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Can Worcester Attract Tourists?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

 

Is Worcester a destination? City, business, and cultural leaders say resoundingly yes.

Centrally located, offering myriad historical, cultural, and natural attractions, tourism and travel may not be a major economic driver in the region today — but there are serious ongoing efforts to showcase everything Worcester has to offer.

And better connectivity with expanding commuter rail and flight service should further open the door.

An initiative out of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce offices, “Destination Worcester” is a new strategic investment focused on showcasing the region to meeting and convention planners and event and sports organizers.

“We're literally the center of Massachusetts, and the center of New England,” said Donna McCabe, president of the Central Massachusetts Convention and Visitors Bureau.

With fairs and festivals, shows and concerts, shopping and eating, and Civil War reenactments, McCade said travelers come to the region for the “New England experience.”

“Worcester is not only accessible, but affordable,” she said, with the city functioning as a “hub and spoke” for families and tour groups, who come and stay in Worcester to explore the city and surrounding areas.

Worcester as the 'Creative City'

Erin Williams, the cultural development officer in the city's Office of Economic Development and executive director of the Worcester Cultural Coalition, tallied 2.6 million visitors total in 2012 between all the coalition's arts and cultural organizations.

Williams said she serves as a “conduit for the creative community” in Worcester.

The coalition, a public-private partnership that promotes cultural and arts opportunities in the city, has grown from a dozen nonprofit groups to 78 today.

Combined with for-profit businesses taking part in Worcester's “WOO card” program, Williams said the combined effort involves “over 100 organizations that collectively work together to make Worcester a better place to live, work, and play.”

“And all of this comes together not from one organization or an office in city hall, but from the collaboration of all those organizations,” she said.

Travelers spend billions across the state

Broadly defined, travelers in Massachusetts directly spent $17.7 billion on transportation, lodging, food, entertainment and recreation, and retail shopping during 2012 (the most recent year available) according to a study prepared by the research department of the U.S. Travel Association for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

That bottom-line figure represented a year-over-year increase of 4.9 percent from 2011. Travel expenditures in the state were up over $2 billion between 2008 and 2012.

Payroll income generated by visitors totaled $3.7 billion in 2012, directly generating some 126,500 jobs across the state — including about 5,300 jobs in Worcester County.

While Worcester wasn't among the top five counties for travelers, according to the state's report, the impact still totaled $771.12 million in total expenditures countywide in 2012.

The benefit for Worcester County equaled $145 million in payroll and $17.22 million in local tax receipts.

'Definitely' a destination

“Worcester as a cultural destination? There's no question,” said Joyce Kressler, a long-time former director of First Night Worcester. Citing the efforts of the cultural coalition, Kressler said there was a tremendous effort toward promoting the city to visitors.

“We are definitely on the radar screens of outlying areas ... and the caliber of things we can provide is first class,” Kressler said. “We have some pretty terrific stuff.”

Through 14 years organizing the city's New Years Eve celebrations, which annually draw tens of thousands of revelers, Kressler said surveys found fully half of First Night attendees came from outside the city.

So what's happening? There's Carnaval at Worcester Center for Crafts starting up next week.

“Anything outdoors is big right now,” said McCade with the visitors bureau. “We live here, so we take it for granted. ... (But) we have the seasons, and we have all this natural beauty as well — hiking, biking, skiing — and there's something for every season.”

“This is an area that offers so much,” she said.

Visits often result from schools and health fields

Last year's economic report by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau showed leisure and hospitality as one area where the city added jobs between 2001 and 2011, but the industry only comprised a little over 7 percent of employment — dwarfed by education and health services (nearly 45 percent).

But there's symbiosis between that main industry and travel and tourism according to Mario Cuevas, the general manager at the luxury Beechwood Hotel, who said guests often stayed during medical- and education-related trips.

“And outside of that is your typical social thing, from anything that's happening downtown, to the DCU, to Shrewsbury Street district,” Cuevas said.

At the DCU, there's the Worcester bridal show expo coming up this weekend.

“There's a real lot going on,” said James Moughan, assistant general manager and director of sales at the DCU Center. After massive renovations ($23 million's worth) between May and September of last year, the city's arena and conference center has been jammed since reopening with sporting events, music and art shows, monster trucks, and flower, spring, auto, bridal, and boat shows.

“We're very busy,” Moughan said.

Bill Randell, a GoLocal MINDSETTER™, said there were so many different things that drew visitors to the greater region, whether it was fall foliage, out-of-state tourists, or sports. “But we have to market it,” he stressed.

Complemented by economic development efforts, new travel options through Worcester Regional Airport courtesy of JetBlue, the economy rebounding, and gaming coming to the Bay State, “I expect growth,” McCade said.

“We expect good things.”

 

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