Cindy Small looks back on big progress in tourism

DOVER — How often did we hear there’s nothing to do in Kent County?

Too often.

Such comments only aggravate an editor whose newspaper publishes countless column inches of community events or a tourism director like Cindy Small.

Back in 2007, Ms. Small set out to change the misperception.

“You would hear it over and over,” she said.

Ms. Small, whose departure as executive director of Kent County Tourism made the headlines last weekend, reflected on her eight years in the role Thursday.

She rattled off a list of the tourism office’s accomplishments, from extraordinary growth of Dover Days to the creation of a popular wine and beer festival.

From the Editor logo copy copyBut among her points of pride was a weekly tourism email sent to hotel managers and several large employers.

“It was a list of top events going on in Kent County that week,” Ms. Small said. “It was a small effort, with no cost, but it busted the myth that there was nothing to do in Kent County. You still hear some of it, but you don’t hear it the way you used to.”

The past eight years have been a time of touting what we already had, what could be built upon and what is new.

But the newsletter was an exercise in all that Kent County offers.

“It’s almost like, you name it and we have it,” she said.

“Casinos, we have it.

“Horse racing, we have it.

“Car racing, we have it.

“Wineries, breweries, we have it.

“Museums, we have it.

“Agritourism, we have it.

“Nature tourism, we have it.

“We have so many, many things. We could play in every playground if we wanted.”

***

Looking back to 2007, she is reminded of taking on the job of tourism when it was dead, a victim of an economy.

“From a tourism perspective in Kent County, we had triple trouble,” said Ms. Small. “We had NASCAR going south, the casino competition was hurting our casinos and that meant fewer visitors spending the night and people were not spending money on things like travel.

“Tourism wasn’t just down in Kent County. It was down worldwide.”

Hotel occupancy, of course, is important to the tourism office. It is a significant portion of the revenue needed for marketing the county, and had been significant to putting on events in Kent County.

Ms. Small said she and the tourism board reviewed their options, whether to stay the course and limp forward or come up with a new model. The latter was the way, she said.

It required each event to pay its own way like a “small business” with sponsorships and reserving the lodging revenues for marketing. The Amish Bike Tour was costing more per cyclist than the registration, for example.

After eight years as Kent County Tourism’s executive director, Cindy Small’s next venture is undecided, she said, but “I’ve still got a lot of gas in the tank.” In the photograph, she is shown welcoming people to the September 2014 unveiling of the Vintage Atlantic Wine Region. Taking advantage of the growing interest in wineries, the Vintage Atlantic Wine Region combines 55 wineries in six wine trails from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (Delaware State News file/Dave Chambers)

After eight years as Kent County Tourism’s executive director, Cindy Small’s next venture is undecided, she said, but “I’ve still got a lot of gas in the tank.” In the photograph, she is shown welcoming people to the September 2014 unveiling of the Vintage Atlantic Wine Region. Taking advantage of the growing interest in wineries, the Vintage Atlantic Wine Region combines 55 wineries in six wine trails from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (Delaware State News file/Dave Chambers)

The bike tour has doubled its registrations. Dover Days went from a single day crowd of 10,000 to 50,000 people over a three-day run.

“That was one of the things I’m proud of,” she said. “It was not done singularly.”

She applauded the work of the staff and volunteers, and the support of the tourism board in making that happen.
Also of particular joy for Ms. Small has been the development of the Delaware Wine and Beer Festival, Kent County Restaurant Week and the Good Libations Tour.

Keep in mind that Kent County had just one winery, Pizzadili’s in Felton, and one brewery, Fordham in Dover, in 2007.

Recognizing the growth and potential of craft brewing and wineries in the area in step with an emerging national trend, Ms. Small started working on the idea of a festival.

In 2011, between 800 and 1,000 people turned out. This year’s event attracted 3,500 people to enjoy samples from 25 different breweries, wineries and distilleries in the area.

***

Tourism has been one of the biggest stories of the past few years in Kent.

Among the successes, of course, is the Firefly and Big Barrel music festivals at the Woodlands of Dover International Speedway and Delaware Junction in Harrington. They’ve become the big draw to the area that NASCAR has had for decades.

Visitors are coming to the area in record numbers and it is reflected in hotel occupancy.

In 2014, Kent County hotels collected $2.66 million in lodging taxes. In 2009, it had hit a low point of $1.89 million.

(As an explainer, Delaware’s lodging tax is 8 percent of the cost of the overnight stay. Of that 5 percent goes to the state’s General Fund, 1 percent to beach replenishment, 1 percent to the Delaware Tourism Office and 1 percent is split between the three counties. Kent County’s share, said Ms. Small, generally is near 14 percent.)

“I’m pleased to say that last fiscal year was the best financial year and best lodging tax year that Kent County has ever had ­­­­— even with less rooms than we had in the past,” said Ms. Small.

A few years ago, the Sheraton (150 rooms) was closed and Delaware State University moved in. The only new hotel in the city is Home2Suites, which has 50 fewer rooms than the hotel previously at the same location.

“Even with less product, we’ve had more lodging tax,” she said. “That is all a factor of demand. You can’t charge $300 for a room if there’s not demand to satisfy it.”

The future, said Ms. Small, appears to have even better numbers on the way.

DE Turf — the long-awaited Kent County sports complex designed to draw traveling soccer, lacrosse and field hockey teams to tournaments – is moving forward and may be hosting events within a year and a half.

“It’s going to be a real gem,” she said.

So, going back to the long list above …

Sports tourism, we have it.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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