Flocks of out-of-town conventioneers bearing name tags and plastic goodie bags are a common sight in downtown Providence and Newport. But persuading convention visitors to break out of city-centered convention sites and visit outlying communities like the Blackstone Valley, South County, East Bay and New Bedford can be an uphill battle.
It’s their loss, say tourism officials outside the Providence-Newport axis, who realize that convention visitors may be short on time, local transportation and insight into the charms that lie outside the hub of convention activities.
To put themselves into the consideration set for meeting attendees’ activities, the officials emphasize that outlying regions must be true to their distinctive characters when promoting themselves. Visitors need to appreciate and to be seeking industrial history and river boating in the Blackstone Valley; beaches and Colonial-era farms in the South County area; biking, shopping and historic homes in the East Bay.
The John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, which flanks the famed river and includes Slater Mill, the Museum of Work and Culture, and the towns of Lincoln, Pawtucket and Woonsocket, welcomes conventioneers, says Bob Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.
But conventioneers are rarer than leisure travelers in the Blackstone Valley, and they show up mostly at Twin River casino in Lincoln and McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. One reason, says Billington, is geography. “The closer you are to where they are convening, the better is the economic impact. The farther out you are, the less you feel the impact.”
More significant for the Blackstone Valley, with its beautiful river, history of American industrialism and cultural imprints of generations of mill workers, is its draw for environmental and cultural tourists. This tourism character does not necessarily mesh well with the itineraries of convention visitors, who may have limited spare time or interest in local history.
Selling a destination to a convention planner requires a dynamic sales force working five to 10 years into the future and lots of costly staff time. “The return on investment for attracting a leisure visitor is much higher than attracting a conventioneer for us,” Billington said. As a result, his group focuses more on attracting leisure travelers. “We build on what we have here,” he said. “Tourism in Blackstone focuses on the place and we spend a lot of time developing the place.”
Billington said the best chance the Blackstone Valley has of attracting more conventioneers from the cities is to develop food-and culture-related events and to focus on the artists’ studios that are popping up in former mills. Conventioneers also could be enticed by events like the Autumnfest in Woonsocket, Taiwan Day in Pawtucket, and the Pawtucket Arts Festival.
Myrna George, president and CEO of the South County Tourism Council, noted that South County is a beautiful and ecologically delicate area, so visitors need to go there with those characteristics in mind. With its 17 public golf courses, many with banquet facilities, South County is just right for small market meetings of 200 or fewer participants. A perfect melding of environmentalism and small attendance is coming up in the fall, George said, when Narragansett hosts a meeting of the New England Association of Resource Conservation and Development Councils.
George says tourism regions outside the cities need better public transportation to take city-based visitors to Washington County. County events in the region that could attract conventioneers include the Quonset Air Show, the Wickford Art Show, the Charlestown Seafood Festival and the annual Balloon Festival.
Like South County, the East Bay contains a niche group of small meeting hosts: corporate board meetings and company retreats, some of which add an extra kick of kayaking or other outdoor adventure, said Betty Pleacher, executive director of the East Bay Tourism Council. Venues for these groups include Mount Hope Farm, Blithewold Mansion and the Bristol Harbor Inn.
Massachusetts’s Bristol County, including the cities of New Bedford and Fall River, also has venues for small market meetings, such as White’s of Westport and Venus de Milo in Swansea, says Arthur Motta, executive director of the Southeastern Massachusetts Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Motta said the region promotes itself as a place for day trips by Providence, Boston and Newport convention attendees. Attractions that bring day-trippers to Bristol County include Battleship Cove, a big draw for veterans’ groups; New Bedford’s Whaling City Festival and other attractions related to seafaring and whaling history; and annual Feast of the Blessed Sacrament and the National Shrine of out Lady of La Salette, both of which attract a growing market of religion-based tourism. •