At first glance, Howard County appears modest as a tourist destination: no beach; unpretentious scenery; no great theme park; no expansive wilderness or natural wonders; no skiing; and no slot machines, racetracks or wide open nightlife.
A second glance reveals that Howard County Tourism and Promotion has numbers to proudly show off: $780 million in visitor expenditures last year, 10,000 people employed and $13 million in tax receipts reinvested in the county.
Now, the number 30 has become important. On Sept. 30, Howard County Tourism will celebrate its 30th year of promoting the county’s attractions.
“We literally started out in a broom closet of the Hilton,” said Rachelina Bonacci, current executive director of Howard County Tourism and Promotion. Recognized by the county government and the Maryland Office of Tourism Development as the county’s official destination marketing organization, the council works to develop and promote tourism and the county’s unique sites, services, products, people and events.
“My dad had no idea when he started Tourism 30 years ago,” said Pete Mangione, son of Tourism founder Nick Mangione and owner of Turf Valley. “He would be proud of what it has become.”
Storied founders included the elder Mangione, the Crab Shanty’s Bill King, the Enchanted Forest’s Buddy Harrison and others.
Mangione is particularly proud of Tourism’s “Blossoms of Hope” campaign to plant 1,000 cherry trees as a fundraiser to fight cancer. “We more than exceeded our goal. The campaign took on a life of its own. It was an awareness issue.
“I see even better things in the future,” Mangione continued. In a symbolic coincidence, as the council celebrates 30, it is also ready to celebrate the opening of a new visitor center, upstairs from its current cramped quarters in Main Street Ellicott City’s old post office building.
A Space of Its Own
“Our customers will get a gorgeous repurposed historic space, built in 1939,” said Bonacci, “with room to wander and linger and learn about the county.”
Along with the new space, Tourism will see its budget almost double. The last General Session, with support from Howard County’s hotels, allocated portions of an increased hotel tax to Tourism and EDA.
“This offers us an opportunity to get above a shoestring budget,” said Joe Barbera, current president of the Tourism board and owner of AIDA Bistro. “We are becoming 30 with an opportunity to rebrand ourselves, recreate ourselves and make Howard County a world-class attraction.”
“The increased hotel tax is giving us more funds for group sales and outreach,” said Tourism’s president-elect, Martha Clark, of Elioak Farm. “We are looking forward to many new things.”
“In the past, Tourism was mostly funded by the county,” explained Mangione. “With the new hotel tax, a percentage comes back to Tourism. … And, Tourism will become an arm of the hotels’ sales forces. … We’ve brought on a new director of sales to help sell the county … I see strategic changes.”
New Sales Department
“We are adding a sales department,” added Bonacci. “We stole Taffy Rice away from Montgomery County. She has 30 years of experience … and built Montgomery [County Tourism]’s sales department from scratch.
“Over the years we’ve shared tradeshow booth space, sales leads and industry best practices. Taffy is very well recognized and much respected in the Maryland tourism industry, especially at Destination DC and VisitBaltimore,” Bonacci said. “I’ve been saying for years, when it was time for our organization to add its sales department, I’ve got to find someone just like Taffy.”
Rice will manage the group sales effort; sales missions; direct sales calls; trade show attendance; and relationships with partner hoteliers, conference centers, meeting venues, group-friendly attractions and sports facilities. Tourism is also adding a sales manager and sales coordinator to round out the sales staff.
Bonacci is quick to point to her predecessor, Karen Justice’s, accomplishments. “Tourism started out of the EDA. Karen Justice knew it was important that we be more than a budget item for EDA. … She was a mentor for me.”
“Howard County’s strength is that we are a unique destination,” said Barbera. “We are halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. We are easy to access, easy to get to. We get attention from folks going north and south. We offer guests a strong option. We don’t have a beach — we are one of the few land-locked counties — but we have so many other attractions.
“Our county government has been very supportive,” he continued. “The bond bill to renovate the old post office is a good example. And we seem to have the support of the community at-large. The hotel tax gives us the capital to put together a full-blown business plan and develop a world-class visitors center.
“We will have the ability to brand ourselves. Tourism will give a better first impression than in the basement of an unused post office. … We can compete with other tourism organizations. It’s called “co-op-etition,” working with other counties and tourism organizations.
“It’s fun when you go from the basement to a place where people really want to stop,” Barbera concluded. “People can have a meeting there, or have an event. We are going through a great process here, rethinking what we do.”
“We’ve been busy,” noted Clark. “The increased hotel tax is giving us more funds for group sales. Along with the new visitors center, we are also getting a new web site.
“We want to continue to have the farms involved,” she added, “and continue to have land in farm preservation. We are promoting the farm-to-restaurant connection … and agritourism.”