The coronavirus has slammed everybody hard, financially, and local tourism is certainly no exception. But when things slowly ease their way into the new normal, perhaps the best reaction will be to think small—and local.
That puts Lebanon County destinations like historical landmarks and attractions in a unique situation.
Jen Kuzo is the president of Visit Lebanon Valley.
“I can guarantee you that many local residents aren’t aware of all the attractions in Lebanon County,” said Kuzo. “Stay-cations might be one of the safest activities this summer. Maybe you want to go to Annville for the day. There are so many quaint shops up and down the main street. That’s just Annville. There are so many local towns in Lebanon County like Annville that have the same flavor and atmosphere.
“I think that’s the answer,” added Kuzo. “That we support each other and we try to learn about our home. It’s ‘support the home team.’ That’s how we need to look at this situation.”
We’re about five weeks into Gov. Wolf’s shelter-in-place order and most of Lebanon County’s most visited historical landmarks—such as the Cornwall Iron Furnace, Seltzer’s Lebanon Bologna and the Schaeffer House—have either closed or have experienced sharp downturns in visitations. While Lebanon County’s vast network of parks and recreational areas have seen a significant upturn in visitations during the current pandemic, theaters, restaurants and stores have either closed or severely curtailed their services.
This downturn has a big financial impact.
Kuzo said the number of people staying in local hotels is way down. Visit Lebanon Valley, a nonprofit, is funded by a local hotel occupancy tax.
Historic Schaefferstown, Inc. (HSI) has had the Schaeffer House closed since the second last week of March. The Cherry Fair, typically held in late June, has been cancelled for this year, cutting off a source of revenue that’s used to pay insurance, utility bills, and all the other expenses that are fixed despite the shutdown status. “You know, money is always good,” said HSI president Alice Oskam, “but in these times, so many people are hurting for money.”
“We will do our best,” she added. “Pinching pennies has been what we do all the time.”
HSI has not yet made decisions on its three events scheduled to occur in July, and the same goes for the Lebanon Area Fair, which recently posted a Facebook message noting that it expected to make a final decisions around the beginning of June.
“It’s across the board, 100 percent,” said Kuzo. “But most especially during the coronavirus, restaurants are feeling it. How many people are being affected? It’s thousands. We’ve turned our efforts to promoting within the Lebanon Valley. More than ever, our local businesses need us.”
“I’ve been in international webinars from across the world, and the effect [elsewhere] is the same as it is in Lebanon County,” continued Kuzo. “The effect is polarization. Everyone’s unprepared and surprised by the whole thing. What I’ve found is that people who were planning international trips are now staying domestic, that people who were planning trips by plane are now taking cars and that people who were planning to travel regionally are now traveling locally.”
All of that, she said, bodes well for the Lebanon Valley. This is a desirable location, she added, with lots of small town charm.
The Cornwall Iron Furnace has taken a novel and proactive approach to keeping itself in the forefront of potential visitors by producing a short visual tour of its national historic landmark. The idea is to pique interest, so when it ultimately does re-open, visitors will consider the Cornwall Iron Furnace as a possible destination.
Read More: LebTowns: North Cornwall & Karinchville
“While the museum is closed to the public we do have one staff member on site daily to inspect and maintain the site and to protect our irreplaceable buildings and artifacts,” said Historic Site Administrator Michael Emery. “We are attempting to engage the public by posting content on the site’s Facebook page.”
Emery noted that although museums and historic sites exist because people want to see the real artifacts and stand where history happened, virtual experiences are the best that can be offered under current circumstances.
“Our hope is that when Cornwall Iron Furnace is able to open that local people will again come and visit the site and use it as a resource for knowledge,” said Emery. “Now that we all have been part of this global historic event I hope that people will see that history matters and impacts their lives daily.”
Social media helps keep sites like the furnace top-of-mind for when life does start returning to normal.
“It’s something you can do to promote your business,” said Kuzo. “Swatara Coffee has become active with tutorials on social media posts. I’ve sent out about 20 emails to different businesses, asking them to work on videos.”
It’s important to keep local destinations at the forefront for potential visitors, Kuzo said.
“We have a Lebanon city walking tour that highlights local architecture. We have a lot of history in this Lebanon Valley. We have a lot of things to highlight,” Kuzo said. “We’d love to get the stories out. It’s about stories and getting people engaged. I would consider our local outdoor facilities like Quitty Park, Memorial Lake and Swatara State Park as local landmarks.”
From a tourism standpoint, Lebanon County close proximity to Chocolatetown, Amish Country, the state capital, and clothing outlets in Reading can be both a blessing and a curse.
Attracting visitors to the Lebanon Valley was difficult enough before the COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s always been important,” said Kuzo of local tourism. “If you don’t believe we’re a destination, it’s going to be hard for the Lebanon Valley to be a destination. We get bogged down in negatives. We really need to put on our rose-colored glasses and look at things through positive lenses. It needs to stem from locals.
“I don’t think our attractions come to mind when they (potential visitors) think of Lebanon County,” continued Kuzo. “It’s a deeper dive. When we had an event to promote the Lebanon Valley, I had samples of Seltzer’s bologna and I had someone taste it. They asked me ‘Where is this from and where is Lebanon?’ I told them, ‘It’s between Hershey and Reading.’ They said, ‘Oh, that would be fun.’ People are looking for something different and something new.”
Kuzo said that Lebanon County attracts visitors from a drivable distance of about an hour-and-a-half, from places like Philadelphia, Allentown and Baltimore, Md. She also said that the hotel occupancy rate in Lebanon County has risen 42 percent over the last three years and that 2019 was the local hotels’ best year ever. In 2019, the Lebanon Valley Expo Center hosted more events than ever before, making it their best year to date.
“We’re not going to turn a switch and it’s going to be over,” said Kuzo of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re going to go to a new normal. It’s going to be very slow and cautious. It will almost be a 12-month process to get us back to where we were. For now, I think our focus does need to be more local.”
Staycations, she said, are a simple solution for families moving forward.
“I’d like to see people plan trips to local places they’ve never been before. Plan a great dinner or a lunch out,” she said. “Get to know the history of Lebanon County. Be a local more than you already are.”
The message is: Stay home and explore the new experiences that surround you.
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