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Be Our Guest: Site managers say heritage tourism boosts interest in region

December 9, 2012
By AMANDA MAY METZGER , The Leader Herald

Over the past few years the recession helped some families rediscover what may be a short drive from their own backyard.

Instead of vacations that require long flights, some have turned to a drive around their home state to discover how heritage can be a vacation.

According to visitor spending data from the Empire State Development Corp., travelers in Fulton County increased spending from $47.6 million in 2010 to $48.8 million in 2011.

Article Photos

Johnson Hall in Johnstown is pictured on Thursday. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan)

Hamilton County saw a similar increase from $65 million to $68.3 million. The numbers in Montgomery County slid from $34.6 million 2010 to $32.3 million in 2011, the year Hurricane Irene battered many parts of the county.

Gina DaBiere-Gibbs, director of tourism for the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the figures are a positive sign for the economy.

"I think people are back [to] spending money in general," said DaBiere-Gibbs.

The Empire State Development Corp. uses the global analytics firm Tourism Economics, with stateside headquarters in Pennsylvania, for the visitor spending figures.

The numbers are defined by spending on lodging, recreation, food and beverage, retail and service stations, transportation and second homes.

"I think things are turning around a little bit," DaBiere-Gibbs said. "Even local people are staying closer to home and spending their money. We get data from our Visitor Center [in Vail Mills] and people really are traveling through Fulton County, staying here and spending their money."

The Visitor Center is a Fulton County building, so the majority of information there is about Fulton County, DaBiere-Gibbs said, but it does contain information about other regions in the state.

Johnson Hall had about the same number of visitors - 45,000 - in 2010 and 2011. Figures for the 2012 season are not yet available. Revenue from people taking the house tour totaled about $4,000.

"We're much more focused on attendance and trying to attract visitation. That's our primary goal. The revenue is secondary," said Bob Kuhn, assistant regional director at the state Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation for the Capital District Region.

Attracting people to Johnson Hall can mean higher spending in the surrounding area. Acting Site Manager Wade Wells noted people who visit Johnson Hall are directed to the historic sites downtown, which features shopping and dining nearby.

"We certainly always mention the downtown sites like the Drum House, the Johnstown Historical Society and the walking tours. We tell them about the Courthouse and Jail, which aren't always open to the public, but at least they can go and physically visit them," he said. "At historic sites, we're involved in heritage tourism, and that not only includes Johnson Hall, but the downtown in our city as well. We have, in Johnstown, some very nice architecture from varied time periods in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It's not just the house that's important. It's our downtown as well that really makes it special."

Wells said he's noticed an increase in people visiting from within the state, though the destination site gets people from all over the world who are interested in French and Indian War or Revolutionary War history.

Primarily, the site is advertised through the "I Love New York" program, which provides funding for tourism promotion to the chamber - the county's primary tourism agency.

"It's about planning and promotion for us - planning engaging and educational events that will draw more people to our sites," Wells said.

The site has had unique events like a cricket tournament, and also is planning a new evening horse-drawn sleigh ride event for the 2013 winter, which could include a bonfire and hot mulled cider. That depends on the amount of snowfall the area gets this year.

During the 2012 season Johnson Hall took part in geocaching. Geocaching is a worldwide outdoor treasure hunt in which players use GPS devices and hide containers, which are called geocaches, to be found by another treasure hunter in the game.

Wells said Johnson Hall had three geocaches on site.

"A geocache is a box, usually with a log-in book, and people will leave certain types of trinkets behind exchanged between geocaches. We had laminated bookmarks in them - simple things for them to take away," Wells said.

Those who completed the challenge by finding all the geocaches at different sites were entered into a drawing for a prize.

"That was very successful. We had positive feedback from people involved in the challenge," Wells said. "So we're really looking at events and activities that can promote our site that will bring folks in who aren't necessarily interested in history, but are exposed to history and our site through an activity challenge."

As part of the state's Path Through History program, Johnson Hall is one of 200 historical sites that will be shown on a statewide road map. The site will be featured on destination signage along the Thruway as well.

Johnson Hall's 250th year anniversary of the building is coming up in 2013, and Wells said there are special events planned to celebrate that.

The recent season at Old Fort Johnson, near the intersection of Routes 5 and 67, was difficult to compare with previous years because of the August 2011 flooding that came with Hurricane Irene.

Several other sites in Montgomery County such as Schoharie Crossing and Guy Park Manor were damaged as well.

The site didn't open until August this year. It usually opens in May.

"But from August to October, we had visitors almost every day," said Museum Director Alessa Wylie, who was working this week to prepare the site for its annual Holiday Tea and Art Show Saturday, which had 77 registered guests.

"We get visitors from not only our neighbors down the street, but from all over the country and the world," she said.

Skimming through the visitors log book she found names of people from Virginia, Colorado, Ohio and Michigan among other states.

Visitors from Canada, Australia and Germany signed in last season, too.

"A lot of them come especially for either the French and Indian War or the Revolutionary War, or specifically because they read something about Sir William Johnson," she said.

When the book "Bloody Mohawk: The French and Indian War & American Revolution on New York's Frontier" by Richard Berleth came out, she said, the site had an increase in visitors.

"Heritage tourism is really pretty influential in terms of tourism [locally]," Wylie said. "There is so much history and heritage in the valley. We have so many sites you could follow."

She said many visitors stay in the area at unique bed and breakfast lodgings. Some people come to stay at sites such as the Amsterdam Castle, and then are directed to historical tourist sites, she said.

"They've sent a lot of people over to visit. I think a lot of people stop in on the way, and they have an itinerary and they're going from point A to point b, and sometimes they do stay overnight. [Other] times it's one stop along the way," Wylie said.

Old Fort Johnson is not funded by the state. It is run by the Montgomery County Historical Society and has a Board of Trustees.

"We do have a very small publicity budget that we use mainly for events. We do a lot of social media with our Facebook page. We have a website, too. A lot of people find us through the website [after] they do a web search," she said.

Both Wylie and Wells said their Facebook pages have generated a lot of traffic at their sites and helped them keep visitors informed of events.



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