Trails to Adventure, the emerging regional tourism development office at the university, is on the trail to nowhere as it waits for state funding to arrive.
The new office that was created during the summer to promote tourism in the region is slated to open for business at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in Quigley Hall as soon as funding for the program is released by the state.
The interim executive director for Trails to Adventure, George Whitehead, said the new regional tourism development office, which will provide customer service and conduct research for local tourism agencies within the 20 southern counties of Illinois, will be a model program with some similarities to its predecessor, the former Southern Illinois Tourism Development Office in Marion.
The latter closed in 2010 because of cutbacks in state funding.
“Now it’s really a whole new animal,” Whitehead said. “I’m hopeful it proves to be something that could be used by the other three regional tourism offices in Illinois.”
Whitehead said he’s ready to set up his office in the Department of Agriculture’s Hospitality and Tourism Administration section as soon as the money from a state tourism grant is disbursed.
The grant was submitted by the university’s Hospitality and Tourism Administration and approved in January by the Illinois Department of Commerce and
Whitehead said he’s identified a space in Quigley Hall and has acquired some office furniture — a desk, a chair and a file cabinet — and the grant will fund two student workers from the hospitality and tourism division.
He said a program is being developed that will be responsible for determining the economic impact of tourism in the region. Tourism specialists will conduct surveys to better understand travelers’ interests.
The office will assist county and village employees tasked with attracting tourists to their municipalities by holding day-long on-site training seminars, Whitehead said.
“I don’t anticipate much foot traffic here,” Whitehead said.
He said he plans to travel to tourism sites within southern Illinois that request services from his office, and that day-to-day business, such as answering phone calls, will be handled by the student employees.
Debbie Moore, the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau’s executive director, said the decision to locate the new tourism office in the hospitality and tourism department was wise because students will receive on-the-job training in the tourism industry and they will be able to participate in the research activities of the office. In turn, students can provide some of the manpower needed to grow the program.
Moore said the five tourism bureaus located in southern Illinois came together to develop the plan for the new regional office after the state budget crisis in 2010 caused a lapse in state funding to the former Southern Illinois Tourism Development Office in Marion.
Moore said each of the executive directors of the five bureaus have a seat on the board of directors of the new regional tourism development office at the campus.
The five bureaus are the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau in Anna, the Tourism Bureau IllinoiSouth in Swansea, the Williamson County Tourism Bureau in Marion, the Mt. Vernon Convention and Tourism Bureau and the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau, according to the Illinois state tourism website.
Cindy Benefield-Cain, from the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau, said the new regional board for Trails to Adventure will work in an advisory capacity and will operate differently from the development office that closed in 2010.
“In the past, it was a governing board,” Benefield-Cain said.
Shannon Johnson, from the Williamson County Tourism Bureau, said the new regional board met for a brainstorming meeting before the grant was written.
The group discussed how a regional office could benefit from tourism in the area, she said.
“We all have to work together with the same purpose,” Johnson said. “We want to bring the southern Illinois region to a top choice destination.”
Moore said despite criticism of her involvement in writing the grant proposal, she is confident the regional tourism development office will flourish in its new location on campus.
“If anything comes out of this unrest, it’s that new attention is placed on the success of the tourism program on campus,” she said. “It’s an exceptional program.”