Upbeat in an Economic Downturn: Stories of Tourism Success

March 5, 2013

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Upbeat in an Economic Downturn: Stories of Tourism Success

By Jennifer Jett & Samantha Ricketts

Since 2008, the economic recession has negatively affected tourism across the country, and the Mountain State is no exception. Many people have not had the funds to spend on recreation and tourism like they used to. However, some local businesses have been able to not only survive but thrive. Two West Virginia tourism businesses have fought the odds and found growth and success in a time when others have floundered.

Owner Kenny Sexton shares with us how the American Mountain Theater in Elkins has continued its success in these trying times, and Pies & Pints Owner Kimberly Shingledecker discusses the restaurant’s amazing growth over the last four years.

 

Kenny Sexton, President, Owner and Producer,
American Mountain Theater
Elkins, WV

EMP: Tell us a little about American Mountain Theater.

KS: American Mountain Theater (AMT) was originally started by my sister-in-law, Susie Heckel, an Elkins native. In its early days, it was on a very small scale, doing performances from the old National Guard Armory outside of town. Susie contacted my wife, Bev, and me about helping her out. Little by little, my wife and I got more involved, and before we knew it we had taken over ownership and were moving from Arkansas to West Virginia. We opened a brand new building in July 2007, doing our live music and comedy variety shows. We have a professional cast of musicians that perform approximately 200 shows a year that are family-friendly and true variety shows. We do a little bit of everything—comedy sketches and impersonations, R&B, country, gospel, pop—you name it, our band can play it. Our regular season runs April through October and includes our premier two-hour show and our History of American Music Show. We also host a Southern Gospel Concert Series, where we bring in the top names in gospel music, and then we finish out the year with a wonderful Christmas show performed by our cast.

EMP: As a member of the tourism industry, what challenges have you seen the industry face due to the recession?

KS: Because people aren’t confident in their situations, we are seeing less advance planning. Since people don’t know what their financial future holds, they are less likely to plan an advanced vacation with confidence. They are in wait-and-see mode, which means we have to be ready and on their radar when they have funds available to take a trip.

For us, part of the challenge has been being smart about our investments and spending. Success in tourism in a shaky economy is a bit of a balancing act, but we’re managing to navigate the tightrope. We have seen some fluctuation in our group market. One year our groups were way down versus the previous year, but thankfully our individual sales were up enough to bridge the gap.

EMP: You’ve continued to see growth despite the economic downturn. How was this accomplished? 

KS: It’s a matter of continuing to build awareness to the very small percentage of people who know we exist. The more people who know, the more likely they are to take a trip to see us, which means there are more people generating word-of-mouth marketing for our business. That is a huge thing for us. We know that once people come to see our show, they will love it and are very likely to come back again or tell their friends. We have been working to develop creative promotional ideas to foster repeat business and to encourage individuals to share their experiences. We are making a much larger effort this year to be a player in social media to foster a sense of community and sharing for our fans that makes them feel truly connected to our theater and our family.

EMP: Tell us about the growth you’ve experienced. 

KS: We’ve been very blessed during the recession to have still had increases in our revenue. It may be due in large part to the fact that we are still a young business. Since the recession broke in the fall of 2008, our revenue has more than doubled. Our 2012 revenue shows a 54 percent increase over 2008, and a 17 percent increase over 2011. With that said, while we try to pay people better wages over time and continue advertising our destination as we grow, it still remains difficult to turn much of a profit.

EMP: What changes have you made that have directly contributed to your success?

KS: We started our Southern Gospel Concert Series in 2009, and it has been a very successful program for us—so much so that we expanded it from just the summer months to our entire season. We also change our shows up every season to refresh them with entirely new material, which gives people a reason to come back year after year.

EMP: What is your demographic and how would you like to see it expand?

KS: We mostly draw adults ages 35 and older. I’d love to see an increase in family visitors. We know kids love our shows, too, so it would be great to draw a younger audience.

EMP: How do Elkins’ tourism successes, like the train rides, impact your success at American Mountain Theater?

