COBLESKILL — A county with one of the smallest populations in the state wants more people within its borders for a day or three at a time.
The recurring question Monday at the Schoharie County Tourism Summit was: How does an assortment of interesting and diverse, but mostly small, businesses and attractions draw more notice from the outside world? The repeated answer: by working together.
Promoting attractions and businesses as a whole, and connecting them as a themed pathway or connected itinerary makes it more likely people will come to visit, said Nicholas Castellanos, tourism coordinator for the Schoharie County Chamber of Commerce.
Once tourists are here, he said, “There’s so many different things we can hit them with.”
Schoharie County has a lot going for it, including natural beauty and rich history. But it’s also spread out over a wide area, has the fifth-lowest population of New York’s 62 counties, and still has areas of limited internet service.
The internet dead zones are being steadily eliminated through state efforts, and the sparse population is an asset when pitched to people who want to visit rural areas. It might take 30 minutes to drive from one event or attraction to another within the county, but that’s 30 minutes of rural America zipping past the window, not a half-hour of congested traffic and strip malls crawling past, Castellanos said.
Laying the groundwork for a series of small group discussions among attendees, Castellanos listed the county’s assets:
Caves, both commercial and private; natural, American and Native American history; agriculture and food; outdoor adventures including fishing, hunting, hiking and snowmobiling; scenery; seasonal promotions; unique shopping; and SUNY Cobleskill, which is not a tourist destination but attracts a lot of non-residents each year.
He also listed its liabilities, especially inadequate lodging for the large number of tourists the county hopes to attract, as well poor coordination and communication between the various members of the business community that would help bring visitors in larger numbers. A glaring example: There apparently was no representative present from the state’s second-largest natural tourism attraction, Howe Caverns, just down the road from SUNY Cobleskill, where the summit was held.
“We can save money if we do all this together,” Castellanos said, appealing to attendees’ wallets over their competitive sides.
He later said that tourism is a very cooperative industry. Most people don’t travel long distances to see one site, turn around and go home. If they realize that there is more to do in a particular region, they’re more likely to choose it over another, and spend more time there once they arrive.
Castellanos said the county gains a lot of support from surrounding regions and various state programs, including I Love NY.
“We support each other, we share information, we work together,” he said “It’s kind of amazing the support we have in the tourism industry.”
He called the mostly full house at the tourism summit a good sign: “This is the kind of turnout we were hoping for.”
Attendees offered ideas of their own:
- Tony Frier, co-owner of the Broome Animal Sanctuary and Wattle Inn, said his audience is heavily vegan and mostly coming on buses from the New York City metropolitan area. Creating a niche can work.
- Cobleskill Mayor Linda Holmes said collaboration with farmers, restaurants and craft beverage makers can create a farm-to-table model that’s a key part of the eat-sleep-see itinerary.
- The owner of Gables Bed and Breakfast Inn suggested that more of the abundant stock of big old houses be put into service as Airbnb host sites to address the need for lodging.
- Another attendee said: “People know absolutely nothing about this area when they come here,” pointing out the value an interactive online map would have.
- A member of the Middleburgh Area Business Association suggested that creating a host of new events to bring people in would work to the detriment of the events already held each year. There are plenty of events already, he said.
- Identify the demographic that Schoharie County would appeal to, and then target it with promotions, a college representative suggested.
- Submit events for listing on the state’s Path Through History Website, said Chris Guldner, co-owner of the Bull’s Head Inn in Cobleskill.
- Collaborate and cooperate, said Ron Ketelsen, owner of the Roseboro Hotel in Sharon Springs.
Other comments suggested Ketelsen was on-target with that suggestion: The various attendees, representing a wide variety of businesses and attractions, sometimes seemed unaware of what was going on elsewhere in the county. Upcoming events as diverse as a poetry festival and a zombie run were news to a lot of people. And few seemed to have a strategy in place to build on established annual events such as the Gas Up or the Maple Fest.
Castellanos said a lot of this collaboration has to happen a year in advance to be most effective. He did not, however, think more and better are an either-or choice. There can be more events and attractions, and they can be marketed more effectively, he said.
“More assets are always great,” he added.
The newest attraction is scheduled to come online this summer, when a Korean investment company completes renovations on the old Imperial Baths in Sharon Springs and reopens it as a spa, harkening back to the little village’s heyday as a mineral springs resort.
“Before Saratoga was Saratoga, we were Saratoga,” Castellanos said.