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Area looks to bring in visitors after water crisis

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With plenty of choices of where to live, work and play, an environmental disaster like last month's Elk River chemical leak could have a severely negative impact on a city's reputation and thus its economy. Why would anyone choose to visit if they're unsure about the water?

That is a challenge the city of Charleston must now take on. How to attract visitors and new residents after the Jan. 9 chemical leak that left 300,000 people without potable water?

"Obviously, we are the Chemical Valley and a lot of strides, I think have been made by the chemical industry," said Alisa Bailey, president of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Sadly, this incident that affected the water supply is a wallop of an impact."

Last month, Bailey reported to CVB board members financial losses from just 12 businesses surveyed during the "do not use" advisory totaled $1 million. A preliminary investigation by the Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research projected an economic impact of $61 million for businesses in the nine affected counties.

Charleston competes for visitors and tourism dollars with cities like Nashville and Lexington. Bailey said the city is "in a really good place" with renovations to the Civic Center underway and new hotels being built, but a clean environment is key to sustaining a healthy tourism economy.

"We really can't have people remember, 'Oh yeah, that's the place where people are drinking bottled water,'" she said.

Only after there are definitive statements regarding the water quality, and the public trusts those messages, can the CVB really start to market Charleston again, Bailey said.

 "We can't sell [the city] until it's clean and everybody believes it's clean," she said. "It's just the reality, frankly."

The same could be said of those looking to relocate to Charleston for work. Jeff James, of Create WV -- an organization focused on developing an "innovation economy" in the Mountain State -- said those in career fields such as art, technology and design can choose to live anywhere. "Quality of place" factors are important to people when choosing where to live.

"There are cities and regions of the country that are taking the environment seriously as an asset, and we're clearly not, from a leadership perspective," James said. "We're not embracing that the environment and surroundings are every bit as attractive as taxes."

The leak's impact on the region's economy is a "natural result of not looking more holistically at economic development," James said.

"It's not that anybody needs to be anti-coal or anti-chemical," James said. "We have to have a much more diverse economy so that any one industry like that doesn't have too much influence. If we're too scared to hold industry accountable, it's not going to get better."

Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said clean water is "fundamental."

"People talk about ... brain drain," Boettner said. "If we're wanting to attract people here and keep people here it makes it very difficult if we can't even provide safe water."

Herb Malone, president and CEO of Alabama Gulf Shores Convention and Visitors Bureau, dealt with similar issues after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill contaminated the Gulf Coast in 2010. Bailey reached out to Malone for advice on how to handle the chemical spill in the Kanawha Valley.

The spill happened in April, but the well wasn't capped until mid-August, severely affecting the tourism industry's peak season.

"The oil spill was an unknown, just like I'm sure the chemical spill is like something you've never experienced," Malone said. "It puts high level of stress on citizenry and government to not know what you're dealing with."

Those frustrations could be exacerbated by conflicting reports from government officials, outside experts and so-called experts, Malone said.

"You bring in a lot of experts, qualified experts but it's amazing how many so-called experts turn out to not be qualified experts in the end of it," Malone said. "It was very frustrating with us having to deal with that and the perceptions that created, but we overcame them."

The Gulf Coast CVB found its greatest role was to be a communicator for tourists who were there during the spill, those planning to visit that summer and those who had larger events scheduled for the near future. A CVB's messaging must be clear and honest, Malone said.

"As a CVB in any city, we are more or less the messenger of the brand of our destination," Malone said. "The message inferred by us and implied to the consumer is that our destination is clean and safe. When it's not, we have to explain that and try to explain in terms that the average consumer can understand."

The CVB posted daily videos of beach conditions, which weren't always positive. There were some days when pools of oil on the shore featured prominently in their updates.

"We didn't hide from that," Malone said. "That laid the groundwork for earning their trust."

Malone said building customer trust is key in post-disaster marketing efforts.

"If you ever lose it, it's hard to get it back," Malone said. "In this day and time when everyone's got a camera in their pocket, you'd be foolish to do anything otherwise."

Perception is the first challenge an area can face when trying to recover and, eventually, move on from a disaster. Gulf Coast CVB approached changing perceptions of the area's environmental integrity in a variety of ways.

"[Consumers] remember the stories and images they saw on TV... a month ago," Malone said. "They don't have the images of the repaired building. Those images seldom make the media. They're not newsworthy."

Social media was Gulf Coast CVB's greatest tool in countering the idea that the Gulf was still heavily damaged by the spill, Malone said. Several large events were organized and regularly scheduled events went on as planned. The CVB encouraged visitors to post online photos and updates from each event, turning them into "ambassadors" for the region.

"Today's consumer tends to believe a fellow consumer more than they believe marketers," Malone said.

When things are settled and the disaster no longer affects the region, Malone said CVBs and government officials have to "stop talking about it." Take down disaster photos from websites; don't bring it up unless asked about it. Move on.

"If you don't do that, you run the risk of allowing this major event to define who you are long-term, and none of us want that," Malone said.

Bailey said social media is her "litmus test" for when fears about the impact of the chemical spill have subsided.

"When everybody starts talking about what they had for breakfast instead of their water," Bailey said, "that's when it will be time to make the next push to get people coming back to Charleston."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.

 

 


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