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Whitewater rafting companies plead for more state marketing resources


The State Journal

FAYETTVILLE, W.Va.  — Whitewater rafting in West Virginia is in a long-term decline, and the state must come up with more marketing money for its tourism efforts if the problem is to be reversed, according to rafting company officials.

As people seek rafting trips with less adventure, they have been turning to the lower Gauley River as opposed to the rougher water on the upper Gauley during the fall rafting season.
(Submitted photo)

“The rafting industry’s been declining,” said Rick Johnson of River Expeditions.

“We called the state about two weeks ago. We told them the Gauley season was just horrible. They did this marketing push, so we’re all three getting together. We’re starting to do some collective marketing.

“This really is a critical time. In 2000, in the rafting industry we rafted about 220,000 people. Last year, we barely rafted 100,000. This year we won’t raft 100,000. That’s just on the New and Gauley rivers.”

Spokespersons for the three companies – River Expeditions, Ace Adventure Resort and Adventures on the Gorge – agreed that the decline in rafting is largely due to declining state support for tourism in general. They offered no criticism of the Division of Tourism. They praised Commissioner Chelsea Ruby for doing her best with a small budget.

Nationally, rafting is not dying; it’s just dying in West Virginia, Johnson said.

“The only direct cause we can find is the lack of marketing by the state of West Virginia.”

Gov. Jim Justice wanted to increase the state’s budget for tourism. The State Senate was willing to go along, but the House of Delegates resisted.

“For every dollar that’s spent on direct tourism marketing in West Virginia, we get about $7 in direct sales tax revenue returned,” Johnson said. He likened the state’s inability or unwillingness to have a more aggressive marketing campaign to “having a Ferrari sitting in your garage and not buying gas for it.

The Pure Michigan marketing campaign has increased tourism there significantly, Johnson said. Other states are spending more on tourism marketing, too, while West Virginia is cutting back.

“We’re just being outspent. The message just isn’t getting out there. At a time when West Virginia needs money worse than Napoleon needed a machine gun, you’d think that we would be doing whatever we could to promote (tourism).”

The New River Gorge has whitewater rafting, rock climbing, zip lines and miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, Johnson said.

“Tourism is unable to market us because they don’t have the money to do it. People aren’t coming because nobody knows about it.”

The three rafting companies are among the survivors of an industry that has seen a wave of mergers since business began its decline in 2000. Now they are cooperating in marketing, and the Division of Tourism is helping by organizing a marketing effort that includes online advertising.

The cooperative effort and the state effort come as the Gauley season is about to start. That season coincides with the release of water from flood-control dams as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lowers their summer pools to provide room for runoff in winter.

“It’s a good first step for something like this for Gauley season,” said P.J. Stevenson, marketing director of Adventures on the Gorge. “Maybe it’s a little bit behind the eight ball on it. However, at least we’re starting, and we’ve already had some conversations about how to make it better for 2018.”

Johnson said, “Gauley season is where we get the money to get through the winter and do our marketing.”

Haynes Mansfield, marketing director for Ace Adventure Resort, said rafters will get 22 days of improved whitewater on the Gauley this year.

“The Gauley is going to run at 2,800 cfs (cubic feet per second) every single of those days and we can therefore book trips and make sure we get that shoulder season in the fall to close out our year. It’s a big driver for us in terms of revenue.”

While he said the state needs to up its tourism budget, Mansfield said other factors are at work in the reduction in whitewater rafting.

“We believe that recreation in general is becoming less adventurous and more entry level. Adventure that is not as challenging attracts people, which is why you have seen this takeoff in ziplining and canopy tours. You sit down and you ride,” he said.

“The Gauley has always been marketed, particularly the upper Gauley because that’s the crowing jewel, that’s the peak of whitewater rafting in the East. It is challenging. It is difficult. You have to paddle. You need to have prior experience. In this shift to more mellow family-oriented adventures, we’re talking about the lower Gauley a lot more. The lower Gauley is accessible to anybody who wants to try whitewater rafting. It’s comparable to difficulty of the New River Gorge, but the scenery is much more impressive and much more remote. That’s one way we are trying to address that more mellow adventure people are seeking.”

Staff Writer Jim Ross can be reached at (304) 395-3483 or email at [email protected]
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