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Conversation Starters: Abundant Innovation in PA's Tourism Industry

What do pivoting walls, Facebook, furniture built by local prison inmates, and geothermal heating and cooling units all have in common?  They are just some of the interesting ways that Pennsylvania's tourist destinations are using innovation and sustainability to attract and educate visitors.  

Tourism is critical to Pennsylvania's economic pulse--directly or indirectly supporting 8 percent of jobs statewide.  Many of these folks will come together on March 14-16 for "Together in Tourism," a summit focused on the state's tourism industry.   They will emphasize the small businesses that make up the faces of this industry including hotels, attractions, museums, restaurants, resorts, and wineries.   

Representatives from tourist venues throughout the Keystone State, such as the ones that will be at the Summit, are constructing LEED-certified buildings, implementing sustainable practices in building operations, sourcing foods locally and organically, showcasing the work of local artisans, and using technology and innovation to reach a broader audience of potential visitors.  

"All that we want to do is start the conversation – they can decide whether this fits their lifestyle," says Charlie Brooks, innkeeper at the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle in Howard, Centre County.  The Nature Inn is doing more than just starting the conversation; they expect to receive LEED Gold Certification of the Inn this spring.  

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, provides building owners and operators a concise framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations, and maintenance solutions. All of which must be continually maintained to retain LEED status.

According to Brooks, he expects the Inn to come in at the Gold level, due in large part to the planning they did up front with the architects and builders as they were evaluating an array of decisions to comply with LEED standards.

"One of the principles of the green building is the ultimate cost of the facility versus the (immediate) cost," says John Vanco, director of the Erie Art Museum.  The Erie Art Museum opened the doors to its newly expanded facility in October 2010.  It has also applied for LEED certification and too expects to come in at the Gold level in the spring.  

Some of the ways that the Nature Inn uses green technologies include geothermal technology for heating and cooling, passive solar design units that allow for more sun in winter months and less in the summer, pre-heating inbound potable water for hot water generation, re-using rainwater to flush toilets and water outdoor gardens, and using FSC-certified lumber as well as recycled products throughout the property.  

In fact, all of the wood furniture in the building is FSC-certified white oak and manufactured only 13 miles away at Rockview Prison--put together by inmates through a program with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.  

Occupying a group of renovated mid-19th century commercial buildings as well as their modern green expansion, the Erie Art Museum is the anchor of downtown Erie’s economic and cultural renaissance--it holds a collection of more than 6,000 objects and features changing exhibitions. 

As part of its design, the Erie Art Museum incorporated an innovative system to change configurations in their Main Gallery to eliminate the waste generated tearing down and re-building walls for exhibits.  The walls in the Gallery pivot off center--as you move them around, you can set up different types of spaces.  Vanco says, "It gives us a lot of flexibility and virtually no cost to change the room configuration."

At the state level, officials are also thinking about sustainability and innovation when it comes to visitor education and attracting tourists.  Pennsylvania has the most LEED-rated buildings of any state park system in the country.  Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Acting Secretary Cindy Dunn says, "We also help our visitors learn about sustainability so that they try things like rain barrels, native plantings, and geothermal heat at home."

It is not just sustainability; regions are embracing technology and innovation to attract new visitors too.  The Cumberland Valley Visitors Bureau (CVVB) recently underwent a complete re-branding that included a head-first leap into the realm of social media, hoping that it will position the region to draw in more tourists.

According to the CVVB's Kristen Oakley of the Cumberland Valley Visitors Bureau, the agency has been putting a lot of effort into focusing on history, outdoor recreation, and the many events throughout the region since the beginning of the year.  To help with this promotion the CVVB has been putting a lot of effort into social media vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and blogs.  Follow "Cumberland_PA" on Twitter and you'll find deals, coupons, and re-tweets from venues in the region and check out their Facebook page to share your insights on some of the locations that you’ve visited or hope to visit in the Cumberland Valley.  "Facebook is more focused on the interaction between visitors," says Oakley."  The Visitors Bureau is also using their social media efforts to highlight green restaurants and hotels in their region.  

In addition, in June 2010, the Pennsylvania Tourism Office announced a partnership with social networking site Foursquare, giving destinations the opportunity to create rewards and badges for visitors.  Last month for Groundhog Day PA set a record for most single-day badge unlocks (27,000) among Foursquare's partners.

Although many of these specific efforts are only a few months old, all have reported that the response from visitors has been great.  Having just opened their doors to the public in September 2010, Brooks says the response to the Nature Inn has been exceptional, “exceeding expectations."

Vanco hopes that by being the first green building in the City of Erie to attain LEED certification, they will be able to influence the perceptions of others who are constructing new buildings.  "It is not obvious unless you read the signage that is a green building--it just looks like a modern building.  I am hoping that we will have some impact."

Robert Fulton, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus says that destinations are finding new ways to attract both business and leisure travelers to Pennsylvania and many of the sessions at next week’s Summit will allow attendees to learn about what specific regions are doing, such as using sustainability and social media.  “Technology is changing, the visitor is changing – they want more innovative things to do while they are here and we have to adapt to that.  Pennsylvania is being very successful at this.” 

Amber van Niekerk is a freelance writer based in Delaware County. Send feedback here.


Detail of the new East Fifth Street entrance of the Erie Art Museum

John Vanco, director of the Erie Art Museum

Movable gallery walls allow flexibility in the exhibit space as well as reducing cost and materials needed to change exhibits

The architects incorporated natural light into as much of the non-exhibit space as possible

The museum's hardwood floors are made from reclaimed flooring (darker flooring on right) or from sustainable hardwood sources (lighter flooring on lower left.)

The Nature Inn

All photographs by RENEE ROSENSTEEL

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