LEXINGTON — Rockbridge Regional Tourism approved a recovery plan to boost its marketing after The Red Hen restaurant controversy brought a slew of negative national media coverage this summer.
The regional tourism board, with members from Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County, met with the Lexington City Council on Thursday for an update on tourism initiatives and numbers.
The board had initially approved the recovery plan soon after news of The Red Hen controversy was spreading across the country. At the end of June, the restaurant’s owner declined to serve presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders when she visited the restaurant.
Sanders tweeted the day after the incident that she had been asked to leave because she works for President Donald Trump. Soon after, Lexington was flooded with protesters who stood outside the restaurant, chanted and held signs. Others posted both positive and negative reviews of the restaurant online.
All three localities met and decided to pull together emergency funds to increase digital marketing and spread positive messages of the area, especially Lexington, which brings in the largest number of tourists.
Rockbridge Regional Tourism agreed to spend an additional $5,000 per month from the office’s emergency fund from July through September.
The tourism office receives 0.8 percent of the lodging and meals tax collected from each locality. About 20 percent of its annual budget, which is around $800,000, is put into a reserve for emergencies.
Typically the money is saved. But each locality agreed the region was in desperate need of positive coverage after The Red Hen incident.
Director of Marketing Patty Williams said the area is still feeling effects from the controversy — the tourism office received a letter Thursday from a family in Georgia who said they would never come back to the area because of what happened. And during the immediate aftermath of the incident, the tourism office received thousands of phone calls and emails.
“For a town our size, it was a significant impact,” Williams said.
The tourism office also decided to conduct a perceptions survey in its top four markets — Roanoke, Richmond, Norfolk and Washington, D.C. The office is working with a survey company to find frequent travelers living in those areas to answer questions about whether they recall the incident, where it took place and whether it would affect their decision to travel there. A total of 400 people will be surveyed.
The responses will help indicate where marketing money should be spent and what kind of messages need to be sent out, Williams said.
“We would certainly try to portray ourselves as a friendly, welcoming place,” she said. “And focus our marketing toward accomplishing that goal.”
The tourism office is already working toward that goal with a new video in the works that will feature that message.
In addition to the perceptions survey about The Red Hen, the office is also conducting three surveys that focus on the types of groups that stay in hotels in the area, the activities and spending patterns of visitors, and people who request information on Lexington, but never visit.
These surveys, which are typically done about every five years, provide the basis for tourism and marketing decisions. The last time the surveys were done, in 2011, the research showed baby boomers were the largest segment visiting the area looking for natural beauty and historic sites.
Williams said the office doesn’t think those numbers are as accurate now that baby boomers have gotten older. Now, the tourism office is focusing on attracting younger generations and has switched its marketing to focus more on outdoor recreation.
“For years we’ve used history as our hook,” Director of Tourism Jean Clark said. “But as visitors change, we have to change with them.”