When Rockingham County tourism officials wanted to reach a wider and potentially younger audience, they turned to the Bryan School.
Through a connection with Rockingham County’s Tourism Manager Robin Yount, this spring’s hospitality and tourism capstone students were placed on teams and tasked with a community consulting project — to execute a marketing plan for the county, promoting the region to younger visitors as well as outdoor enthusiasts.
“We’re trying to give them a real problem to learn to solve that problem,” said Dr. Erick Byrd, Associate Professor Department of Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Hospitality, and Tourism. “We give them that framework of strategic planning or strategic management for helping these partners.”
At the end of the semester, student teams gathered with Rockingham County officials on a Zoom call to present their findings. They discussed ideas large and small, from improving the county’s website and social media presence to advertising on dating apps, and even installing a water park with live rapids.
“I’d like to implement the whole thing,” said Debbie Moore, Executive Director of the Rockingham County Fine Arts Festival Association, at one point during the meeting.
To start, one group suggested rebranding the riverways altogether.
“The research we’d done, there wasn’t a specific definition for Blueway,” said Miranda Sherman. “It was hard to understand what the product of Blueway was. To clear that up, we thought of taking the Blueways name and turning it into the Rockingham Riverways.”
The pitches aimed to pull new visitors to the county, from those looking to experience something with friends or, perhaps, those looking to take a road less traveled. Whether the students were discussing the interests of their peers, outdoor enthusiasts, or portions of the population described as “outdoor millennials,” all of the ideas centered around one basic idea — how can Rockingham County get people to visit? (And, ideally, stay a little while or grab a bite to eat.)
“The longer you can get tourists to stay in an area, obviously the more money they’ll spend,” said Kylie Kennedy. “Overnight guests spend up to three times as much as a day guest, so even if you can get local food vendors (at the proposed Rockin’ Rapids Water Park) it could extend the stay of a guest who is on the river for two hours. They may stay for five hours or for a full day of activities. For someone who drove one or two hours out of their way, the odds are a lot higher.”
For Yount, these new perspectives were a breath of fresh air, making a note of the suggestions about dating apps and potential in the region for Airbnb.
“The dating app thing is something to think about,” she said. “I kind of like that. That’s what we were looking for, something different, and a new idea. You have verified everything we’ve been discussing in our office about the direction of our website and social media.”
The students were remarkably detailed, with one group even suggesting stickers and decals for visitors experiencing specific landmarks. Those decals could even double as free advertising, the group pointed out, while revealing their own designs representing Byrd’s Ledge, The Boiling Hole, and a potential Grand Staircase social media challenge.
“Pat yourselves on the back,” said Tara Martin, the county’s Health Promotions Coordinator. “You’ve done a marvelous job.”
Though their project began with in-person meetings at the start of the semester, the students’ endeavors turned virtual as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To say the least, Byrd wasn’t surprised by his students’ ability to operate under unique circumstances.
“The Bryan School has done an amazing job of getting students prepared to adapt to certain situations,” he said. “Our students have adapted and made the best of this situation.”
Byrd said it was great working with Rockingham County for a number of reasons, and he’d be surprised if one, if not every idea from the presentation was used in the future.
“They treat our students like rockstars,” he said of a visit that took place prior to social distancing orders. “They opened up a restaurant during off-hours, they fed the students, gave them everything they needed. Our students, when they go into these areas, are treated like the professionals that they are. It’s nice to see and it’s nice to see them get treated as professionals.”