Organizations involved in promoting the local community used the backdrop of National Travel & Tourism Week to help set the stage for "the return of tourism to Paducah," in a webinar Tuesday morning.

The hour-long event, sponsored by the Paducah Area Chamber or Commerce and Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau, focused on the significant impact tourism has on the local economy.

"Tourism is an economic driver for our community," said Sandra Wilson, chamber president.

"Our diverse arts and cultural attractions in Paducah and McCracken County put us on the map not only as a great place to visit, but we hope a great place to live and work, because as people come into our community to visit we hope that they fall in love with us and  want to live here, too."

Prior to the pandemic, tourism spending in McCracken County totaled $273 million in 2019, supported 2,500 jobs and welcomed approximately 2.4 million visitor trips, Wilson said.

"And, while those numbers declined in 2020, we know that local hotels, our event centers and other tourism-related businesses put in place safety measures to that local and out-of-state visitors would still come and enjoy the amenities that we have," she said.

"I just want to brag on all of our small businesses, everyone that's touched by travel and tourism, for being so creative in how they provide their services and reaching out and being committed to our community."

In addition to Mary Hammond, PCVB executive director, the webinar featured John Waggoner, founder and CEO of the American Queen Steamboat Co.; Gina Stouffer, president, Charleston office, Lou Hammond Group; and Michelle Campbell, executive director, Paducah-McCracken County Convention & Expo Center.

Speaking via a satellite connection from the American Duchess, the riverboat which will be docking in Paducah on Friday, Waggoner reviewed the safety protocols his company has undertaken to ensure the health of its passengers and why Paducah is among the regular stops on the ever-popular cruises in the Ohio River.

"The short answer is our guests love to come here," he said. "You have much to offer, The National Quilt Museum, River Discovery Center, wineries, the new distilleries that you have, the great restaurants ... and it's a great running town," he said. 

"I'm a runner. I get off the boat and love running around town. I love some of the art galleries and we love your extra-friendly people. We're just really excited to be there on Friday."

Because of the pent-up demand for travel, Waggoner said the company is almost sold out for the whole season and is already taking reservations for 2022.

According to Hammond, "When I look through the catalog I see the themes of the cruises, it's like how we sell Paducah, we're so hand in hand. It's the heritage, the food, the culture, we're such partners. We appreciate how your crew works so closely with us."

Stouffer outlined some of successful marketing efforts the public relations firm has helped facilitate.

"What's so great about Paducah is that for a small city, where you can be socially distant and feel comfortable, you have wonderful things that larger cities have to offer, restaurants, cultural institutions, shopping, that downtown walking vibe of people looking to explore," she said.

"And, we think Paducah is right there in the heart of that."

A number of publications, including Southern Living, have prominently featured some of Paducah's attractions, naming the city one of the best small towns in the South among other accolades.

Stouffer, along with Campbell, spoke to the important role sports tourism plays in Paducah.

"Sports tourism is so important. I've found throughout my career whenever there's a crisis, whether it's weather-related or any kind of crisis, you can always count on the sports traveler," she said.

"They're not going to miss those games, the kids have worked so hard, and the parents are excited to support them."

Campbell said while the event industry has certainly been impacted by COVID-19, "the sports tourism industry has been a silver lining in the midst of this pandemic. The sports industry was among the few market segments that did not have to come to a halt in 2020.

"Youth sports in particular have shown to be very beneficial to their communities and the youth sports market remained strong even during the height of the pandemic," she said.

"That's exactly what we're seeing here in Paducah with indoor sports and we'll see that continue once the outdoor sports complex is completed."

Hammond sees a positive trend coming out of the pandemic, with the number of tourism-related opportunities in and around Paducah.

"We don't have all our eggs in one basket," she said. "We have good business travel during the week. We're almost equivalent to the weekends in the hotels. The sports teams (youth basketball and volleyball) have definitely been there for us and got us back on our feet.

"And, the quilters are very loyal to Paducah. They're still stopping here, going to the Quilt Museum, being the inspiration for their creative dreams," she said.

"We have one foot in today and one foot months from now. So yes, life is good, with beautiful weather, spring in Kentucky.We look forward to the boat docking. It's not just the passengers. It's how that boat makes the citizens of Paducah feel.

"When it docks here in Paducah, there's an excitement in the air. People come down, they bring their families, they bring their lunch, they come to the riverfront. There's an identity with the river that the riverboats bring to life," said Hammond.

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