The third annual Bike Trail Tourism Conference sought to forge a regional vision Thursday in the day-long meeting, themed “New Trail Opportunities.”
About 60 people from around the state attended this year’s conference, including city, county and state officials interested in economic development, travel and tourism experts, social media marketers, bike trail business owners and many avid users of central Iowa’s extensive network of bike trails.
The annual conference is sponsored by the city of Perry, the Common Thread regional consortium, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the Town-Craft Center for Ideas and Strategies to Strengthen Small Communities.
The session started with a welcome from Perry Mayor Jay Pattee, who noted the progress made this year toward construction of the connector trail between Perry and Woodward. The eight-mile trail will link the High Trestle Trail, the region’s most popular trail, with the Raccoon River Valley Trail (RRVT), the region’s second most popular.
Pattee then introduced Shawna Lode, manager of the Iowa Tourism Office for the Iowa Department of Economic Development, whose keynote presentation discussed the place of bike trails in the larger Iowa tourism mix and the strategies her office uses in marketing central Iowa’s trails to tourists.
“Spring is when we make our biggest advertising buy of the year,” Lode said. “This year, 76 percent of our marketing budget is going into digital advertising.” She said tourism generates more than $8 billion annually in economic activity in Iowa.
Lode’s point about the importance of digital advertising to her office’s mission carried through to the first panel, which centered on social media and the ways a business can reach the online biking community and build a digital presence.
Panelists were Susan Erickson of ISU Extension and Outreach, who discussed strategies and tactics for using social media, Jim Caufield of ThePerryNews.com, who described the online news value of bike tourism and the Perry-to-Woodward connector trail, and Curt Thornberry of Panora Telco, who impressed attendees with the latest statistics on social media and internet usage.
The morning’s second panel was composed of Jeremy Boka of Reclaimed Rails Brewing Co. in Bondurant and Jay Hartz of the Hotel Pattee in Perry. The business owners outlined their experiences in marketing their businesses to the biking community and the challenges and opportunities new trail-side businesses face. Amber Gable of Bolton and Menk engineering facilitated the discussion, which was followed by a vigorous question-and-answer period.
The panel on business success also suffered some unfortunate no-shows, with Traci and Rick Armstrong of the Whistlin’ Donkey in Woodard and Patrick Orlondo Renda of Orlondo’s on the Trail in Des Moines both listed on the program but absent from the conference.
After the networking lunch, a three-person panel of avid trail users talked about their trail experiences and what they look for in a good trail experience. Panelists Georgie Libbie, president of the Des Moines Cycle Club, and Kristie Harrold, a board member of the Des Moines Triathlon Club, shared suggestions for trail improvements and ideas from their many successful club-level group events.
Mark Powell of Dallas Center, chair of the Dallas County Conservation Board and an avid cyclist with his family, encouraged the development of bike camping facilities along the Raccoon River Valley Trail. Jim Miller, a frequent figure on the RRVT and Powell’s fellow Dallas County Conservation Board member, moderated the trail-users’ discussion.
The final panel focused on the perennial challenge of signage, wayfinding and the science of guiding trail users to local businesses and attractions. The panelists were Mary Laborde of Perry, a tireless booster of the RRVT and member of the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association board of directors, Bob Wilson, Perry-Area Chamber of Commerce executive director, and Deb Bengtson, executive director of Adel Partners.
The questions and answers following each set of presentations were very fruitful with ideas, with many in attendance sharing experiences from their own place on the trails.
A highlight of the afternoon proceedings was a report from Mark Kargol of the Iowa State University industrial design department. Kargol outlined the progress of the bike-share system at the ISU Research Park, including the recent donation of 80 acres of land for a bike trail connecting the campus to the towns of Kelley and Slater and then to the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail and the High Trestle Trail.
The bike-share system uses a docking station and a digital check-out system, so a student could check out a bike from the docking station at the dorms, ride it to the library and check it back into the docking station at the library. A similar system could be developed for the use of casual riders on trails such as the Raccoon River Valley Trail.