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Customizing the South

Throughout the South, CVBs and their partners are taking food, drink, history, adventures and one-of-a-kind opportunities to new heights. They’re also creating inventive ways for groups to experience their destinations and customizing those experiences to their travelers’ tastes. Here are six Southern CVBs that are leading the way in tour customization.

Charleston, West Virginia

Hip and historic is how Charleston, West Virginia, thinks of itself.

“It’s reflective of what you’ll find here,” said Tim Brady, vice president of sales and services for the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a city and state with a rich history, but at the same time, there’s a lot of cool stuff happening here that is new and cutting edge.”

Charleston’s No. 1 local attraction is family-owned J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, located in the suburb of Malden. The salt industry was huge in the city a century and a quarter ago. Today, Dickinson produces organic, gourmet salt. Visitors see how the brine is recovered from the earth and processed into fine table salt that is sold worldwide.

Malden is also the boyhood hometown of educator, author and civil rights activist Booker T. Washington. The CVB combines a trip to the saltworks with a visit to Washington’s home.

“For something that is new, we typically end the day with a meal at Capital Market in Charleston, an old railroad depot that is a farmers market with indoor restaurants and shops,” said Brady.

Another possible tour component is a visit to Blenko Glass, a world-famous glass manufacturer in Milton, 40 miles away. Tourists may also opt for a tour of the West Virginia State Museum at the State Capitol Complex. The Capitol itself is open for tours.

“We have dedicated itineraries we provide to groups, but sometimes groups want suggestions from us and then will make its own plans,” said Brady.

Charleston hosts many conventions and meetings, and welcomes motorcoach groups arriving from all over the mid-Atlantic and even the upper Midwest. Traveling sports teams are another busy market segment that wants to be entertained.

“You must be flexible in this industry because people want customized everything,” said Brady.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Tuscaloosa brands itself with six other counties in west Alabama that work together to provide visitors with fun experiences worth their time and travel.

“We have a really big musical heritage, and that story hasn’t been told very well yet,” said Tina Jones, director of tourism with the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission.

One visitor experience will soon include guests being given their own personal harmonicas along with lessons on how to play them in a workshop environment.

Of course, where there’s blues music there’s almost always tasty Southern food, and that too will be part of the tour. When fully developed next summer, the tour will be known as Playin’, Eatin’ and Singin’ the Blues.

Tuscaloosa has a rich Native American history, especially with the Creek tribe. Just 15 minutes from downtown is Moundville Archeological Park, where life is portrayed in the ancient Mississippian culture. Groups incorporate these sites into their itineraries.

For history fans, two significant civil rights events took place in Tuscaloosa. In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace attempted to block the admission of African-American students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. A year later came Bloody Tuesday, when peaceful civil rights marchers were beaten, tear gassed and arrested. The region also has a strong Civil War history. All these sites can be packaged into tours.

For haunted-tour fanatics, another pair of attractions may be appealing. The historic Bama Theater, an Art Deco facility downtown, is “rumored” to be haunted, as is the former Bryce Hospital for the Insane, which was a state facility that opened in 1861.

University of Alabama football is legendary, and fans visiting Tuscaloosa often tour Bryant-Denny Stadium and other sports facilities, as well as the university itself.

Clayton County, Georgia

Since “Gone With the Wind” was published in 1936 and made into a movie three years later, fans can’t get enough of Scarlett, Rhett and the other characters in this fictional Civil War drama.

Located south of Atlanta, Clayton County strives to step out of the shadow of its big-city neighbor. Its Gone With the Wind tour, using partners in different communities, caters to devoted fans. “It’s a five-stop itinerary,” said Beth Bailey of the Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

One stop is the Gone With the Wind Museum in Marietta. It has original costumes, movie scripts, posters and a gift shop. In Atlanta, groups visit the home of author Margaret Mitchell. Another stop is the Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library, which has an entire floor dedicated to Mitchell’s life, and many personal effects are displayed there, including her Pulitzer Prize and the typewriter on which she wrote her famous novel.

“It’s a great stop-off and really easy to do,” said Bailey. “It gives you that personal story about Margaret Mitchell.”

Next is Oakland Cemetery, a beautiful, Victorian-style resting place where Mitchell is buried. The tour concludes in Jonesboro with a visit to the Road to Tara Museum. Jonesboro is the literary setting for the story and a treasure trove for memorabilia.

Other tours include a visit to Stately Oaks Plantation that includes a Civil War step-on guide for motorcoach groups. Other popular group destinations are the Atlanta History Center and Stone Mountain Park. The Atlanta State Farmers Market in Clayton County is popular. In season, visitors can arrive by way of an open-air trolley pulled by a 1950s tractor.