Harpers Ferry Workers Become 'Tourism Ambassadors'Posted 01/02/2010
by Christine Miller Ford
HARPERS FERRY -- John K. Jones envisions a future in which National Park Service employees, hotel staff, bartenders, waiters and other workers in Harpers Ferry all act as experts on what's available to tourists locally as well as the hundreds of other Civil War-related sites in nearby Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
"This way, the whole region becomes a seamless, single designation," said Jones, the director of communications for the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, the Virginia-based nonprofit that promotes the 180-mile corridor where key Civil War events unfolded nearly 150 years ago.
With the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War coming up on April 12, 2011, many history lovers from the United States as well as elsewhere in the world are planning to visit the area, Jones said.
The idea of providing comprehensive training to create a fleet of "tourism ambassadors" is a concept borrowed from Phoenix when it hosted the Super Bowl earlier this year, Jones said.
"They trained everyone from taxi drivers to police officers so that anyone coming into contact with a tourist could offer information and suggestions on what to do and where to go," he said.
Thanks to a conversation with a waiter trained as a tourism ambassador, a visitor having lunch in Harpers Ferry might decide to return for another day trip or head to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., or to the battlefield in nearby Gettysburg, Pa., Jones said.
"Someone may be just coming to spend an afternoon in Harpers Ferry," Jones said. "What we hope to do is once we get a visitor here, to help them see how much else there is to enjoy in the area and then to make the decision to stay longer or to return for another visit."
Marsha Wassel, a spokeswoman for the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, said a number of rangers based in Harpers Ferry already have traveled to Gettysburg for the training. More are expected to take part in the future.
The number of visitors to the Hallowed Ground corridor is estimated to double as the 2011 anniversary approaches, Jones said.
"If we can bring back visitors a second time or a third time, that's going to create an economic windfall for the whole region," he said.
Amid the continuing recession, the effect on commerce could be huge, said Cate Magennis Wyatt, the president of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership. "The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has the potential to jumpstart the local economy, much like the Olympics or the Super Bowl coming to town."
Wyatt, formerly Secretary of Commerce and Trade for the state of Virginia, said tourism is a top industry in her state as well as in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
"We have a chance to make every visitor feel so welcome, so connected to our nation's history, that they'll come for the Civil War and leave with a burning sense to return for a hundred other reasons," she said.
Wyatt said the Hallowed Ground area includes not only the nation's largest cluster of Civil War battlefield sites, but also a variety of other history-rich destinations, including nine presidential homes and hundreds of locations tied to African American and Native American history.
In addition, it includes points of interest with ties to the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
The cost of the tourism ambassador training program, which began in late October, is being underwritten by the Hallowed Ground Partnership as well as other sponsors. Participants will be asked to pay $49 to take part.
"We hope to train several thousand over the coming months," Jones said.
Alisa Bailey, the president of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, said training people to work with tourists will help the region.
"Strong customer service is the No. 1 tool to help visitors spend more time and money in any destination. Knowledgeable and trained personnel can help transform a visit into something extraordinary," she said.
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