KS: Partnership in tourism is an extremely important part of our business model. Overall success in tourism in the area is vital to our sustained and continued growth. Most people aren’t interested in coming to an area to do just one thing and then go home. They want the whole package, literally.

Before we ever even started building, I met with John and Kathy Smith of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad to develop a marketing partnership. This partnership still remains and will continue between us for the foreseeable future. We have also spent the last five and a half years building relationships with area hotels, other attractions and restaurants in order to provide our customers with the entire experience. We have even created a vacation packaging department to provide our customers with a one-stop shop for their trip. With a call or e-mail to us, they can book lodging, meals, our shows, a scenic train ride and more. We provide these services free of charge to both groups and individuals. Our efforts in this area were recognized by the West Virginia Division of Tourism in 2011 with the West Virginia Community Tourism Development award.

EMP: Are there any partnership programs within the tourism industry you participate in that have contributed to your success? 

KS: Besides the vacation packaging program, we have participated in the West Virginia Division of Tourism Matching Advertising Partnership Program. This program has been a large contributing factor in our success, because since 2007 it has allowed us to double our advertising efforts.

EMP: In looking toward the future, what plans do you have for stimulating continued growth and success?

KS: In 2012, AMT took to the airwaves with a nationally broadcast television show on RFD-TV network. Our show did wonders to increase awareness and attendance over the past year. While that program won’t be continuing, we are very pleased to announce we will be targeting the West Virginia market in the coming year. We will begin airing a weekly 30-minute program on WV PBS in the spring and are very excited about what we hope it will do to increase our business by attracting fans who are close to home.

 

Kimberly Shingledecker,
Owner, Pies & Pints
Fayetteville and Charleston, WV; Columbus, Ohio

EMP: Tell us a little about Pies & Pints. 

KS: Pies & Pints is a full-service restaurant that specializes in craft pizza and beer. The restaurant opened in Fayetteville, WV, in June 2003, and we now have a Charleston, WV, location, which opened in December 2010, and a Columbus, Ohio, location that opened in November 2012. We also have a Dayton, Ohio, location and a Morgantown, WV, location scheduled to open in 2013.

EMP: Tell us about the growth you’ve experienced.

KS: Our business has had steady growth since we opened our doors in 2003. We went from a small seasonal (April through October) restaurant with less than 50 seats to a year-round restaurant with 100 seats in 2007, and we added another 50 seats in 2008. In 2010, we opened another location, and in 2011, we took on new partners and signed a deal to open as many as 50 more stores in the next 10 years.

EMP: You’ve continued to see growth despite the economic downturn. How was this accomplished? 

KS: We attribute our success to our consistent product and service. Our product is a good value—the quality and amount you receive for the money you pay is fair and reasonable. We are not a luxury brand or a discount brand. Our restaurant is a place where you can eat several times a week without breaking the bank.

Another way we differentiate ourselves is in our training. Our staff is trained and educated on all of our beer and food. When a guest dines at Pies & Pints, they aren’t just getting fed; they are experiencing pizza and beer in a whole different way. Our servers interact with our guests to find out their likes and dislikes and then make recommendations based on each person’s pizza personality, so to speak.

EMP: What are some of the challenges you have faced and overcome with your business?

KS: The biggest challenge we have faced during the economic downturn is financing our growth. Banks have become very stingy with their money. We have had to take out short-term, high interest loans to cover building costs.

EMP: Does Fayetteville’s tourism success have a direct impact on your success at Pies & Pints?

KS: Definitely. The Fayetteville restaurant business drops off to less than half during the winter months. We would not be able to survive without tourism.

EMP: What demographic of people do you draw?

KS: Our demographic is mostly people ranging from 20-55 years old. Our customer base tends to be fairly active and healthy and prefers quality over quantity.

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West Virginia Executive

(2) Readers Comments

  1. mickey neff
    March 6, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    I love Pies n Pints .. The Margherita Pizza is my favorite!

  2. michele love
    March 29, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    I am so proud of my son co founder of pies and pints who started it with kimberly my sn David Bailey and Tashia also found the Secret Sandwich Society couldnt be prouder of all of them love ya mom

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