Columbus Boosters Work To Attract Return Visitors.

College Basketball fans spent millions of dollars in Columbus during the week-end as they followed their teams in the first and second rounds of the N-C-double-A tournament at Nationwide arena. But, “Experience Columbus,” a booster group for the city and region, wants first-time visitors to the city to return. So, the organization is offering something called “experiential tourism.”

Columbus’ boosters are among the latest to embrace “experiential tourism.” A concept that took hold in the mid 1990′s just as the virtual world began exploding on the internet. Emporia State University professor William Smith says its hard to define but it allows active participation by tourists.”The more high-tech and virtual we get on the one hand, the more, personal and hands-on and totally immersed and involved we want on the other.” Says Smith.

Smith explains the challenge for Columbus and other cities and regions which lack natural attractions like an ocean beach or mountain peaks is to create memorable personal interactions when visitors come calling. With an emphasis on visitor experience, the convention and visitors bureau developed a dozen attractions to allow visitors to immerse themselves, including a behind-the-scenes look at an off-broadway play, a meet-and-greet with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, or a meal at Miss Emma’s Table inside the statehouse. The table is named for a 19th century socialite who lived on statehouse square.

During a recent tour, a visiting group at the statehouse was taken back to the post civil war period. As it entered the Ohio Senate Chamber, the group was met by William Welsh, but he’s dressed and speaks as Colonel Frederick Dent, the father-in-law of Ohio native, Civil War General, and U-S President, Ulysses S. Grant. Colonel Dent’s daughter had married General Grant earlier.”My daughter, I thought she had…well I’ll tell you, I think she married below her station. What can an army officer that gets 700 dollars a year, what can he support a wife and children on” Visitors soon learned that the Colonel harbored southern tendencies as he explained his move from Maryland to Missouri where he insisted on calling his small farm a “plantation.” He had stopped at the Ohio statehouse to visit friends and to pick up his grandchildren for the train ride back to Missouri. The children were traveling from Georgetown, Ohio, near Cincinnati, where General Grant was born and still had living relatives. “So the Grant family, very graciously, because, you know, we don’t talk. We have some political differences that is. So they brought the children up or are bringing the children up. I hope they get here this afternoon because we have tickets to Saint Louis tomorrow. Explained Colonel Dent.

Central Ohio’s efforts to create “experiential tourism” are just beginning. Many of the sites are geared to the motorcoach tourist. The tourist that travels in groups from 200 to 250 miles away. Lakefront Lines spokesman Virgil Lengel says, at first, “experiential tours” can be a tough sell. “One of the things that is prohibitive is actually groups wanting to return here. They think because we’ve been to Columbus they’ve done it all, they’ve seen everything but that’s not necessarily the case. So this is an opportunity to bring out the new, the different.” Says Lengel.

The stakes are high for Columbus as it competes for discretionary dollars from out-of-towners. During “Experience Columbus’” recent annual meeting, President Paul Astleford reported that visitors to the city in 2005 spent $5,000,000,000 on hotels, restaurant meals, souvenirs, and personal services. That spending generated $456,000,000 dollars in tax revenue and created or maintained 142,000 local jobs. Without beaches nor mountain peaks, central Ohio’s boosters say “experiential tourism,” laced with history and local custom will become more important in future years in keeping up tax revenues and creating more jobs.

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