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Hotels shrugging off effects of water crisis

By Phil Kabler, Staff writer

“The damage that has been done to this community will affect us in a negative way for the rest of my life,” Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, Jan. 17 CNN interview on the impact of the Elk River chemical leak.

“There is not a hotel ... in downtown Charleston that has rooms available at this point,” Samantha Carney, Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau special groups and sports sales manager, regarding the Hot Rod Power Tour stop in Charleston, June 4 Gazette interview.

Which seems consistent with the findings of the Repass and Partners survey of 1,468 adults in 11 key tourism markets for West Virginia. As you may recall, it found that 25 percent of those who were knowledgeable about the Jan. 9 water contamination incident said they would be negatively influenced about taking a trip to West Virginia, but also found that fewer than one in three people surveyed (in March) knew anything about the incident.

(As I noted back in April, the state tourism industry should be thankful the national media at the time was obsessed with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “bridge-gate,” and as usual, gave short shrift to West Virginia.)

Further confirmation that the chemical leak will have minimal impact on tourism statewide comes from Smith Travel Research.

The state Commerce Department has a contract with the Pennsylvania-based company, which tracks hotel and motel occupancy rates nationwide, for state occupancy rate data.

When I requested STR occupancy figures, Jacqueline Proctor, deputy commissioner of tourism, advised that it is proprietary information and the state’s contract has restrictions on sharing the data.

However, she was able to share these bits of information:

Statewide, hotels and motels had a 68.1 percent occupancy rate in April, up 4.1 percent from April 2013.

From January through April, the occupancy rate averaged 58.2 percent, up 0.9 percent from the same period in 2013. (Which is fairly remarkable given the harsh winter of ‘14 - or possibly inflated by travelers who were forced to stop and stay overnight because of bad road conditions...)

It will be interesting to see if the state’s $2.2 million spring/early summer ad campaign in key markets will further bolster those numbers.

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In a tourism-related note, the state Development Office/Division of Tourism has cut the first check to Jim Justice’s Old White Charities for a sponsorship of the 2014 Greenbrier Classic PGA golf tournament.

The $500,000 check went out last week.

Last, year the office/division sent a $500,000 check to Justice on May 8, a second $500,000 check on July 19, and a final payment of $890,000 on Oct. 1.

(Speaking of Mr. Justice, according to the Roanoke Times, he sold the seven-story office building in downtown Roanoke that had housed the headquarters of Justice Energy for $3.2 million.)

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Staying on a tourism-related theme, the state Division of Culture and History has awarded an $800,000 contract to Explus Inc. of Dulles, Virginia, for animatronic and audio-visual enhancements to the State Museum in the Culture Center.

The Disneyfication of the museum will include five animatronics, including a life-size Civil War soldier capable of 15 different movements, including a head that rotates side to side and tilts, a mouth that moves, eyes that blink, and arms and hands that move.

The soldier will have 45 seconds of dialogue, and will come to life when visitors trigger a motion detector.

Other animatronics will include a cardinal, hawk, owl and rattlesnake.

The original 114-page plan for upgrading the museum called for several anthropomorphic animatronic cardinals, embodying the character “Red,” who would function as a talking tour guide, greeting visitors at various points along the museum’s show path.

The contract, however, calls for only one animatronic cardinal, with moving head, neck, wings, beak, and blinking eyes, who will make appropriate chirping sounds, but apparently not human speech.

Multiple Reds would have put the project over budget, no doubt...

Likewise, the original plan called for the display featuring the animatronic hawk, owl and rattlesnake to feature animal sounds that would converge into the melody of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” However, the bid package indicates the scene’s audio will feature “sporadic and natural” animal sounds.

The contract calls for a variety of other audio-visual upgrades, including one display with Civil War tents which, when activated, will illuminate to allow visitors to see silhouettes of the soldiers inside as they discuss the war in a yet-to-be-scripted audio. (I believe they used the same premise in one of the Austin Powers’ movies...)

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Finally, keeping with the theme, the real Tina Stinson (it would be cost-prohibitive to try to create an animatronic version) is leaving the governor’s communication office to reunite with former boss Amy Shuler Goodwin at the Division of Tourism, where she’ll be special projects director.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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