What’s the future of tourism in South County? For Louise Bishop, who took the helm at the South County Tourism Council last year, it looks a lot like a Chinese tourist holding a clam rake.
Whether it’s day trippers or international visitors, Bishop – who replaced the retiring Myrna George last June – wants to cast a wider net than ever to attract tourists to South County. Boston and New York have always supplied most of the region’s summer crowds, but Bishop has expanded the council’s marketing radius from 300 to 700 miles to include Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC, as primary targets and places as far away as Chicago and Toronto as secondary ones.
“Previously, this was an ‘easy drive’ market,” says Bishop, “but motor coaches will do 600 miles in a day, so we need to understand that our drive market is further out.”
Why would travelers come from so far away to see southern Rhode Island? The beaches, of course, plus small-town New England charm and a growing list of authentic New England experiences you can’t have anywhere else. That means immersive activities like joining Matunuck Oyster Bar owner Perry Raso to rake for clams, learning how johnnycake meal is made at Kenyon’s Grist Mill, taking advantage of Charlestown’s dark skies at the Frosty Drew Observatory, and participating in the hands-on educational programs at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter.
“The majority of our visitors are active travelers: They want to go hiking, kayaking, anything to do with the salt ponds,” says Bishop.
She came away from a recent meeting with Chinese tourism officials convinced that affluent Chinese tourists, who already represent the second-largest group of travelers to New England after the Brits, are a huge potential market for South County. “We are right on the edge with them – they’re already on the trail between New York and Boston, we just have to show them why they should get off I-95,” says Bishop.
“The Chinese really like to shop and love the coastal experience, but they don’t want to swim,” she says. That’s why South County's appeal is not just beachside luxury, but also its experiential travel opportunities. Raso has been a South County pioneer in experiential tourism, but Bishop would like to see many more activities of this nature in the region, perhaps even built around the seafood processing operations in Galilee.
“We’re talking about it – there’s room for more, but it’s up to the owners of Watch Hill Oysters and others to decide if this is something they want to share,” she says.
For Bishop, the idea is to expand the appeal of South County beyond being strictly a summer beach destination. “People who go to the state beach never go to the salt pond across the street,” she says. “It’s two different groups of people.”
Some additions are already in the works. Interstate Navigation, the owner of the Block Island Ferry, is working to refurbish the former Southland tour boat, which once offered tours of South County’s inland waterways. The Preserve at Boulder Hills in Richmond is planning to add a hotel to its wide variety of outdoor activities, which include a zip line, mountain biking and a shooting range.
Another goal is to get visitors to make their way off the shore and into downtown Westerly, East Greenwich, Wakefield and Narragansett for shopping, culture and dining. “I once had someone ask me at the Benny’s at Dunn’s Four Corners where downtown was,” recalls Bishop, who lives in Westerly. “They had never even seen it, and these were summer residents who lived in Weekapaug.”
In Westerly, the extremely high profile of Ocean House – widely acclaimed as one of the best hotels in the U.S. – has been a great marketing tool for South County as a whole and for downtown Westerly in particular, Bishop says. Several new lodging proposals are currently in the works in South County, including a possible hotel close to Kingston and the University of Rhode Island and another in downtown Westerly.
One thing you likely won’t see, however, is a line of brand-name hotels along Post Road in Charlestown. “Our residents don’t want to see the environment disrupted; they’re very concerned about the footprint left behind by visitors,” says Bishop. “I appreciate that.”
Rhode Islanders know that South County isn’t a real place: Most of the tourism marketing region is in Washington County, but it also includes parts of Kent County, spanning East Greenwich to Westerly. “If you say ‘South County’ to someone from Connecticut or Massachusetts, they have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Caswell Cooke, executive director of the Misquamicut Business Association.
It’s a discussion that Bishop has also had in her office, and she acknowledges that the concept can be hard to market. “It is an organic place – you’re selling an emotion or feeling,” she says.
The shift away from marketing South County primarily as a beach destination should help make more parts of the region feel included in the tourism council’s overall plans, however. Bishop, whose background is in hotel marketing, has spent much of her first year on the job doing outreach to local chambers of commerce, hoteliers and others in the local tourism industry. The key message boils down to this: Keep us informed about what you’re doing and we’ll help promote it.
“What I bring to the job that’s different is an understanding of hotels and communities and how the two are connected and have to work together in order for this region to be successful,” she says. “There are people who don't understand what this office does. It’s our job to be aware of what people are doing. Some communities don’t have hotels but they do have hiking trails, and the guy down the street with the hot dog stand would probably appreciate it if visitors knew about that; our job is to bring them in.”
Bishop stepped into her role the same week that Lara Salamano took the helm at the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, which leads statewide tourism promotion efforts, so both largely missed the debacle over the state’s “Cooler and Warmer” campaign. “I know no different, but to me this is the way it should be – the state has been a great partner for us, and I hear from the other agencies that this is really a new day,” Bishop says. Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council, shares that sentiment: “I’m definitely optimistic about the state of RI’s tourism marketing program and the changes at the state level,” she says.
Caswell Cooke is less sanguine, saying that the state’s marketing effort on behalf of South County, “up to this point, has been pretty dismal.” But while Cooke’s attitude on the state and the South County Tourism Council has been to “ignore them and do our own thing,” he and Bishop agree on the need for better collaboration among the state’s tourism councils. “Borders don’t exist for tourists – all of the tourism councils need to stop being so territorial,” says Cooke.
Bishop says that during her brief tenure, at least, cooperation among the tourism councils statewide has been strong, noting that the South County Tourism Council freely promotes nearby destinations like Block Island and Newport and that the effort has been reciprocated. “We want to keep visitors in Rhode Island, so we give them as much to do as possible,” she says. “Our product is wide-open beaches, a relaxed and slower pace, and I know that [the other councils] share that with their visitors.”
Steven Lombardi, executive director of the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce, says that Rhode Island lends itself to a coordinated marketing campaign that stresses its unique mix of beach, urban and rural attractions, all within a short drive of one another. “Our size should be played up as an advantage,” he says.
Another advantage is Rhode Islanders themselves, says Bishop, a Connecticut native who was struck by the open and friendly nature of the locals when she moved to Westerly in 2000, and now sees the people of South County as her greatest allies and collaborators. “Part of our charm is that you can be anywhere and someone will come up and join in the conversation, say how are you doing, and help you out,” says Bishop. “People love that, and it’s not our office doing that, it’s everyone who lives here.”