Danville and Pittsylvania prepare for increases in tourism with new Visit SoSi brand

Danville and Pittsylvania County have been focused on growth and economic development for the past decade. But they’ve been missing a crucial part of the process: a tourism department.

Although the region has its share of tourist attractions, there has been no formal department run by the local governments since 2012.

But within the past few years, the region’s unprecedented growth, which can be attributed to long-term revitalization and economic development efforts, made rebuilding a tourism department necessary, said Danville City Manager Ken Larking.

It became even more crucial when voters approved a referendum for a casino resort in Danville.

“We knew we needed to capitalize on the visitation that we were going to see from the casino,” Larking said.

When the permanent Caesars Virginia casino opens in 2024, it is expected to bring about 2 million visitors to the region annually.

But Danville and Pittsylvania don’t want those visitors to come to the region and never leave the Caesars campus.

Lisa Meriweather, Danville’s tourism director, said that the region needed to figure out how to market its existing tourist attractions so that when casino guests come, they’ll be aware of other things to see and do in the area.

And not only did the region need a tourism program, it also needed a tourism brand, she said. A tourism brand, like the iconic “Virginia is for Lovers,” builds recognition for a destination or region and can convey its identity and attractions.

For about a year, Meriweather and her team have been working with Roanoke-based marketing agency Eddy Alexander to develop a brand for the Danville-Pittsylvania County region.

The brand was dubbed Visit SoSi, pronounced “so see,” a play on the geographic region of Southside Virginia.

It was unveiled to the community in May after a 10-month process that included more than 2,000 community surveys, visitor demographic and behavioral research, 16 focus groups, and one-on-one community interviews.

Since the unveiling, the Visit SoSi brand has received much enthusiasm — as well as some questions, said Meriweather.

Before understanding the new brand itself, it’s important to understand the tourism landscape in Danville and Pittsylvania, and why the region needed a tourism program in the first place.

Tourism in the region before Visit SoSi

Around 2012, the city of Danville underwent a reduction in force, a process to cut expenses.

Part of that included eliminating its tourism program, which had existed under the city’s parks and recreation department, Larking said.

The Danville-Pittsylvania Chamber of Commerce attempted to create a joint tourism marketing program between the two localities, Larking said. But it was poorly funded and only lasted about a year and a half.

“That was really because neither the city nor the county had enough funding for the chamber to take on that activity in a way that made sense and was robust,” Larking said.

The city and the county still received visitors interested in attractions like Virginia International Raceway and the Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex, and a variety of museums, restaurants and outdoor activities.

But without a cohesive department or tourism brand, the localities were missing out on opportunities to attract even more visitors, Meriweather said.

Meriweather has been in tourism for about 35 years and started her position in Danville in November 2021, right after voters approved a referendum to allow a casino resort that was expected to transform the region.

One of the questions she was asked when interviewing for the job: “What do people say about Danville?” Meriweather, who worked in tourism in Lynchburg before coming to Danville, said her response was blunt: “Nothing.”

“They don’t say anything,” she said. “They just don’t know about Danville. And what they do say is not favorable.”

The region had no tourism brand, she said, and didn’t advertise itself to visitors, despite its inventory of attractions.

This was something the city knew it needed to fix, in order to take full advantage of the growth and visitation coming to the region.

What it took to rebuild the tourism program

Corrie Bobe, Danville’s economic development director, said conversations about rebuilding a tourism program started even before the casino referendum was approved.

This time it would be housed under the office of economic development, instead of parks and recreation.

“We felt that reinstating a tourism program really aligned with the mission of the economic development office,” Bobe said. “It helps generate jobs within the community. It helps increase local wealth, as well as increase the tax base.”

Tourism is often seen as a “light and fluffy” industry, said Jennifer Eddy, president and chief strategist of Eddy Alexander.

“But it’s actually the front door to economic development,” Eddy said. “It’s one of the most important things communities can do to set themselves up for success.”

Hospitality and tourism already have a fairly significant impact on the local economy. In 2021, the industry accounted for about 1,300 local jobs and $6.6 million in tax receipts in Danville and Pittsylvania, according to the city’s new tourism master plan.

But strategic investing in tourism can augment this impact by creating a “financial pipeline” to provide new, continuous streams of revenue and, in turn, reduce the tax burden for residents, the master plan says.

The new tourism program represents both Danville and Pittsylvania, though the county designated Danville to be the DMO, or destination management organization, for the region, Larking said. This means that Danville will take the lead on tourism efforts in both the city and county.

“Pittsylvania County has a large number of tourism assets within its borders,” Bobe said. “But the city of Danville does hold the majority of lodging options within the community. We wanted to ensure that through our marketing, we helped promote and support the county’s tourism assets because we, as a city, benefit directly from being in close proximity.”

The city used a variety of funding sources to launch the new tourism department, which cost around $200,000, Larking said. This included the cost of hiring a tourism director and other staff and purchasing customer management software.

Some of the money came from money that Caesars paid the city before opening its casino as part of a performance agreement. And now that the temporary Danville Casino is open, a portion of the city’s gaming tax revenue is also going toward tourism efforts.

