Despite pandemic, Festival Country invested in local tourism and it surged

While many tourism agencies lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson County had the opposite happen.

The county’s convention, visitors and tourism commission, commonly known as Festival Country, saw record hotel revenue this year. Festival Country runs the county visitor’s center in Franklin, and conducts marketing campaigns and promotes local businesses, attractions and festivals across Johnson County. This year, it served 5,000 people at the visitor’s center, said Ken Kosky, executive director.

The commission also provides grants for attractions, festivals and events, and is building a 1.6-mile obstacle course at the Johnson County Park.

“We help build new things for people to do (here),” Kosky said. “We advertise and market what we have, and we can help bring stuff we don’t have in Johnson County to fruition.”

From January to September of this year, hotel revenue surpassed $600,000 and is likely to hit $740,000 by the end of the year, he said. Measuring tourism in the county is best done with innkeeper’s taxes, a 5% tax that lodging visitors pay during their stays in Johnson County.

Prior to this year, the best year for revenue was 2017, with nearly $560,000 in hotel revenue. Festival Country started off last year strong, and would have had a record year if not for COVID-19. The commission received $463,161 in revenue last year, which was more than comparable agencies across the state, Kosky said.

Going into this year, tourism agencies were unsure how the year would go, and planned to be conservative with their budgets. But many agencies are doing better than expected, said Carrie Lambert, executive director of the Indiana Tourism Association, or ITA. The trade association advocates for tourism investment and promotion as a form of economic development throughout the state.

Smaller communities, such as those in Johnson County, have fared better during the pandemic. However, larger metropolitan areas, such as Indianapolis, were hit harder due to events such as conventions being canceled, Lambert said.

“Most (tourism agencies) are getting back to levels they had in 2019, which is wonderful,” she said.

Festival Country did not slash spending, Kosky said. Instead, the commission completed two of their largest advertising campaigns ever over the last two years, with the campaigns focusing on the county’s attractions, festivals, event venues and outdoor concerts.

Its billboards campaign has been successful, he said. In 2020, for the first time, Festival Country added billboards at exits on Interstate 65 promoting food and fun in Franklin and Greenwood. The billboards are still up and attracting visitors to stop in Johnson County’s cities.

While some were concerned about spending more money during a period when people were more likely to stay at home, Festival Country had a plan and cash available to draw people in for many pandemic-safe activities, Kosky said.

“We had planned ahead and put aside revenue so we would have it available for situations just like this (with the pandemic),” he said.

Pent-up demand due to people staying home during the pandemic was also a factor. Compared to last year, there has been an increase in hotel stays.

“People are looking to get out and have fun (and are) looking for a destination that is safe,” Kosky said. “We’ve got small downtowns, outdoor attractions, outdoor recreations, flower farms, apple orchards, corn mazes — all things people can do safely.”

Some people are still being cautious during their travel, but the availability of COVID-19 vaccines is likely a factor statewide for increased tourism, Lambert said.

“There is a level of folks who feel better (going out) with vaccines,” she said.

Festival Country leaders are making plans to build on the organization’s success and make next year another for tourism growth.

The obstacle course at Johnson County Park, dubbed Gatling Gauntlet, is an example of that. When it’s completed next spring, the course will give civilians a chance to try out military-grade fitness. The 1.6-mile course’s military theme is a nod to the county park’s neighbor, Camp Atterbury, the main training camp for Indiana National Guard. Festival County designed the course and is paying for its construction, branding and marketing, while the county provided land for the course and will be in charge of ongoing maintenance.

Festival Country also purchased a 50-foot mega tree for New Whiteland’s holiday program, which will be taking place next month.

Once the obstacle course is completed, the commission’s next priority will be bringing an ice skating rink to the county. No definitive plans have been made, but the ultimate goal is to partner with one of the county’s cities for the endeavor, Kosky said.

“The reason (for the rink) is because winter months are a time where there is less to do in our communities,” he said. “If we were to help build an ice skating rink, we could add programming with that.”

Festival Country leaders envision events such as an ice carving exhibition or winter market, Kosky said.

Festival Country has had preliminary conversations with one of the county’s cities. Regardless of which one the commission partners with, Festival County is looking for donations and sponsors to bring the amenity to the county, he said.