Several efforts are underway to increase tourism in Rappahannock County, and decrease the amount of time and effort local visitor-dependent businesses must spend to promote their attractions in the wider world.
A new county tourism website, redesigned and rebuilt to be more dynamic, interactive and mobile-friendly, will debut later this fall — thanks to a new partnership between the county and Businesses of Rappahannock (BizRapp for short), the restructured nonprofit formerly known as the Rappahannock Hospitality and Visitors Association (RHVA).
The project also includes a contract between BizRapp and Rappahannock Media, owners of both this newspaper and Piedmont Virginian magazine, to design and build the new site and provide a year’s worth of ongoing content management, client training and web-development services to BizRapp and its member businesses.
“The county welcomes the active engagement of Businesses of Rappahannock in managing both business partnerships and tourism partnerships,” said County Administrator John McCarthy, who strongly hinted at an RHVA meeting more than a year ago that the county would eventually take less of a hands-on role in organizing the business community and its tourism-promotion efforts. “I have long sought the strong leadership that they are demonstrating.”
Since this spring, BizRapp has been consumed with redefining its mission — eventually deciding, under new president Sherri Fickel’s leadership, to expand its membership to include all county businesses, not just those that are tourism-related. Moreover, since BizRapp wants to be a “one-stop shop” for promotion-related efforts by its members, the new organization’s higher-level membership fee now includes the fee formerly charged separately by the county to those businesses wanting their information to be available at the Visitors Center and in printed guides.
BizRapp’s basic annual membership fee was also lowered to $25, which includes a listing on the county tourism site (and in any printed maps or guides commissioned in the next year).
That site will be built by Rappahannock Media, and will continue to use the same visitrappahannockva.com web address for the site now managed by D&K Design in Sperryville, which built and maintained the site for most of former county tourism consultant Laura Overstreet’s five-year tenure; Overstreet retired last Dec. 31.
Originally hired in 2009 as a consultant to help the county develop a marketing plan and tourism website with a $20,000 grant from Virginia Tourism Corporation, Overstreet has since signed on in a similar capacity with the Castleton Festival — which last month learned it would be among eight entities across the state to receive a $50,000 Virginia Tourism grant. (The grant is meant to defray promotional costs of the 2013 season, which ended in July; Castleton’s summer opera and classical music festival is among Rappahannock County’s biggest-drawing annual events.)
Also, an effort is underway to create an artist- and artisan-centric website in partnership with the Artisan Center of Virginia (ACV), which works with communities around the state to create “Artisan Trail” promotional and marketing projects. The organizers have received pledges of $5,000 each from the county, the town of Washington and the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community toward meeting ACV’s first-year $15,000 “buy-in” fee.
The county’s tourism-related budget, meanwhile, has dropped from $85,300 in fiscal year 2013, which ended June 30, to $54,500 in the current year. (Overstreet’s annual stipend was $30,000.) McCarthy has said the county will redirect existing web-related tourism-related expenses, paying $12,000 to BizRapp. That’s the same figure quoted by Rappahannock Media to redesign and manage the tourism website — including sharing tourism-related content, calendar items, business and service listings and community-contributed content from its existing rappnews.com site, which has grown since its inception to draw an average of 9,000 unique visitors and 22,000 pageviews monthly over the last year.
“Working with Rappahannock News,” said Fickel, “we hope to have a dynamic website that is integrated with social media and maps, is optimized for search engines, connects to businesses’ web pages or provides them a page, and that is also mobile-ready.”
“We’re delighted to embark on this partnership with the county and BizRapp to create a world-class digital presence for Rappahannock,” said Rappahannock Media’s president, Dennis Brack.
Fickel added: “Businesses will be able to manage their own content on the site, but the Rappahannock News will be actively managing general content, updating events, news and cooperative business specials, for example . . . As many businesses who manage their own website content know, this is a major time investment, and as a volunteer organization we would never be able to do this on our own. Even managing log-ons and passwords for all members is time-consuming. The News will build it and manage it for one flat fee, and BizRapp will analyze that value after the first year.”
Fickel said the Rappahannock News’ promise to begin building the site immediately, in partnership with Tobey Wheelock of Wheelock Web Works, “was very attractive to the leadership of BizRapp. Being on this website is one of the advantages a business automatically gets for membership in BizRapp; a $25 basic fee will get you on it. We want to get that benefit to our current and future membership in weeks, not months.”