The city also received two tranches of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, one from the Virginia Tourism Corporation and one from the city’s ARPA allocation, Bobe said.

“Really, every dollar was needed,” she said.

The $200,000 contract between the city and Eddy Alexander, which eventually led to the creation of Visit SoSi, was entirely funded by ARPA money, Meriweather said.

Creating Visit SoSi

In April 2022, the Danville economic development office selected Eddy Alexander to develop a strategic tourism brand, after a public request for proposals process.

The next month, Eddy Alexander mailed information about a tourism survey to almost 48,000 homes in Danville and Pittsylvania. The survey was also advertised throughout the city and county.

The survey was open for over five weeks, and 2,072 community members and business owners participated.

“In a public-sector survey, that’s a very good response rate,” Eddy said when she presented the survey results to the public in the fall. “We’re really happy with this, and we feel really good about the results that we got.”

The survey results are available online.

The survey asked residents how they felt about tourism assets in the area and what else they’d like to see. Any tourism brand should include both of these perspectives, Eddy said.

“We want the design and messaging to be 50% authentic and 50% aspirational,” she said. “The brand has to be true and familiar enough that people feel good about supporting it, but aspirational enough that it gives you something to grow into.”

It would do no good to have a brand that reflects the region exactly how it is today, she said, but it also isn’t useful to create something so aspirational that it seems far-fetched.

A brand that combines both the present and future of a locality is timeless, Eddy said.

Visit SoSi achieves the balance between authentic and aspirational, according to a May release from the city.

Out of 12 potential design directions, Visit SoSi consistently outperformed all the other options and tested well with both local and out-of-area participants, the release said.

Taglines like “Go see SoSi” and “so much to see, so much to do” play on the name of the brand itself, and “inject a bit of spunk and personality” into its messaging, Meriweather said.

Measuring success and learning from other localities

Eddy Alexander identified several key performance indicators that the city and county should track over time to measure the success of the tourism program. The indicators include tourism occupancy tax revenues, annual visitor spending reports, hotel occupancy and short-term rental rates, and average length of stay.

“Say people stay on average one or two nights today, but if that goes up to three or four nights a couple years from now, that’s going to correspond with how much they spend in the community,” Eddy said.

The city has invested in software to gauge economic impact by tracking data like the number of visitors who come into the market, the average amount that they spend, and tax revenues, Bobe said.

Success can also be measured anecdotally, she said.

“Enhancing community pride and community awareness of what’s taking place is one way to measure success,” Bobe said.

This is the goal of Visit SoSi’s “locals first campaign,” which works to ensure that city and county residents are not only familiar with the new brand, but also with the tourism attractions and amenities in their own backyard.

“There have been a lot of questions from locals about the brand,” Meriweather said. “What is this? What does it mean? Why are we doing this?”

When residents appreciate their own community and know what it has to offer, they can be the best ambassadors for visitors, Meriweather said.

Including residents in burgeoning tourism efforts is crucial, said Matt Bolas, executive director of Explore Bristol, the new destination management organization for Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee.

Bristol is another place that has been ramping up its tourism efforts recently, and Bolas provided some insight into what Danville and Pittsylvania can expect from this process.

Explore Bristol, an independent nonprofit organization, was established in June 2021. Like Danville and Pittyslvania, Bristol also has a temporary casino and is expecting a full casino resort to open in 2024, but the city wanted visitors to know about other activities, Bolas said.

“Seeing something as large as the casino come in, especially with the Hard Rock name brand, really made people look internally at what we could do,” he said.

Explore Bristol has been marketing attractions like the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the Bristol Motor Speedway online and on social media, Bolas said.

“So far, these efforts have totally exceeded our expectations,” he said. “In the first year, there’s a lot of unknowns, but after that first year, you have a good baseline for what to expect.”

Managing expectations is important, said Bolas, who has been in the industry for 25 years and has spoken to other localities to provide advice on revamping tourism efforts.

“From a budgeting standpoint, you’ve got to make your goals realistic,” he said. “It’s important not to overstate. It’s always better to have a surplus and exceed expectations.”

An ongoing effort

Now that Visit SoSi has been unveiled, Meriweather and her team are tackling other tourism initiatives so that the region can put its best foot forward as visitation starts to grow.

The Danville tourism office and Eddy Alexander have been hosting customer service training sessions, which will run through the fall.

The half-day program is free for all local frontline hospitality workers, public employees and business owners. Participants who complete the training receive a career credential.

“That training is meant to inform and educate our tourism stakeholders about the brand, as well as ensure that they are aware of the local assets that are available within the market,” Bobe said.

Bobe has also been training the “tourism counselors,” or employees of the visitor center on River Park Drive, which is “more than just a rest stop.”

“If it’s well done, the people inside the center can help visitors know about things that they might want to see while they’re here,” Larking said.

He said the end goal is for these moving pieces to come together and make Danville and Pittsylvania a destination location that includes, but is not limited to, a major casino resort.

“True tourist destinations don’t just have one asset,” he said. “They have multiple assets, and we have existing assets that are worthy of promotion throughout our region.”