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Keeping travel business alive

Visitors bureau works to help tourism survive COVID-19 pandemic

The suspension bridge is the oldest bridge in Mill Creek Park. It has been known by a few other names, such as the Cinderella bridge.

YOUNGSTOWN — Linda Macala, Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director, says a key to her job this year during the COVID-19 pandemic is helping tourist businesses survive until things return to normal.

“We need these local businesses to survive and be here when travel returns,” she said.

Last month the visitor’s bureau carried out the “Snapshots of Youngstown Fall 2020” campaign in which the public was invited to visit various Youngstown-area businesses and share their experience via photos submitted to the visitor’s bureau.

Those participating were eligible for $25 random drawings for gift cards, and will be receiving them soon, Macala said. “We were happy with the response,” she said. “It was a way to encourage people to get out.”

WINERIES AND SUCH

Maybe you did not know Mahoning County has four wineries and five craft breweries. The visitor’s bureau has a full color brochure available on its website — www.youngstownlive.com — with information about all of them.

The four wineries are Mastropietro of Berlin Center, L’uva Bella of Lowellville, Hallidays of Lake Milton and Lil Paws of Lake Milton. Not far from the Mahoning County border is The Vinyards at Pine Lake in Columbiana.

The five craft breweries are Paladin Brewing of Austintown, Noble Creature Cask House in Youngstown, Biker BrewHouse located inside BikeTown Harley Davidson in Austintown, Lake Milton Brewery in Lake Milton and Lil Paws of Lake Milton, which is both a winery and brewery.

“When people come to visit, they want to get a taste of your area, so they want to dine in a local restaurant or hit a winery or brewery here, play your golf courses here,” Macala said.

“All of that is the experience they are going to gather when they visit Mahoning County. What is important right now is supporting those and helping them through this time so that when travel resumes, we can continue to offer a great experience to people from out of the area.”

A goal is to “get through these winter months, and hopefully we will be in a better position next spring,” Macala said. “Hopefully the virus gets under control and vaccines are created and people continue to stay safe over the winter months and next spring will bring brighter days.”

Larry Wilson, owner of the Biker BrewHouse inside BikeTown Harley Davidson on Patriot Boulevard, said when the shutdown was announced March 15, it was a shock, but it taught his employees how to package his beer into 12-ounce bottles and sell it by the six-pack.

“It really ramped that game up, because prior to that, we were mainly focused on draft-beer sales,” he said. “We did a very good job at it, and now we have product with a UPC code, so we’re really hitting the market hard — with grocery stores, convenient stores, bottle shops.”

He said Biker BrewHouse also started to offer 10 smoked chicken wings free with the fill-up of a beer “growler,” which holds 64 ounces of beer, the first week in May.

“We had a huge crowd, so we kind of focused on that,” he said.

Later, Wilson added a food truck. “We bought our own food trailer. We use it as our kitchen, and we’re open Thursday through Sunday. We serve to-go food. You can eat the food here.”

He added, “We have awesome customers who follow the social distancing. We have our tables all set up for social distancing.”

OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

During the summer months, the visitor’s bureau promoted safe outdoor activities — hike and bike trails, golf courses, restaurants and wineries with patios.

The visitor’s bureau did not try to promote Mahoning County to areas as far and wide as normal.

The bureau generally advertises in all of the contiguous states and Western New York, but they did not reach out that far this year. Part of the reason was because of travel restrictions in effect in certain states earlier in the year.

“But we’re still coming up with things people can do to get outdoors, stay active, discover nature, maybe rediscover nature that they had perhaps taken for granted,” she said.

The travel and tourism industry hopes to encourage people to come from several hours away so they will stay in the hotels. “But when (COVID-19) first started, that was not top of mind. Top of mind was just staying safe,” she said.

Some local attractions thrived without much help.

“Our golf courses were very busy this summer,” she said. The county’s bread-and-butter attractions are things like the county’s wide-open spaces, hiking in Mill Creek Park, the bike trail and golf.

Macala said the visitor’s bureau is working on ideas for this winter.

“It definitely will be a different holiday season,” she said.

People are trying to come up with virtual ways of holding events this holiday season, she noted.

erunyan@tribtoday.com

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