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Preparing for Tourism 'Rebound'

Association identifies strategies to encourage extended visits.

At Comfort Suites Leesburg, the economy has made its imprint on the hotel's regular business.

"Our big decline started after Sept. 11. ... I would say that tourism has gone down both in business and leisure," said hotel manager Amy Cross-Monroe, adding that though business is down from a year ago, the hotel has recently seen activity begin to trend upward.

Tourists are staying one night instead of two to three nights. They are booking in at the last minute instead of two to three weeks in advance. And they are shopping around for competitive rates.

This comes from Cross-Monroe, who recognizes that "nationwide, people aren't traveling and when they are, they are concerned about the number of days they stay."

Patty Rogers, marketing director of the Loudoun Convention and Visitors Association (LCVA), more than agrees. "The tourism industry is down," brought there by the economy, the sniper attacks, the SARS outbreak and the Iraqi war, she said, adding that the decline began in March or April 2001 with the start of the recession.

THE LCVA held its eighth annual meeting, "Celebrate Tourism and Recognize Tourism Leaders," on May 7 and awarded six tourism awards to tourism supporters. Keynote speaker Berkeley Young, vice-president of Randall Travel Marketing and a North Carolina resident, pointed out the top trends affecting travel and tourism for 2003. The trends include:

* Flat growth in travel and tourism revenues.

* Continued decline in business travel, which affects the meeting and convention market.

* Sporadic increases in leisure travel.

* Increases in last-minute travel.

* Increase in family travel.

"He told the audience he didn't have a lot of good news," Rogers said, adding that according to Young, if Loudoun promotes itself as a tourist stop, it likely will survive and rebound from the economic slow times. "The key is there is no quick recovery in tourism," she said.

"We have such a diverse product, and I think that's why we're a survivor," Rogers continued, pointing to the historical sites, wine and farm tours, family activities, river trips and hiking trails that Loudoun offers. "Frankly, it's location too."

EVEN SO, Loudoun's visitor spending dipped 39 percent for fiscal year 2003 through the end of April from $8.6 million in 2002 to $5.2 million in 2003.

Most of the decrease is attributed to the county's meeting and convention market, Rogers said. "Business travelers aren't going to meetings and not flying as much," she said.

In response, LCVA plans to shift its focus from the corporate market to government business, while maintaining contact with current corporate customers. LCVA will conduct market research on leisure and business travelers to identify what drives them to different locations and what encourages them to be repeat customers and to stay over night.

"Leisure travel is still good. We need to figure out how to convert more day trippers to overnighters," Rogers said, adding that the travelers still want to travel but plan trips closer to their homes. "They're looking for quality times to spend with family and friends. They're looking for places to go quickly."

The LCVA plans to promote overnight trips through a direct mailing this summer that will market several events next year, including the opening of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, the 200th anniversary celebration of Oatlands, the opening of the Heritage Farm Museum and the new tours at the Aldie Mill.

"We have seen more bus groups coming to our center than in previous years. That would indicate tourism for the drive market is on the rise," said Michael Weinberg, assistant general manager of Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets, which opened in late 1998.

LCVA HELD the meeting during National Tourism Week last week.

The award winners are:

* Frances Raflo, who recently retired from working more than three years at the LCVA Visitor's Center, winner of the Judy Patterson Award.

* The 2002 Wine Trail Guide, Tricia Hankinson of the county's Department of Economic Development, winner of the Tourism and Promotion Campaign award.

* The Waterford Homes Tour & Crafts Exhibit, winner of the Event of the Year.

* Edin Huskic, maintenance engineer of Comfort Suites in Leesburg, winner of the Employee of the Year.

* Pam and Don McMurray, owners of the Norris House Inn and the Stone House Tea Room, winners of Volunteer of the Year.

* Holly Heider of Chapple Flowers, Ltd., winner of Partner of the Year.

* Dee Dee Hubbard, Connie Fletcher, Bill Gallant and Mark and Joy Smith, winners of the Distinguished Service award.