It stands at the precipice of a future filled with opportunity.
All it needs to do is take the next step.
“A lot of folks don’t understand tourism, largely because it’s an intangible product,” said Union County Tourism Commission Executive Director Auvis Cole.
Tourism is a $17.2 billion dollar per year industry in South Carolina — it’s the state’s largest export. Nearly 13 percent of all employment in the state is generated by travel and tourism.
Cole said in fiscal year 2007-08, tourism had a $12 million impact on Union County’s economy, accounted for more than 100 jobs and injected $1.85 million in wages into the county’s economy.
“And all those numbers will be growing,” he said.
Union County only needs to embrace the opportunities tourism — which includes everything from the Timken Sports Complex and Union County Dragway to every historic trail, site and battlefield within its borders — brings.
Several local businesses already have felt the impact of increased traffic into the county with the addition of the sports complex, according to Cole.
Pizza Hut and several other restaurants in Union have had record sales during weekends the complex has had tournaments — Pizza Hut even has had the highest revenue night it’s had in the last 30 years in the same time frame. Cole also reported the Days Inn and America’s Best Value Inn — which will become Quality Inn in June — were at capacity the weekend of the complex’s first regular tournament.
“Those are some of the early indicators,” Cole said.
The results show Union County is at the point where its tourism and travel industry are poised to grow not gradually but exponentially and those indications appeared even before the new dragway opened last week.
Cole is excited for what the future will bring when it comes to tourism and travel in Union County and plans already are in motion to help Union County capitalize on its opportunities in the industry as much as possible.
If you’ve been to the Timken Sports Complex, the new Union County Dragway or outside Wachovia in downtown Union in the last few days you might have noticed several new six-foot tall additions to their surroundings.
The tourism commission just had three kiosks installed at each of those locations that will house event information, brochures about Union County and be the information source when Cole cannot.
The three-sided kiosks also will include a “You are here” section, showing visitors exactly where they are in reference to the county’s attractions — somewhat similar to mall maps.
“It’s a great idea to spread information and cross-promote our other tourist attractions,” Cole said. “It’s also an extension of the tourism commission.”
The kiosks will provide 24-hour access to the county’s tourism information and are just one of the ways the tourism commission is changing with the growth of its industry.
Cole said the commission is going through a rebranding process — including a new Web site soon to be launched, enhancement of its logo and connecting with people through social media outlets like Facebook and placing an emphasis on not just coming to Union County but experiencing it.
The new Web site — hoped to be launched by May 1 — is www.experienceunioncounty.com and will be easier to navigate and more interactive for people who visit.
“It will be a true Web site that is for the visitor,” Cole said, adding whether that visitor is already here or planning a trip to Union County.
The site will give people an idea of what’s happening in Union County and offer links to several others — such as the Timken complex, dragway, area restaurants and diners and hotels — visitors will be able to use as a one-stop-shopping point for those interested in visiting the county.
The commission also wants to entice people to come to Union County and will offer giveaways and free items from time to time on both the new Web site and its Facebook page. The new Web site will include information like hotel rates and other specifics on staying in or visiting the county.
All of these tools are vehicles, Cole said, the county can use to drive people to events, activities, shopping and other attractions happening here.
But the commission and Cole can’t do it all on their own.
Partnering for the future
“Networking and partnering are the key,” Cole said.
He said the tourism and travel industry is “all about getting them to come back” — making sure the people visiting Union County have an experience they won’t forget and will want to do it again.
Building partnerships with private individuals and businesses, local governments and even regional and national organizations will play a large role in how successful Union County’s fledgling tourism industry ultimately is.
Strengthening existing partnerships and building new relationships is one of Cole’s goals in his position as executive director. He is traveling to Columbus, Ohio, next week to do just that by making his pitch for Union County to the likes of those involved with the National Association of Sports Commissions.
Becoming a member or even forming a partnership with the association would give Union County opportunity to attract NCAA tournaments, USA Softball events and other sports-related activities.
The commission is now a nationally certified member of five organizations.
All those outside agencies aside, however, Cole said success also will depend on the partnerships the commission has or makes with local entities like the Union City Council and Union County Council. It’s important for local entities, groups and organizations to be behind the efforts the commission is making and Cole hopes those partnerships can grow over time.
Partnerships and networking offer a way for Union County to get exposure — not just within the county’s borders but also outside in surrounding areas and states.
“We can’t do this by ourselves,” Cole said. “By taking a regional approach, we’ll be afforded many more opportunities.”
There’s even more to it than that.
Partnerships will bring additional opportunities but it’s up to local officials, businesses, agencies and residents to have enough information to serve the new visitors with that one-on-one attention and hospitality the county is so well known for.
Getting in the know
“That’s our niche,” Cole said.
What’s going to differentiate Union County in the tourism industry is its willingness to take the extra steps needed and doing the job right the first time.
“It’s about seeing what more we can do and asking them what they want,” Cole said. “It’s about having our mayor and our county supervisor out there meeting and greeing our visitors.”
Everyone in Union County needs to get involved for its tourism and travel industry to work. The commission already has started the process by partnering with Americas Best Value Inn on a customer survey that asks those key questions:
• What brings you and your family to Union County?
• Where did you travel from and how many are in your party?
• What other activities are you interested in outside the main reason for your current visit?
• How could we make your visit better?
By getting to know the people who are visiting the county and asking them what they want and what can be improved the tourism commission and local businesses and attractions can make improvements and offer even more the next time those same people come to the county.
That’s the entire point — getting them to come back.
Part of the equation is knowing what those people need to know. Cole said it will be up to hotels, restaurants, event venues, community leaders and everyone in the county to know what’s going on, be fully staffed and ready to answer any questions visitors might have while they are here.
“It’s about working together,” he said, to make the experience that much better.
The success of Union County’s tourism industry hinges on that cooperation and, simply said, being prepared.
Cole said growth in the tourism and travel industry in Union County is increasing at a nice pace. The best part about Union County is that it’s still small enough to provide that one-on-one attention visitors are looking for.
When that growth picks up, however, the community needs to be prepared. Cole said that means community leaders, businesses, organizations and individuals need to want to know what’s going on and the new Web site will assist in achieving that goal.
But the future is about more than just being prepared for the influx of people — it’s about reaping the benefits and that’s what Cole is most excited about.
“One of the greatest things I look forward to is that job creation,” he said. “Not only the number of jobs but entrepreneurial opportunities.”
Whether it’s businesses starting up to offer tours of the county’s historical sites and monuments, coffee shops or bistros opening in conjunction with the Union Performing Arts Center, there are opportunities to be had with the expansion of the county’s tourism.
“It’s going to help Union County decrease that unemployment rate,” Cole said. “That’s something I’m looking forward to the most. If we can do that, it will be like icing on the cake.”
He added, if Wal-Mart — which has one of the best marketing teams in the world — had the insight to build a supercenter in Union County there must be something going right.
Cole said the potential growth in restaurants and hotels in Union County is great with the increase in foot traffic the county is experiencing and will see in the future.
“That’s something — largely — we haven’t had,” he said. “Now we’re positioned to have that foot traffic and our means of growth are imminent.”
FOR MORE INFO:
Anyone who might have questions, concerns or ideas for the Union County Tourism Commission or its executive director Auvis Cole can get in touch by emailing the commission’s new customer service address at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can call (864) 424-2340.