by Dave Gardner
In a region where supposedly nothing new ever happens, change within the tourism industry has become routine along with the implementation of evolving business plans.
Curt Camoni, executive director of the Lackawanna County Convention & Visitors Bureau, explained his organization is now striving to complete a digital marketing showcase featuring the county’s numerous tourist attractions. The updated internet site, which delivers targeted messages emphasizing high-resolution pictures and videos, is scheduled to be launched this month and marks a sharp departure from what Camoni called the high-priced generic advertising of the past.
He highlighted some of the county’s hottest attractions, such as the Lackawanna County wine trail, the upcoming concert season within the Pavilion at Montage Mountain including two big music festivals, the county’s AAA baseball team and the relatively new Montage Mountain water park which allows operator income to be regularly derived from the facility apart from the ski season.
This year also will feature the inaugural Lackawanna County Heritage Fair, plus once again Saint Ubaldo Day in Jessup that includes a 5K race. Perhaps, above all, the county’s biggest attraction is the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour, which Camoni refers to as true immersion into the dark and cold world of the by-gone anthracite miners.
“The mine tour really shows how these people from our regional past had guts and a great work ethic,” said Camoni. “Most of them were very ambitious people, and their goal in life was for their kids and grandchildren to have a better life that they had.”
He credited the Steamtown National Historic Site with maintaining its mission of preservation and education, versus a focus solely on operational profits. Meanwhile, the nearby Houdini Museum, Tour, and Magic Show is the most for requested Lackawanna attraction by national travel writers.
The big move to digital advertising for the county, according to Camoni, focuses on search engine optimization. He said the participants in the county’s marketing efforts are acutely aware Lackawanna attractions must be among the first five names that Google pulls up during a search, requiring every event in Lackawanna County to be on the web and relevant.
“Google runs the world, and we are at the mercy of their search algorithms,” said Camoni. “Therefore, we must design for this. If you’re not in the top five on a search you might as well be number 50.”
Lackawanna’s hotel fund revenues, which fund Camoni’s agency, appear to support the idea that the county’s marketing efforts are paying off to some degree. He cited data indicating that these tax funds rose 9.5 percent during 2018, and for 2019 so far are up six percent.
Efforts are underway within the Poconos for the region to expand the markets from which tourists are drawn. Christopher Barrett, president and CEO of the Pocono Mountain Visitor’s Bureau, noted the primary advertising locales from which the 27,000 square mile Poconos have solicited business have been the New York and Philadelphia areas, but a recent expansion now is seeking to also recruit visitors from the Harrisburg, Lebanon, Lancaster, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. areas.
“You have to be aggressive with digital advertising and strive to educate potential visitors,” said Barrett. “We no longer utilize outside advertising agencies, and instead use our own in-house marketing department to save money, do our advertising buys, and promote the use of digital platforms.”
Outdoor resources remain ample in the Poconos, but according to Barrett the hottest attractions now involve the indoor water parks, such as Great Wolf Lodge, Camelback Lodge and Kalahari Resort. Each one of these offers a different set of amenities, and such as Kalahari may also target the corporate world with a physical location for combined business meetings and extended family vacations.
As with Montage, the numerous Pocono water parks allow facility operators to generate revenues apart from the ski season, thereby contributing to the Pocono’s brand as a multi-season region. The romantic bathtub and honeymoon resorts also still exist to some degree within the Pocono’s legacy facilities.
“Overall, the region’s guests now see a bigger and diverse picture, and it’s paying off,” said Barrett. “Tourism revenues in the Poconos have experienced 27 percent growth over three years for our four counties, creating an estimated economic impact of $3.5 billion. A lot of this is because of the water parks which, after a great deal of investment, created a big push on return business.”
He credited the owner-operators of the Pocono resorts, and the water parks in particular, as progressive visionaries who are good are reading the “tea leaves” of commerce and not afraid of change.
In addition, more traditional resorts such as Woodloch, continue to strive for exceptional guest service with a focus on return visitors. This long-term success, in a way, contrasts with the historical experience of Jim Thorpe, where Barret is now seeing a new renaissance.
“I can remember not long ago when many business fronts in Jim Thorpe were boarded up,” said Barrett. “This is certainly not the case now, because business within the town is booming.”
According to information supplied by the Mohegan Sun Pocono complex, more than two million people visited the vast facility over the past year. The company maintains a strong analytics department so that it can identify where these guests arise from, with the emphasis on patrons from longer distances now expanding greatly, according to David Parfrey, vice president of marketing.
A series of formal expansion initiatives ushered in for Mohegan Sun Pocono what Parfrey calls the destination era. This included the launch of table games plus the 238-room hotel and corporate convention center, marking the facility’s direct challenge to peers in Atlantic City.
“We had to discover the right fit, and our business plan is still evolving,” said Parfrey. “What hasn’t changed is our pride in guest services, and since day one this has been our strongest focus. We treat every patron in a way that they can’t wait to come back.”
Gaming is the facility’s top revenue producer, but according to Parfrey, the company clearly understands that not every patron is only a traditional gamer. To create revenues from this reality, the Mohegan Sun offers a retail mix that includes restaurants, shows, music and races that create return business.
“There are so many opportunities to lose patrons to the competitors, and because of this, the staff must receive positive energy from management and pass this down to the guests as everyone out on the floor smiles and reaches out,” said Parfrey.
He also explained that the regional labor market is tight at all levels, and with this in mind, the facility management is continually evolving its compensation packages. An orientation process and the training program from day one, with films and speakers, is also administered to train the workforce as thoroughly as possible and promote the belief that Mohegan Sun jobs are not just about a paycheck, but also must include striving for a higher purpose.
With Pennsylvania now allowing increased forms of entertainment such as satellite casinos and online gaming, the competition for entertainment dollars continues to increase. Mohegan Sun is fighting back with social media monitoring and guest surveys to rate its performance as a host, plus an imminent expansion into sports wagering.
The facility will also continue its decade-long, highly-successful summer program of offering free cover bands that specialize in a famous artist’s music. Each free two-hour show is attended by 2,000 to 3,000 patrons who enjoy the sounds of artists performing the music of national acts such as Bon Jovi, Heart, and new for this year Dave Matthews.
“We’re always dealing with limits to discretionary spending for entertainment, and people have only so much money,” said Parfrey. “Therefore, this has to be their destination above any competitors.”
The regional workforce needs mentioned by Parfrey are being confronted by many of the region’s colleges through their hospitality management programs. Wilkes University is about to roll out its first class of four-year graduates, which includes business and leadership training.
HyeRyeon Lee, Ph.D, assistant professor of hospitality leadership with the Jay S. Sidhu School of Business and Leadership at Wilkes University, said hospitality careers are best for students who genuinely like people and enjoy close human interaction. The Wilkes curriculum, which also serves two-year graduates from regional culinary programs, is heavy on customer service and business training, and students must develop a business plan to graduate.
Instruction in hotel maintenance, leadership, finance and marketing are also included. According to Lee, modern resorts don’t want only a business degree, but instead require a well-rounded graduate who truly is people-oriented and preferably has been officially certified.
“Unfortunately, some parents may discourage their children from going into hospitality despite all of the great opportunities that exist,” said Lee. “The career may be considered a negative, but we’re trying to change this image.”