Lynnhaven River or the Chesapeake Bay or stay relatively clean while working with the USO of Hampton Roads to support the troops.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.

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